News Column

'Nurse Jackie' May Be Best Case of TV's Current Addiction to Addiction

May 2, 2012

Duane Dudek

Edie Falco
Edie Falco

Television's portrait of addiction has evolved, one show at a time. Gone are the days when a drunk played by Foster Brooks would stumble into a bar and tell Dean Martin he was having one more drink before work. "What do you do?" Martin asked. "I'm an airline pilot," Brooks would burp. Mayberry town drunk Otis Campbell had his own cell on "The Andy Griffith Show."

Drinking is still as prolific on shows like "Mad Men," "How I Met Your Mother" and "The Big Bang Theory," in which a character cannot talk to women unless he has a drink, as it was when Hawkeye made moonshine martinis on "M*A*S*H."

But the stereotype of the funny drunk is less prevalent and acceptable on television today.

The change in attitude can be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s, when alcoholism became recognized as a disease and the counterculture made substance use a middle-class phenomenon. Today, TV continues to offer a mixed message about substance abuse, but it remains a powerful dramatic device in the hands of skillful writers and actors serious about the topic.

Dramatically, addiction of any kind is a way to create a potentially fatal flaw within a character that becomes integral in his or her interactions with friends and family, and whose ongoing struggles can make them vulnerable and sympathetic to the audience.

A brief history of characters dealing with various addictions includes recovering alcoholic Sam Malone on "Cheers"; Andy Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue"; several characters on "Lost"; the pot-smoking kids on "That '70s Show"; Denis Leary's firefighter on "Rescue Me"; Vincent Chase on "Entourage"; Brenda's recovering alcoholic husband on "The Closer"; the handyman gambling addict on "Bent"; Hugh Laurie's Vicodin-dependent doctor on "House"; "Sopranos" gangster Christopher joining Narcotics Anonymous; crack addict Bubbles on "The Wire"; and the supposedly recovering detective on "The Killing."

People are actually dying for alcohol on the Prohibition-era "Boardwalk Empire."

And to stretch a point, "Dexter" remains addicted to murder six seasons in, and audiences are addicted to watching him.

But the most comprehensive, cohesive and adult portrait of addiction and recovery may be the deadly serious comedy "Nurse Jackie," on Showtime, with Emmy winner Edie Falco, a recovering alcoholic in real life. As a nurse having an affair with a hospital pharmacist, her character had access to an endless supply of narcotics, which she indulged in despite great personal and professional risk. She may have lied, cheated and stolen, but she was a terrific nurse and a good person, and the series was driven by the recurring themes of duality and denial. The chickens came home to roost in the just-started fourth season when she entered rehab - she told people she was going to Disneyland - as she tries to rebuild her relationships and keep her past secret from her boss.

On the one hand, such storylines can seem exploitative; on the other hand, they can be seen as product placement for recovery itself.

"Ten and even 20 years ago, this wouldn't have been" discussed, said Jim Nayder, host of "Magnificent Obsession: True Stories of Recovery" on Chicago public station WBEZ-FM (91.5). "I'm just happy rehab is being mentioned. I think that's a positive."

On each 30-minute episode of "Magnificent Obsession," one person tells his or her story of addiction in their own words. The show, now in its 20th year, airs Sundays at 5:30 a.m., and archived episodes can be found at silenttreatment.info/podcasts.htm.

Nayder may be more familiar for the "Annoying Music Show" segments that periodically air on NPR's "Weekend Edition."

Nayder believes that "Nurse Jackie" may even be "a breakthrough," since "females on my show talk about how much more of a stigma it is for them," he said.

Addictions and obsessions come in all shapes and sizes.

"You could easily become addicted to television," he said. "The bottom line is if something has affected your life in a negative way." But despite some outstanding portraits of addiction and recovery, the "regular networks haven't quite gotten there yet."

Nayder cited "Two and a Half Men," in which Charlie Sheen's character's sex and drinking are treated "with a laugh."

"On a lot of sitcoms," said Nayder, "if you're an alcoholic, it's still funny."

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Nayder has been the "Annoying Music" correspondent for "Morning Edition" for 15 years.

Three-minute segments also air on WBEZ, on which he generally plays an annoying song, "and an angry phone call."

"Like all great radio, (the birth of the show) was an accident," he said.

Nayder was a part-time announcer at WBEZ and had to fill three minutes of air. "I had Slim Whitman's album with me, looked at the back and found a three-minute song, 'It's a Small World.' I said, 'It's time for the 'Annoying Music Show' and put it on, as a joke."

After he signed off, "The phones lit up. The calls ranged from, 'How could you waste valuable public radio time?' to 'You should play this song by William Shatner.' So I just kept doing it every week, until about two months later, the program director said to me, 'Do you do some show on Saturday?' I said, 'It's up to you.' And he said, 'Keep doing it.' "

The three-minute show is the perfect length, he said.

"After that, it's more painful than a pledge drive."

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Source: (c) 2012 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.