Sept. 13, 2010 -- Television's depiction of excessive drinking is not a bubbly escapade. Viewers have a ringside seat watching characters battle with the bottle, imbibing until they become incapacitated and worse. Some drinks are served neat. But these characters' embrace of alcohol's dark side is a very messy business. Need a reminder? Flash back to the boozed-out nightmare of "NYPD Blue's" detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz).
The tradition has continued unabated and more boldly than ever.
From the minute AMC's acclaimed Emmy-award-winning series "Mad Men" debuted, liquor was so prominent in the lives of the show's ad men that it deserved top billing along with the actors. As the show's time frame progressed into the 1960s, series creator Matthew Weiner didn't hold back in depicting a world of liquor-stocked offices, boozy lunches and alcohol-soaked dinners. Some of these debonair characters' intake of spirits has so precipitously escalated in recent episodes – Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Herman "Duck" Phillips (Mark Moses) and Betty Draper (January Jones) are the main guzzlers – that the name of the program could well be changed to "Mad for Alcohol."
The trajectory towards hitting bottom has led many viewers to wonder whether some of these key players are thisclose to seeking professional help -- voluntarily or otherwise.
For Draper, recent disruptions in his personal life have played a big role in his nonstop drinking. He drinks to excess during celebratory times – when accepting an industry award – and not so happy ones, as he became distraught over a dear friend's death. Last week, his protegee Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) had to lead him to the men's room, where he vomited profusely.
Draper's problem also fueled the fisticuffs between him and Duck, another problem drinker, who had, in his drunken stage, spitefully tried to leave an excretory deposit on the furniture of a former boss. And Roger Sterling is so irritated over having to put up with the preaching and sob stories of two former booze-imbibing colleagues who've now gone on the wagon that he calls Draper from a bar to come rescue him.
Last night's program took place after Draper had clearly taken some time to reflect and get his act together. The episode opened with his reading an entry from the journal he's been keeping: "They say as soon as you have to cut down on your drinking, you have a drinking problem." One of the goals he set later was "to gain a modicum of control over the way I feel." It was a lesson that the imbiber Betty Draper had to learn as well. Her husband asked her point blank if she was a "wino."
'Mad Men' Drink, Constantly, on TV
"In the era depicted on 'Mad Men,' bad behavior stemming from excessive alcohol use was often glorified," said Daniel Angres, an addiction psychiatrist and the medical director of Resurrection Behavioral Health Addiction Services in Chicago. "The mind set would have been, 'It's my right to drink hard, be aggressive and be involved with different women, and I can control it all.'" And, he added, because woman are also shown to drink a lot, the ladies are hardly in a position to encourage their men to get help. "It's collective denial," he said.
"During that time period, it was typical to 'liquor up' your clients to better extract a deal," said Brian Van Flandern, a New York mixologist, spirits historian and educator on spirits and cocktails to major corporations. "Plying business associates with drinks was an effective sales tactic, and those drinks were, on average, significantly higher in alcohol content than they are today."
"In today's workplace, there would be very little tolerance for this – less tolerance than ever before – especially in jobs where people's safety and well being are involved," said Angres, adding that even isolated incidents of alcohol abuse would raise red flags.
"Especially over the last ten years, alcoholism has been more fully understood as a disease. But in the sixties, bad behavior resulting from heavy drinking could be considered 'macho' and even romantic, rather than as a compulsive use of alcohol despite adverse consequences.
"People in that era probably would have fought going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, because of the shame attached to it and because they believed they should be able to act the way they want."
Tommy Gavin of 'Rescue Me'
TV's Alcohol Problem
"Rescue Me" is FX's series that pulls no punches about depicting excessive drinking. Having just ended its season, the show stars Denis Leary as firefighter Tommy Gavin, who's been waging a vicious battle with the bottle.
"You can't glamorize Tommy's drinking," said the series' co-creator, Peter Tolan, who's also one of its executive producers. "It's alcoholism and it's ugly. This is not Auntie Mame with a side car by the mantle."
Tolan said Tommy self-medicates, largely because he lost so many of his friends on 9/11. But one reason that the character has not been able to hold on to his sporadic sobriety is because the prompting to get sober always came from an outside source.
"But this past season, Tommy may have hit bottom," said Tolan. The character was given a bottle of liquor that was poisoned, which he shared with his teenage daughter who also has burgeoning drinking issues. Tommy uncharacteristically blacked out and, when he came to, had no memory of where his daughter was. After she was found unharmed, Tommy committed to sobriety.
"A handful of people have approached me saying they're in recovery and that the only thing that keeps them straight is looking at the f***ing train wreck that is that character's life," says Tolan.
'Terriers': Hank Dolworth
Another train wreck trying to get back on track is the character Hank Dolworth from FX's new dramatic series "Terriers," which debuted last Wednesday.
"When we meet Hank, he's been sober for about a year and a half," said Donal Logue, who portrays Dolworth, an unlicensed private investigator. Logue said that later in the season the audience will learn how drinking is connected with his wife's leaving him and his leaving the police force.
"Those chain of events led to the darkest bottom of Hank's alcoholism," said Logue, who added that he doesn't drink personally but knows about alcohol-related issues from family members and friends. In the first episode, Dolworth is seen going into a liquor store – he eyes the spirits-laden shelves with great yearning – to buy a bottle for his ex-partner who later calls him on his demons.
"You understand there was a grenade between them, and that grenade was alcohol," said Logue, adding this week's episode shows his character attending an AA meeting.
TV's Biggest Drinkers
Women aren't immune either. Two decades ago Helen Mirren became a household name in the U.S. after viewers saw her portray Jane Tennison, the first woman detective chief inspector for Scotland Yard. Mirren showed that women eager for professional recognition could fall prey to the bottle, as well. "Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection," has just been released as a DVD. "NYPD Blue's" detective Diane Russell (Kim Delaney) was scarred by alcohol, as was Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi), on "Life."
Is there a downside to these graphic portrayals?
"It could be a dangerous message when those people who are predisposed to experience a greater sense of pleasure with alcohol see a glorification of this process on television," said Angres.
Alcoholism Shown as a Disease
Kimberly Dennis, an addiction psychiatrist and the medical director at Timberline Knolls, a residential treatment center in Chicago, said, "It's a lot easier to minimize and even deny our own problem if we see extreme versions of that problem." She added that, in the era depicted on "Mad Men," people drank excessively and openly in a work environment where imbibing was part of the culture, like smoking. "Today's drinker drinks after work, and people are very good about covering up their drinking," she said. "In fact, alcoholism is rampant in our society."
Logue suggested that Hank's road to sobriety through AA would not be easy. "AA is not a staircase where you climb to the top," he said. "The journey is very different from that, and there's no graduation ceremony."
"Today we've evolved to the point we understand alcoholism as a disease, and this allows us to see its chronic progressive nature," said Angres. Television is in a position to make that downward spiral vivid and meaningful.