There are plenty of (mostly recent) examples of drugs aptly fictionalized on TV. Whole series, like Breaking Bad, That 70’s Show, Broad City and The Wire have managed to pull off pretty realistic depictions of substance use.
And then there’s the iconic time Jesse Spano on Saved by the Bell screamed, “I’m so excited! I’m so excited! I’m so [sob] scared,” having spun out of control due to a caffeine pill addiction. The pressure of her mounting school work and her new aerobics-enthusiast girl group Hot Sundae is just too much. Jessie incurs and then kicks her addiction within a few days.
It’s far from the only instance of television getting drugs hilariously wrong. For some writers, it appears to have been a struggle to grasp any kind of reality at all. In other cases, they’re simply meekly perpetuating the “drugs are bad” trope institutionalized by America’s drug war.
Evidently, caffeine pill use was an issue of major concern in the the early ’90s, because The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had its own preposterous storyline. Will Smith, like Jessie, is overwhelmed by his commitments in the episode “Just Say Yo.” He starts taking the pills, which he hides in a vitamin bottle in his locker.
Meanwhile, his cousin Carlton has a distressing pimple and unfettered access to Will’s locker, so he ganks what he thinks is a “vitamin” from Will’s stash on prom night. Oh, the fictive follies! What follows is an intense scene where Carlton dances like a maniac and yells like he’s in Thriller, then collapses in the middle of the weakest prom ever thrown by and for private-schooled rich kids.
Carlton is rushed to the ER and forced to stay in the “chemical dependency unit,” despite seemingly being pretty OK. Will confesses to his Uncle that it was his pills. Uncle Carl reprimands Will—“My son could have died because of you”—and forces him to tearfully apologize to the family.
Absurd drug stories didn’t end in the ’80s and ’90s (more on that later). Nowadays, it seems like they’re the fodder for ill-advised efforts at edginess.
In February, HBO introduced its newest in a long line of gritty dramas delving into the drug habits of a complicated (i.e. violent, taciturn, spiritually thirsty) male protagonist: Vinyl. The network has established itself as the foremost arena for alcoholic anti-heros and drug-addled supporting characters, a catalog which began with Oz and continued with The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, The Leftovers and True Detective. Vinyl is a sweaty, hedonistic, destructive love letter to the chaotic but vibrantly creative New York City of yore.
The show follows Richie Finestra, the coke-addicted overlord of degenerating record label American Century (and secondarily, a married father of two) in 1973 New York. Creator Martin Scorsese is the irrefutable master at crafting stories about drugs, violence, and men behaving badly. But while Vinyl skillfully depicts addiction, the use of cocaine in the series is straight-up laughable. It opens with a clammy and shaken Finestra buying a quarter of “Bolivian dancing dust” from a dealer he’s driven up to on the street. Inexplicably, this runs to $280…in 1973?
In 2016 US dollars that quarter costs him roughly $1,558. Yet even less believable than the price of his blow is Richie’s reaction every time he snorts it. Inhaling a line off of the rearview mirror he tore of the headliner, and dramatically jolts up, throwing his head back, panting and grunting like he just ejaculated from the world’s greatest blowjob.
Despite being a blowcaine veteran, he has the same exaggerated orgasmic response when blowing lines off his desk in the third episode. As Richard Hell wrote, “Cocaine is not like getting a cattle prod up your butt. Everybody knows that. Cocaine is sweet. A warm smile would suffice.” We never see Finestra wipe his nose or grind his teeth. He talks a lot, but that could have as much to do with him being a narcissist as him being high on cocaine.
But perhaps the most frequent mischaracterization of cocaine on TV is the idea that one becomes immediately addicted to it. Charlie Day, Dee Reynolds and poor Rickety Cricket are instantly hooked to “nose clams” in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In “The Gang Gets Whacked (Part 2),” Charlie informs Dee that they need to gum the cocaine they’re attempting to sell to “rev up,” because if you snort it “that’s how you become a drug addict.”
Always Sunny is a live action caricature—as evidenced by the velour tracksuit mobsters and the plotline in which Frank turns Dennis out, both in this same episode—so naturally Dee and Charlie become instant cokeheads (just like the time Dee and Dennis are immediately addicted to crack) from vigorously finger-brushing their gums with blow.
When a reluctant and tired Rickety Cricket is slow to sling more of their coke, they introduce him to “gumming” and he, too, is promptly addicted. Rather than gnashing his teeth or over-sharing his feelings with an annoyed audience, he steals Dee and Charlie’s drug profit and buys kettle drums for his new musical quest to achieve “total sexiness.” You know, like most coke users. Once he “achieves” this, the velour-tracksuit mobsters break his legs, and so begins Rickety Crickets downward spiral into a homeless, thieving, ringworm-having, crack smoking, kidney missing, suicidal, prostituting “Talibum” burn victim who dogs try to hump. All from gumming coke … and loving Dee.
Did Literally Everyone on 90210 Have a Drug Problem?
Few shows did a better job of capturing post-Reagan era fear-mongering better than ’90s teen soap Beverly Hills 90210, with multiple characters developing sudden addictions during the show’s run.
Reformed mean girl Kelly Taylor develops an instant dependence on blow when her dad stands her up for their lunch date, even using his consolation check to snort a line in her bathroom (her artist boyfriend Colin just left vials around, apparently). The daughter of an ex-model hot mess, Kelly has previously never touched any drugs on the show. Overnight, she’s feeling up her boyfriend to get his coke and fighting about their “stash”—not to consume while drinking or partying, but just to get her “through the day.”
Her friends confront her use of “lethal narcotics,” though it’s hard to imagine anything more horrifying than their severe makeup, which launched a thousand Bratz dolls. Kelly only quits after her drug dealer tries to rape her.
Donna Martin gets hooked on pain meds following a Jeep accident. Once she starts excessively using pain meds, Donna also needs “uppers” (because the medication makes her “so tired”), creating her own prescription drug symbiosis. She scores “deamphetamines” from her boyfriend’s brother (which in the 90210 universe, is traded in tiny, ornate metal boxes), a fictitious amphetamine. To further feed her swiftly acquired habit, Donna steals an entire bottle of “uppers” from her father’s clinic.
When her “deamphetamine” source shuts down, Donna freaks out on a pharmacist, begging for pain meds, but he denies her because she has already crushed 60 pills in one week. Donna then cries to her daddy that she has “back spasms” and “like, eight million sketches due…tomorrow,” so he hands her “enough pills to last a few days”—but that pill fiend does them all that night. Donna ODs and falls into a coma. Fortunately, she’s quickly revived so she can point her sad eyes at the camera and remind kids that drugs are bad.
The show doesn’t stop there. Backwards hat-wearing David Silver becomes addicted to “crank” while he’s struggling to both study and stay awake for his college DJ shifts.
When he asks the station manager Howard, who looks like a ’70s suburban dad on his way to a key party, if he can play a recorded set, Howard scolds him that his show must be live and instead gives him crystal meth. The integrity of his graveyard DJ shift must be protected, but here, stupid hat kid, take some crystal meth!
Because this is 90210, David is now completely ensnared by “crank.” Before long, he’s gotten fired. David finds a new dealer, steals $150 from his dad, and then his house is raided by the cops for $150 of crystal meth (which he narrowly succeeds in flushing down the toilet with the help of his brooding alcoholic and formerly drug-addicted buddy, Dylan McKay).
Even square Brandon Walsh falls victim to drugs, when his mentally unhinged, Tom of Finland-inspired girlfriend Emily Valentine doses him at an “incredibly hip” underground club. After he declines her offer to take U4EA (90210’s fictionalized version of ecstasy), the drug that “brings new couples closer together” she secretly buys two small packets from a hulking dealer in a leather jacket (of course). She orders two sodas, and looking over her shoulder at her unsuspecting boyfriend, dumps U4EA in both drinks, in full view of the bartender and everyone but Brandon. Aside from motivating him to awkwardly jerk his body at her, the drug just makes him kind of rude and annoying, and they seem more like they’re drunk than like they’re rolling.
Speaking of teenagers on ecstasy at a clandestine party, the maudlin crew of Dawson’s Creek suffer their own bizarre MDMA plotline. In “Great Xpectations” (groan), overachieving crumpled flower Andie McPhee realizes her dream of being accepted to Harvard. Because she’s not reeling from elation, Andie fears her antidepressants are inhibiting her ability to feel anything.
The gang decides to judgmentally frown at a rave when invited/challenged by the antagonist du jour, and through a ridiculous daisy chain of events Andie finds herself in possession of the two tabs of ecstasy. Tonight, Andie (in her perpetually grating child voice) “just wants to have fun,” so she decides not to heed the anecdotal wisdom of repentant party girl Jen Lindley and “sorta” pops a pill, asking Lindley to keep it a secret from her brother, Jack.
Things begin fine—she’s dancing and molesting everyone’s hair—until she launches herself onto a moon bounce and the lights begin spinning menacingly and she collapses, her fall whimsically cushioned by the inflatable bounce house. EMTs arrive, Jack suggests Jen should be the one who deserves to be hospitalized, and everyone does their best to look worried.
Andie’s trip to the ER is blamed on the combination of ecstasy and her antidepressant, but in earlier episodes we learn the medication she takes is Xanax, which is used to treat anxiety, not depression. Additionally, in “His Leading Lady” we see a close up of the pill bottle which reads “Zanac 20 MG,” and the pills are large and dark, nothing like Xanax.
Andie escapes unscathed, but her tearful brother says her antidepressant is a “time-bomb when mixed with the wrong thing” and laments that “she could have died.”
In this PSA masquerading as an episode, the message is universal: Work hard, get into Harvard, and one night of fun will probably almost kill you.
April De Costa is a freelance writer living in Austin.