RehabTV?

Television narrative has long mined drug and alcohol use and abuse for inciting incidents. As a plot device deployed to inaugurate conflict within a television narrative, drugs and alcohol can really do the trick, whether for single episodes or for multi-episode story arcs. In a dramatic series, this or that beloved character might become addicted to drugs or alcohol, while a situation comedy might devote a “very special episode” to the impact of drugs or alcohol upon one or more of its characters. Crime shows, in particular, are especially drug- and alcohol-dependent, with intoxicant related crimes contributing myriad story arcs for shows as historically and stylistically diverse as Dragnet, Police Woman and The Wire.

Yet within the last decade or so, several emerging televisual subgenres have begun using drugs and alcohol as a narrative device in ways that might prove historically significant. While a full accounting of the ways drugs and alcohol manifest on contemporary television screens certainly exceeds my task in this brief comment, several noteworthy ways that contemporary television narratives “use” drugs and alcohol warrant consideration. (For the purposes of this discussion, I employ the term “television narrative” to address a diverse array of televisual genres, including both scripted dramas and comedies alongside what is widely referred to as “reality” tv, the myriad documentary television programs which, though ostensibly “unscripted,” nonetheless utilize a range of editing and production techniques to sculpt the dramatic action internal to each episode and, often, across the span of a multi-episode “season” of programming.)

The three subgenres I would like to highlight are, in turn, domestic dramas of narco-trafficking; “drunk girls gone wild” reality shows; and, perhaps most ubiquitously, RehabTV. I will address both of the former categories in brief, detailing how the primary effect of drugs and alcohol remains that of the inciting incident and how each deploys intoxicants primarily as a means of inaugurating scripted (and unscripted) narrative conflict. I then query the emergence and implications of what might be the signature televisual narrative template of this historical moment, the subgenre I have come to call “RehabTV.”

Domestic dramas of drug trafficking can be seen in such well-regarded scripted series as Breaking Bad, Weeds and Nurse Jackie, in which narrative scenarios of drug production and circulation provide the inciting impetus. Each series, in its own idiosyncratic way, explores how narco-trafficking becomes a sensible middle-class survival strategy for, respectively, a high school teacher, a widowed housewife, and an emergency room nurse. In seeming contrast, the drunken antics on “candid” reality series like MTV’s Real World and Jersey Shore as well as Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise and the Oxygen Network’s Bad Girls Club, seem less about survival than sheer excess. In each, alcohol flows freely both as a social lubricant and as a ready accelerant for heated interpersonal exchanges. The critically acclaimed scripted shows purport to explore the dramatic dimensions of contemporary intoxicants even as the critically reviled unscripted shows allegedly exploit them. Yet both rely upon drugs and alcohol to incite dramatic incidents. In each subgenre, the television narrative frames a fascinating, largely contrived glimpse into the intimate lives of those narcotraffickers and college-age binge drinkers occasionally absorbing the headlines. Even so, despite the seeming ubiquity of these domesticated drug dealers and inebriated youths “getting real,” no televisual genre’s cup runneth over quite so much as that of “RehabTV.”

My category of “RehabTV” describes those shows in which compulsive behavior – often (as we shall see, not necessarily) involving substance abuse – incites sometimes successful but often failed narratives of personal triumph and individual redemption. “RehabTV” shows are typically instantiated by a gruesome spectacle of addiction that is subsequently transformed by the promise or challenge of abstinent behavior modification as the idealized route toward healing. Among such programs, A&E’s Intervention and VH1’s Celebrity Rehab stand as perhaps the two most conspicuous recent examples, In contrast to earlier shows in which thematics of recovery also loomed large (especially the 1990s boom in life narrative shows like A&E’s Biography, VH1’s Behind The Music, and Lifetime’s Intimate Portrait), the narrative subgenre of “RehabTV” resists the encumbrances of actual biography by emphasizing the mechanic formula of “rehab” itself.

The narrative premise of “RehabTV” functions as a simple bait and switch. Within the narrative worldview of each series, the troubled protagonist thinks they need their drug of choice when what they truly require is the program of typically abstinent behavior modification proposed by the show (and its particular cadre of camera-friendly specialists). In some shows, the spectacle emphasizes the substance abuse while others focus on the abstinence. Yet in nearly all, the narrative arc is consistent: start with the problem and end with the promised solution, and, whether or not the episode’s protagonist “succeeds” in kicking their habit, the narrative pleasures of the RehabTV formula is reaffirmed. (Got a problem? Seek rehab!)

Because of its emphasis on narrative formula over content, RehabTV – more than almost any other form of television narrative dependent on intoxicants for its inciting incident – is especially well-suited to the sort of heroic individualism so celebrated in the purportedly secular United States. In a recent discussion of the “myth of self-transformation” as the secular faith of the contemporary age in her book How to Become a Scandal, cultural critic Laura Kipnis observed that, for millennia, human figures in myths and folk legends “used to wrestle with supernatural adversaries like witches or ogres; now addictions and compulsions are the ogres to be wrestled into submission” (156). RehabTV makes each such wrestling match a spectator sport.

Perhaps most striking, RehabTV has become so dominant a television narrative formula that the genre no longer requires even a cameo appearance by drugs or alcohol abuse to inaugurate the drama. An increasing number of shows like Style’s Clean House, A&E’s Hoarders, NBC’s The Biggest Loser and TLC’s My Strange Addiction operate within the “RehabTV” narrative formula without dependence on actual intoxicants for an inciting incident. As the narrative formula of RehabTV thus abstracts drug- and alcohol-dependence as metaphor – rehearsing personal abstinence and behavior modification as solution to every individual problem – what reciprocal impact might RehabTV have upon contemporary understandings of the challenges posed by drug and alcohol use and abuse? In “treating” intoxicants as but a symptom of an intrinsically personal problem, does RehabTV obscure those societal aspects of contemporary addiction – privilege, poverty, policing – that might benefit from more systemic analysis? What, indeed, are the implications of a cultural mindset (rehearsed again and again within RehabTV) that the solution to your every problem is rehab?

11 thoughts on “RehabTV?

  1. Great post. A question that immediately comes to mind for me is whether or not “RehabTV” is a further iteration of the culture of sobriety forged by the Washingtonians and other early organizations for reformed drunkards, with their emphasis on public pledge taking. The act of taking the pledge served as a kind of central organizing principle for a reformist culture that frequently combined spectacle and personal redemption. So, were the Washingtonians really (one of) the beginnings of modern consumer culture? Graham Warder made the argument for this in a pretty interesting dissertation a while back, though I don’t think it ever ended up becoming a book. Anyway, interesting stuff.

    • Replying to Joe Gabriel’s reply, I’d say the “spectacle” part goes back a long way. If not back to the Washingtonians or even earlier, then we can at least see a healthy interest in celebrity addictions by the twenties. The donation to the Library of Congress, this past week, of a series of long-lost American silent films that had been held in Soviet government vault for decades included work by the actor Wallace Reid. One of the great starts of the silent film era in the United States, Reid was also a morphine addict. His drug-related death in 1923 prompted waves of public interest in Reid’s story (his fight with addiction made public only a short time before his death).

      The question isn’t, as I see it, so much the public interest–which is of long-standing–but the nature of the solutions these narratives tend to embrace. In other words, less on the celebrity half of this than on the rehab half. I’ve got a strong sense that the nature of what “rehab” means or meant is probably what’s changed the most over time.

  2. Thanks for the feedback and insights.

    I would agree that the spectacle of severe chronic inebriation provides a recurring focus of fascination within US popular performance for at least the last century or so.

    But what I think I’m trying to get at in this piece is the transition I see articulated with “RehabTV” — what had once been (moral) problem narratives have now contributed an apparently all-purpose narrative template for parables of (moral) solution.

  3. You can find Graham Warder’s argument about rehabilitation and consumer culture in “Temperance Nostalgia, Market Anxiety, and the Reintegration of Community in T.S. Arthur’s *Ten Nights in a Bar-Room,* published in 2004 in the anthology *Cultural Change and the Market Revolution in America 1789- 1860.*

    I agree that substances now play only an incidental role in the moral dramas of addiction/compulsion and recovery/rehab that form the substance of so many public narratives–and I think that is a change from the Washingtonian era and from the early 20th century as well. In part because it was so congenial to the heroic individualism that developed alongside and within US consumer culture, the genre has developed into an stable entity with a specific relationship to its audience. As much as any plot detail (like whether the protagonist is an alcoholic or a meth addict or a cat lady), audience expectations and desires condition the narrative arc of the story, including its morali(izing) outcome.

    My esteemed co-contributors raise questions about the desirability of that outcome: let’s have narratives that animate a more systemic analysis of the conditions that lead to needing “rehab” and depict solutions to those conditions that evade the consumerist vision of heroic individualism. I like that critique– make it all the time myself, in fact– but I’d be interested in seeing it kicked up to the level of prescription. What narrative form would contain that analysis and that depiction? The two modes that come to mind are socialist realism and avant-garde modernism, each of which made their bones by theorizing against the bourgeois form we’re discussing here. Do these traditions offer any compelling examples of intoxication/compulsion narratives that evade the problems identified in the mainstream canon of the genre? If so, can we argue that they form a usable counter-tradition that could be deployed to achieve social and/or narrative change?

    Finally, and perhaps more compelling to some readers, where do David Simon’s depictions of rehabilitation in *The Corner* and *The Wire* fit into Brian’s schema?

    • Thanks for the pointer to Warder’s chapter — I hadn’t seen that. I’m still not sure I agree that the relative absence of the commodity in today’s complusion/rehabitation narrative is that much different from the period of the 1840s – after all, the Washingtonian narrative about desire overpowering the subject, individual decline, and personal redemption played out in multiple domains of reform, including but not only aboltionism and anti-prostitution reform. It seems to me that the these narratives have always been about larger problems than the use of the commodities themselves. So the absence of them in today’s stories doesn’s strike me as fundamentally different — especially since even in the 1840s these tales were often told in retrospect, and hence the commodity had already exited the scene. Anyway, I’m probably missing the point!

  4. Remember, too, that I’m pointing to the ways that television narrative has (and has not) “used” drugs/alcohol.

  5. I think broader histories of narrative are essential but I am also wondering here about the particularities of television narrative.

  6. “… whether or not the episode’s protagonist “succeeds” in kicking their habit, the narrative pleasures of the RehabTV formula is reaffirmed. (Got a problem? Seek rehab!)”

    This politically correct reaffirmation (ad nauseum) is occasionally challenged by segments of South Park and The Family Guy, both humorous narratives, which category seems to be the only realm allowed by the mainstream for such challenges to recovery groups and addiction treatment at this time. If this sub-subgenre (or possibly a genre of its own) were to be overlooked or minimized, it could have historiographic meaning.

  7. In the context of the distant past the three subgenres chosen above might have these items under their domains, respectively –
    The battles within missionary work on whether or not to include temperance, and laws outlawing sale/trade with natives;
    Drunken Barnaby’s Journeys and Ebrietatis Encomium; and
    Lewis Cornaro’s Treatise of Temperance and Sobriety and the Journal of Inebriety (medical publications on drunkenness usually included numerous case studies as evidence, ie. RehabMedJournalism)

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