In the eighth episode of the Showtime series Yellowjackets, a woman named Nat (Juliette Lewis) is about to relapse after an extended period of recovery. Her frenemy, Misty (Christina Ricci), sees this from a secret camera that she’s planted in Nat’s hotel room and she bolts over there to stop her. What unfolds is a scene that’s simultaneously comedic, heartbreaking, and endlessly watchable.
This scene is directed, acted, and written by women. Ladies ladies ladies, all the way down. As female creatives begin to get more opportunities to tell their stories, they have also been working to bring the murky and often unknowable topics of addiction (and addiction’s best buddy, trauma) into the light.
When the Showtime dramedy Nurse Jackie hit the airwaves in 2009, the concept of the female antihero didn’t even exist. Star Edie Falco had just finished her powerhouse turn as Carmella Soprano on the HBO mega-hit The Sopranos, but there she played a supporting character to the OG antihero, Tony Soprano. In the world of Nurse Jackie, Falco was placed front and center as a high functioning, opioid-addicted nurse who had charisma for days but an acerbic bite that could render anyone in her way powerless.
Nurse Jackie was created by a three-person team, featuring two women: Liz Brixus and Linda Wallem. (Evan Dunsky rounded out the trio.) The subject matter was so sensitive and hit such a nerve with the real-life New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) that they angrily petitioned Showtime to tack a disclaimer on to the end of the show stating that Jackie was an anomaly and that most nurses did not have the problems depicted on screen.
Addiction is a disease that does not discriminate. It touches the lives of absolutely everyone. The NYSNA’s reaction only served to illustrate that television was in desperate need of more honest, raw depictions of people — specifically women — struggling with addiction in a very real way. When Nurse Jackie kicked off its seventh and final season, Eric Deggans of NPR lauded it as “TV’s most honest depiction of addiction.” By that point in time, statistics for substance use and abuse were sharply on the rise and a host of other TV shows had begun to gamely tackle subject matter that was painfully obvious in real life with increases in alcohol use and substance abuse.
In 2013, two TV series debuted that introduced viewers to indelible and relatable characters that would help to change the face of addiction and provide representation for millions who struggled with the disease. Netflix debuted Orange Is the New Black that summer, and CBS followed suit with Mom in September. While each series tackled addiction, trauma, community, and sobriety in their own way, they both focused on women with few resources and a lack of access to professional treatment who struggled with substance use. The shows gamely tackled real-world barriers to receiving help that especially apply to women, including shame, guilt, and perceived gender roles.
Both OITNB and Mom also had women at the helm. Gemma Baker joined Chuck Lorre and Eddie Gorodetsky on the Mom team, and Jenji Kohan served as showrunner and creator of OITNB. Also, both shows were funny! Addressing the topic of addiction can be done through a comedic lens. It doesn’t always have to be doom and gloom, it just has to be done with the care and skill that these shows demonstrated.
These series gave much-needed breath to a public conversation that was already underway. Addiction and substance misuse continued to rise and, with a lack of services available, incarceration was increasingly being used as a “solution” to the problem. Characters such as Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) and Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) on OITNB found themselves trapped in Litchfield Correctional with no one to turn to but their peers. Relapse was often staved off when these women utilized the strength of their support networks. And, while they weren’t incarcerated, the same held true for the motley crew of AA attendees on Mom.
It’s been nearly a decade since these two series debuted and, sadly, not much has changed in terms of providing a more robust social safety net for individuals struggling with addiction. But these humble TV shows made a mark on society by helping provide context for the struggle. Addiction is often defined as continued use or behavior despite consequences, but it is almost always a symptom of a larger, more pervasive issue. Many people seek to self-medicate issues such as unresolved childhood trauma or untreated mental health disorders because it initially seems like the easiest or most convenient path to take. Then, when addictive behaviors begin to control their lives, feelings of shame, isolation, and loneliness are compounded and asking for help can feel damn near impossible.
However, fueled by shows like Nurse Jackie, OITNB, and Mom, the titans of TV seem motivated to continue providing the world with touchstones for addiction and mental health struggles. BoJack Horseman, created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt, debuted in 2014 and remains the gold standard of storytelling focusing on addiction and mental health. Yet, a wealthy, depressed celebrity horse might not be a realistic fictional doppelganger for some, so thankfully there’s been a deluge of other characters that struggling viewers might be able to relate to.
In the past few years, there has been a boom (and boon!) of characters on TV that wrestle with these issues. Alongside executive producers Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne followed her stint on OITNB by co-creating and starring in her own series for Netflix called Russian Doll in which her chain-smoking, alcohol-dependent character has to relive her birthday over and over again until she confronts her inner demons. And, coincidentally, Headland went on to create the recent Freeform series Single Drunk Female, a show that focuses on a twenty-something woman who loses everything due to her addictive behaviors and has to return home to figure things out.
Additional TV series such as You’re the Worst, Mare of Easttown, The Flight Attendant, Love, Euphoria, and so many more have dared to throw down and tackle the thorny topic of addiction and all its associated conundrums in thoughtful and meaningful ways. And each time a new, fully-formed character appears on our screens, the (very common) struggle becomes more normalized, and an opportunity to decrease our societal stigmas and individual shame surrounding addiction is created. TV characters might not solve our addiction problems, but they can definitely help pave the way for desperately-needed understanding and empathy.
Erin Qualey is a licensed therapist specializing in addiction and trauma with more than a decade of experience in the field. She also works as a freelance writer, often focusing on the intersections among mental health, addiction and pop culture.