HBO is leading a media revolution in the portrayal of drug use, including but not limited to problematic use, as a regular feature of people’s lives. This normalization of substance use—currently embodied by Mare of Easttown and Hacks—actually returns us to the way alcohol was depicted on television at one time, as well as marijuana use for a period. But this acceptance was abandoned in the 1980s, when recovery became the main substance-use theme—a trope that dominates popular media into the present.
From the ‘50s through the ‘70s, alcohol consumption and intoxication were unselfconsciously portrayed on television. In Gunsmoke, a CBS mainstay from 1955 to 1975, the key figures in the series (Marshall Matt Dillon, played by TV icon James Arness, saloon hostess Kitty, Doc, and sidekicks Chester and Festus) regularly drank together. They didn’t become drunk. They drank beer usually, and on special occasions spirits.
Negative behaviors associated with alcohol use could be contained through a range of methods employed by the show’s characters.
A “town drunk” was a recurrent character in the show. But his intoxication was controlled and he was protected from harm by the show’s regulars in a 19th century version of harm reduction. This man was also able to resist drinking at key moments, and indeed was shown to be heroic in several episodes.
The dangers of alcohol were not ignored in Gunsmoke. Single men drank heavily at Kitty’s Long Branch saloon in Dodge City. They sometimes became obstreperous, and occasionally violence erupted. The regular town folk, who might have “medicinal” liquor in their homes, didn’t frequent the saloon. Alcohol, in short, was used differently by people in different social situations and settings. But negative behaviors associated with its use could be contained through a range of methods employed by the show’s characters.
As drugs became a prominent part of youth culture in the 1960s, marijuana was sometimes depicted as an illicit secret pleasure on mainstream media. For example, pot allusions suffused The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a popular CBS variety show of the late 1960s. But tolerance for such light-hearted references to drugs was iffy. In fact, the drug allusions and anti-war sentiments that the show’s creators (embodied by Tommy Smothers, who delighted in tormenting CBS execs and censors) sneaked into the script caused constant friction with the network. The show was cancelled despite being one of television’s highest-rated programs.
Even long after this, in 1993-1994, PBS was forced to cancel its dramatization of Armistead Maupin’s stories, Tales of the City. The highly regarded series couldn’t continue due to objections in Congress to its ho-hum depictions of marijuana use and gay life in San Francisco. (Tales did return via streaming in 2019, including reruns of the original on Acorn and an updated version on Netflix.)
Streaming has allowed for the segmentation of media … This greatly broadened the ways in which drugs and intoxication could be shown.
The onset of recovery as a major, perhaps the principal, lens through which substance use was portrayed was introduced by the long-running series Murphy Brown, starring Candice Bergen, which CBS launched in 1988. Today, abstinent recovery (aka sobriety) remains the only accepted response to excessive substance use on US network television. The just-concluded hit CBS series Mom, for example, featured a fictional mother and daughter who are both in 12-step recovery.
But streaming has allowed for the segmentation of media for adult viewers in a way that wasn’t possible on network TV. This greatly broadened the ways in which drugs and intoxication could be shown. From 2015 through 2019, Netflix screened Jessica Jones, featuring a blackout-drinking former superhero. In 2016-17, TNT streamed the ironically titled Good Behavior, about a recovering woman on parole who still drinks and steals. In 2019, The CW began streaming In the Dark, whose world-weary blind lead drinks heavily to console herself.
These characters aren’t sober in either the traditional meaning of the word (i.e., not intoxicated—they get drunk), nor in AA’s terms (since they drink at all). But they are navigating life in overall constructive ways, despite problems. Like most of us.
HBO, meanwhile, has become a leader in a renewed vision of how people manage substances and their responses to drug-related problems.
Consider two currently streaming HBO series: Mare of Easttown and Hacks. Mare (starring Kate Winslett, with Jean Smart costarring as her mother) is a much-heralded noir police story in which people drink, vape and take drugs in a marginalized post-industrial town outside of Philadelphia.
It would seem that the creators are familiar with modern harm reduction.
Drug policy reform pioneer Ethan Nadelmann was enthusiastic after watching, remarking, “I loved how they got nicotine vaping, needle exchange programs (to distribute a missing person flyer), cannabis dispensaries and the unpleasantness of consuming too much edible marijuana in one sitting—all in the first episode!” It would seem that the creators are familiar with modern harm reduction.
As well as vaping, Mare drinks regularly—Rolling Rock (a regional Pennsylvania beer) and Jameson’s. For her part, her mother favors cocktails. Although they might seem to rely on alcohol, neither woman drinks to intoxication.
Other characters in Mare do have drinking issues, which are associated with the sexual assaults and other violence that form the show’s plot. However, as was true for Gunsmoke, alcohol is not shown as the cause of people’s problems. Problematic drinking and loss of control are not the show’s focus, which is rather the characters’ traumas, isolation and neediness. These human experiences may lead to problematic behaviors, which at times reach extreme levels, sometimes involving drugs.
Mare, as a 40-ish detective, doesn’t use nonprescribed drugs. But younger characters use marijuana and other drugs, and some become addicted. Those with drug-related problems include Mare’s deceased son and his surviving wife, whom Mare and her mother are contesting for custody of Mare’s grandson. Yet AA, NA and recovery are nowhere to be seen. Mare’s daughter-in-law does enter an unspecified form of rehab. But treatment hasn’t been effective for her in the past—just as it didn’t help Mare’s son.
None is presented as a definitive cause or solution … There are no magic bullets in Mare.
Mare herself goes to therapy. She lost both her father and son to suicide, and she understandably worries about her grandson’s mental health. Mare discusses with her therapist a panoply of psychiatric issues—including genetic inheritance, psychiatric meds and trauma. None is presented as a definitive cause or solution for the characters’ problems. There are no magic bullets in Mare.
Although viewers may see Mare as a trauma victim, the show rather portrays her as an existential hero. She has a purpose: pursuing the truth. This brings her into conflict with other characters, including her best friend. But it also enables her to move forward in life.
The show’s characters reflect Easttown’s socio-economic marginalization through a number of serious problems they have and crimes they commit that the show doesn’t shy away from. At the same time, Mare, portrayed stunningly by Winslet, struggles to live her own complex life as best she can, as do the other characters, with differing degrees of success. Some, obviously, fail utterly.
Hacks, meanwhile, is a comedy with dark overtones. It also stars Jean Smart, this time as an older comedian struggling to remain on top of the Las Vegas game. She drinks, while a young comedy writer brought on to freshen her routines (played by Hannah Einbinder), takes a variety of drugs. The younger character, too, is struggling to establish her relevance, amidst sometimes iffy behavior. At one point, she snorts cocaine in a Las Vegas restaurant bathroom as a get-to-know-you with a man she meets.
That interaction ends disastrously. But the two women’s substance use is not portrayed as the path to perdition, as it would have been in the prior half-century of American mainstream media. Neither of the central women is self-conscious or apologetic about her substance use. Neither seems headed to rehab or AA.
All is not peaches and cream, however. Smart’s character can be bitter when drinking. But she doesn’t need to add alcohol to be mean. Her attitude has affected her parenting, and her daughter isn’t well launched. The comedian searches her daughter’s purse for drugs, which have been an issue for her daughter in the past (although she now practices harm-reduction recovery and drinks).
When substances are not regarded as the causes of people’s, and society’s, difficulties, we enter the realm of harm reduction.
Just as in Mare and Gunsmoke before it, drugs are not the sources of personal crises. The characters’ existential problems are instead steeped in psychological and societal issues.
When substances are not regarded as the causes of people’s, and society’s, difficulties, we enter the realm of harm reduction. This development represents a new consciousness around substance use defined by its realities, both good and bad.
One scene from Hacks is straight out of the Harm Reduction and Anti-Drug Stigmatization Handbook. Einbinder’s character has been doing coke, molly and cannabis over a day or two. During this time the two women have had a breakthrough in their relationship while sharing cannabis edibles. Smart needed the cannabis, which Einbinder provides from her personal supply, because she wasn’t given enough Vicodin to relieve her pain after having a facelift.
Einbinder then is hospitalized for abdominal pain. The ER doctor—hearing the list of drugs she has consumed—blames the drugs for her condition. He declares, without performing any tests, that she is suffering from dehydration. The older comedian then threatens the doctor and forces him to order a CAT scan for her young friend. The scan reveals that an ovarian cyst has burst, which saves Einbinder’s life.
Drugs were not the problem.
HBO, it seems, has become the bold frontier in the normalized portrayal of substance use.
Screenshot of Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown via HBO trailer
Stanton Peele’s memoir: A Scientific Life on the Edge: My Lonely Quest to Change How We See Addiction, is available on Amazon.