Earlier, binge-watching used to refer to an audience just wishing to plow through episodes and losing itself in a favorite show. But in recent years, television has been breaking ground by expanding its creativity and horizon and shining light upon a darker kind of bingeing. Through raw, unflinching, and captivating portrayals of addiction, TV shows walk the delicate line between telling a story and making a point. The hearts of these shows are the characters, who may be trapped in an agonizing cycle of being dependent on a substance, but that’s not what defines them.
Far from glorifying the subject, these shows depict characters as complex and flawed, yet deserving of compassion. Their stories are intimate and shocking, sometimes even heartfelt. And these shows answer every question their portrayal raises. How do the pressures of family and identity influence their coping mechanisms? Can we take responsibility? Is it possible to heal what’s broken without losing yourself in the process? By bringing these important conversations into our daily lives, these TV series show that even entertainment has the power to change things. Of course, no single show is better than the rest, or enough to capture the entirety of addiction. Hence, this list.
First on the list is a raw blend of addiction and healthcare. For a department that focuses on treating people better, having one’s demons to hide is more common than you’d imagine. And Nurse Jackie portrays just that. Despite showing an unparalleled dedication to her patients at a New York City hospital, Jackie Payton’s long and exhausting days have her relying on prescription drugs like Percocet, Xanax, and Vicodin. While she claims that the drugs help her cope with the crazy days in the ER, the truth is, she can’t go hours without them.
Edie Falco earned massive applause for portraying the devastated antiheroine. She hides her humanity and low self-worth by throwing jabs at co-workers but she refuses to quit helping others. The show is a subversive medical drama that aired on Showtime for 7 seasons and pulled the audience in with its sharp humor and realism.
A show that received a whopping controversy for the very reason of showcasing teenage issues with honesty, Skins is now considered a distinguished and thought-provoking TV show that isn’t afraid to chart some morally gray areas. It follows a bunch of youths in Bristol, South West England as they navigate freewheeling adolescence, consent, identity, and self-medication.
Every two seasons, the show would change its case as the students would finish the sixth form, and even though it seemed inconsistent to some, the freshness of watching an amateur cast charting unknown territory made it more sensational. The entire show looked like one long party on a school night, but underneath the veneer of lights and glory, the episodes showed how the teens’ addiction sprouts from trauma and not vice-versa. Overall, Skins started a global discussion on mental health and the shortage of support and how it all affected the young generation.
Creating a comedy sitcom centered around alcohol addiction and drug abuse is no easy feat. There has to be a balance between being sensitive and being funny. And Chuck Lorre finds just the right tune with Mom, a show that is hilarious yet poignant. The show explores a tenet that every AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) member is aware of – to live one day at a time – with its lead protagonist Christy, a single mother who has battled addiction for a long time.
After finally finding a purpose in life and being sober for a long time, her life is thrown into a whirlwind when her mother Bonnie, estranged for years and also an addict, struts right back into her life. Anna Faris and Emmy-winner Allison Janney lead the ensemble cast by tackling sobriety challenges, relapses, laughter, and hard self-work. The show is overall warm and fuzzy, and its core message is to show that it’s not silence that gets one through addiction, but a group effort, a collaboration, that does.
A rather creative way to deal with the subject, Intervention is A&E’s groundbreaking docuseries. In some way, the reality show is even considered to be a pioneer in the area. It follows a bunch of certified interventionists talking to one or two people battling varied addictions every episode, leading to them agreeing to consider rehabilitation.
While the series seems like it’s mostly talk, Intervention threads fly-on-wall footage of its subjects as they hit rock bottom, their care partners supporting them throughout, and the toll it takes on friends and family members, with such detail and empathy that it’s impossible not to feel for them. For 24 long seasons, the series has shown shocking as well as inspiring stories and influenced treatment standards.
Starring Benjamin Bratt at his dramatic best, The Cleaner is a thought-provoking TV series that revolves around Bratt’s character, William Banks, inspired by the real-life experiences of the same extreme interventionist. Banks spent years being addicted to heroin but he’s finally come to his senses and wants redemption. He strikes a deal with God to save others in the same condition as him, and he’s willing to go to any lengths to do so.
The show follows Banks hiring a team of former addicts to go undercover and on stakeouts to surveil people they wish to “clean.” But because his methods are violent, Banks gets the attention of the LA police department, who eventually get on his side. The show’s unorthodox yet earnest approach towards addiction makes it all the more interesting.
Based on a novel of the same name written by Blake Nelson in 2011, Recovery Road is the story of a teenager, Maddie, with the reputation of being a free-spirited party girl at school and the reality of being a high-functioning addict. When her addiction gets too strong, she is faced with an ultimatum – to be expelled from school or go to rehab.
Maddie chooses the latter and enters the novel world of sober facility, where she lives with other recovering addicts and navigates the trials and tribulations of her teenage life. Gritty yet refreshing, this short-lived TV series was praised for dealing with the subject so tenderly. It shook the perception of those reluctant to seek treatment by reflecting on it as a process and not a destination.
A criminally underrated but extremely beautiful Netflix show, Feel Good centers around Mae Martin, a comedian and drug addict, dealing with recovery and her sexuality. Inspired by Martin’s real life, the show first sees her coming to terms with being queer, but her life spirals into chaos as soon as she starts dating George, a wonderful woman who is just figuring out that she may be bisexual, played brilliantly by Charlotte Ritchie.
While season one charts the sensitive territory of Mae’s addiction to one thing (drugs) or another (Goerge), we also see her eventual relapse when dating gets too overwhelming for her. Season two dives deeper but stays positive throughout. Mae finally accepts and vocalizes the fact that she’s non-binary and that she’s complex and multi-dimensional but that does not make her any less worthy of love, care, and affection. A modern wonder, Feel Good is an intense, riveting, and genuinely funny show.
Spanning 11 long seasons, this Showtime drama developed primarily by John Wells introduces us to the Gallagher clan, led by the alcoholic patriarch Frank Gallagher. Branded as one of the worst TV parents, Frank may be the head of Chicago’s dysfunctional family of six underdog kids, but the truth is, the eldest daughter Fiona is the one raising them all. Always thinking about where he’d get his next stock of drink or drugs, Frank is brought to the screen as a wretched man by William H. Macy.
The show not only focuses on what the life of an alcohol addict looks like but also portrays the toll it takes on kids growing up in such a family. With charm and drama fused perfectly together, Shamelessdepicts poverty, addiction, and systematic failures of society we often end up neglecting.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg created this deeply resonant adult animated comedy back in 2014, and the show has since advocated the discussion of several taboo topics that haunt the most okay-seeming people. The grounded psychological drama stars Will Arnett, who lends his voice to a depressed, self-loathing sitcom star (now out of work and addicted to booze) trying to make a comeback.
BoJack Horseman was once a star whom people looked up to, but he was battling with inner demons and manifesting the trauma from the abuse he endured as a child actor, which led him to his lowest laws. From debt and sex to booze and pills, the show inspects every devastating part of BoJack with unflinching honesty. Because that’s what is life, right? Brutal and honest. Even though the narrative is rare for its medium, the creators and actors of BoJack Horseman have done a fantastic job with it.
Zendaya truly glows as Rue, a 17-year-old teen relating chaotic substance abuse to a not-so-secret trauma that she carries within herself at all times. After losing her father, the grief got too heavy for Rue to hold on to, so she turned to drugs and spiraled out of control. Even after going to rehab and returning home sober, Rue didn’t seem like she had any plans to stay clean. Euphoria is HBO’s seminal drama about a bunch of high school students conditioned to be silent but loudly seeking a society that understands them instead of alienating them.
Apart from addiction, relapse, and recovery, the show also deals with other prevalent issues festering in its nuanced and complex characters like Jules, Cassie, Fezco, Nate, and Maddie. Euphoria’s entire idea is to say “You are not alone” but the approach it uses and the impact it leaves is what makes it so phenomenal.