Twenty years ago, Cheers — a show named for a bar, set in a bar, and featuring central characters who were either bartenders or people who spend an admirably exorbitant amount of time in a bar — rarely showed anyone actually inebriated. Ten years ago, the young, attractive, often-single characters of Friends spent all their free time hanging out at a coffee shop with a dumb name. Today, any day of the week offers the chance to see someone on TV flirting with a nice, strong bout of alcohol poisoning: the professional lushes on Jersey Shore, of course, but also the diagnosed alcoholics on Shameless, Rescue Me, and Californication, the young professionals of the latest batch of Friends knockoffs, even the kiddies on Skins. It’s part of a gradual expansion of what’s “acceptable on TV” that will piss the Parents Television Council off into perpetuity, and it’s rad. But which type of shows actually depict drinking realistically? A Vulture breakdown.
The Style: Here, logically, it’s all about overdrinking: The more you get ridiculous people hammered, the more they’re apt to do ridiculous things on-camera. Right now, Jersey Shore is the industry leader. Ron Ron juice for the pregame, Red Bull and vodka at the club, whatever’s left over for the after-party, and the fistfights, ill-advised hookups, and generally hilarious boorish behavior comes flowing. The Real Housewives franchise offers a tempered version of the same thing, with comically large wineglasses spurring the at times violently catty behavior. The tradition originated with The Real World, where alcohol has been the unofficial eighth cast member ever since the debauched 2002 Las Vegas season, and has stayed in house at MTV with The Challenge, a magical place where former Real World and Road Rules cast members with limited job prospects go to risk their lives in esoteric physical feats and then get mean-drunk with people they either hate, are hooking up with, or both hate and are hooking up with. Similarly manufactured boozing opportunities are present on The Bachelor, Big Brother, and even Top Chef, where contestants sometimes sit around for hours bickering and drinking in the “stew room” while the judges deliberate.
Realism: Extremely low. Even though these people are actually wasted, their drinking is foreign to real-life drinking customs. Yeah, most people who regularly drink also regularly overdrink, but no one who holds down a job can afford to do so at the manic reality-TV rate. Honestly, even college kids don’t drink like this. (Okay: Most college kids don’t drink like this.) The competition shows — where the hard drinking usually goes down in brightly lit, music- and TV-free rooms — are the most glaringly, depressingly off.
Shows Starring Animated Alcoholics
The Style: Fun drunks! Homer, Peter Griffin, and Futurama’s Bender — a robot that needs booze to operate and only gets drunk when he hasn’t had enough to drink — are the elite triumvirate of proud cartoon alcoholism. Their personal failings are endearing and, almost always, played for laughs. A particularly effective Griffin quote: “I’m not drunk. I’m just exhausted because I’ve been up all night drinking.” (Although, The Simpsons does sort of address the issue in the poignant eleventh season episode “Days of Wine and D’oh’ses,” where Barney sobers up and starts taking helicopter lessons. He eventually relapses.) The surprising thing is that The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Futurama are all veteran shows. Where is the new batch of subversively animated drunks? Go to it, Adult Swim.
Realism: Better than reality TV, actually, even considering Bender: The characters’ problem drinking is a part of their personality, not a part of the development arc. Most of the time they have fun unglamorously drinking with their pals; sometimes they get into trouble because of it. And you can even get real Duff beer now!
Shows Starring Non-Animated Alcoholics
The Style: Even with flesh-and-blood drunks, the tone stays light: Shameless, Californication, Bored to Death, and Two and a Half Men all star characters with some level of acknowledged alcoholism, and all treat the situation comically. That’s not too surprising: Considering how depressing the subject matter can get, shows featuring drunks are probably easier to pull off when they’re comedies with dramatic overtones rather than the other way around. (The exception is Rescue Me, starring Denis Leary, a comedian, as the troubled firefighter Tommy Gavin.) Of the bunch, Shameless — with William H. Macy as a boozed father with a lovingly messed-up family — strives for the most realism: Macy’s character is poor; his kids are glaringly flawed or developmentally challenged. But it still, somehow, makes that kind of thing seem fun. Californication’s Hank Moody and Two and a Half Men’s Charlie Harper are both variations on the hard-drinking womanizer archetype; Bored to Death’s Jonathan Ames has a relationship fall apart because he drinks too much white wine, but he mostly keeps it together. (Note: no mention of Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, or anything else not of this time because, until we befriend a crazy wild-eyed guy who claims to be a scientist we don’t know what drinking back then was actually like).
Realism: High. While certainly not representative of the general drinking population, these alcoholics are absolutely rooted in people who exist. Even Moody and Harper: They’re broad and over-the-top, but so are a lot of real drinkers.
Shows With Casual Drinking
The Style: This is where drinking on TV has really exploded. Nowadays, every show that aims for some basic level of verisimilitude has to acknowledge that alcohol plays a part in the lives of its adult characters. Workplace shows feature after-hour drinks and office parties: awkwardly on House, commendably spot-on with The Office (the bashes thrown by Dunder Mifflin’s party-planning committee swing realistically between people milling around and people making bad, vodka-fueled life choices). Family dramas don’t shy away from showing responsible adults at times irresponsibly enjoying alcohol; Cougar Town, for one, runs toward it at full speed. Even high school kids get to drink now, both with Gossip Girl’s high-society cocktail parties and Skins’s suburban debauchery. How I Met Your Mother is a particular kind of trailblazer in the field: The gang hangs at dumpy Irish bar MacLaren’s, sometimes knocking back a few pints, sometimes raging. And the HIMYM legacy lives on in the new batch of Friends-indebted sitcoms: Mad Love, Perfect Couples, and Friends With Benefits all feature bland or wacky white people who spend some of their time hanging out at bars or economically drinking at home. And the degenerates on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia actually fit into this grouping as well: They own a bar, so their drinking is understandably of a higher volume but their inebriation is not constant.
Realism: High. You can nitpick (Like, why does the HIMYM crew spend so much money drinking at that bar when it’s downstairs from their apartment?), but, generally, the depiction of casual drinkers on TV is where drinking has come the farthest. Characters are not defined by how much or how little they drink, and their actions are not always spurred by their drinking, although sometimes they are. Booze is neither always evil nor always good; mostly, it’s just there. Except with Kathie Lee and Hoda, actually: Those two are awful, awful drunks.