Getting Sober on Reality TV

Hey hi hello!

Welcome to the inaugural High Society, a newsletter about drugs and culture by me, Tara Kenny. If you weren’t expecting this, that’s most likely because I took the liberty of signing all Slurp subscribers up automatically. If you don’t like what you see feel free to unsubscribe and don’t bump your ass on the way out!

As many of you know, the constant of my 2020 was reality television. Laying my sleepy little head on the soft, comforting bosom of the Bravo network universe, I bared witness to a raft of high intensity drama, from cheating on girlfriends with strippers in Vegas, to accusations of undiagnosed Munchausen syndrome, and on the comparatively less unhinged end of the spectrum... addiction and sobriety journeys.

In Spectacle: An Unscripted History of Reality TV, a podcast that is as the title suggests except most certainly scripted, host Mariah Smith makes the case that while reality TV is frequently written off as trashy, stupid and ultimately meaningless, it provides a reliable barometer of where the broader public discourse is at on key social and political issues. Smith’s examples include the 1970s reality doco An American Family, which promised the daily lives of a “normal” upper middle class family but delivered infidelity, divorce and one of the first openly gay “characters” on US television, and the 1992 The Real World: New York, which lured castmates in with free Soho housing while they pursued artistic careers but devolved into heated conflicts about race and privilege between castmates from wildly different backgrounds. If we accept reality TV as a litmus test for the issues society is ready to confront, the rise in depictions of addiction and sobriety narratives across the genre over the last decade suggest a cultural shift.

My first exposure to this phenomenon was through Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Kim Richards, a former child star and aunt to Paris and Nicky Hilton whose struggles with alcohol and prescription drugs are an ongoing plot point on the show. The audience follows Kim’s increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior, denials of substance issues, gossip and rumors amongst the ladies, and explosive moments of reckoning. Lest we forget the ill-fated games night in which Kim is accused of “doing crystal meth in the bathroom” by agent of chaos Brandi Glanville, or the heated limousine altercation in which Kim’s sister Kyle accuses her of being “sick and an alcoholic”. Kim eventually admits to decades-long addiction struggles and from then on her periodic sobriety, relapse and treatment are more openly chronicled, including a low point in 2015 when she is arrested twice in the course of a few months for public intoxication, battery and resisting arrest at the Beverly Hills Hotel (of all places!) and for shoplifting from Target (again, of all places!). Interestingly, Kim’s addiction is frequently reflected through her complex family dynamic with Kyle, who is shown anxiously worrying about Kim’s wellbeing and defending her wild behavior from the judgement of the other women.

The scrutiny of camera crews and the scathing masses directed at Kim when her mental stability appears to be hanging by a thread can certainly feel exploitative. At times, Kim has lamented the show’s toll on her relationship with her children, who must watch their mom’s inebriated antics and her friend’s claims that she is “near death” play out publicly. She has also credited the show with saving her life by providing accountability and a community of supportive fans, some of whom also struggle with addiction and are inspired by her willingness to share her tumultuous journey.

Unlike fictionalized substance use, which tends to use drugs and alcohol as a dramatic device to communicate a character’s downward spiral, in Real Housewives, as in life, addiction is just a part of the humdrum of daily life. As Tom Syverson writes in this piece for Paste Magazine, “the docu-soaps of Bravo show people struggling with alcohol (or coke, or pills, or what have you) while actually embedded in longstanding, dynamic interpersonal networks. The vicissitudes of drinking too much (or too little) are neither central nor marginal. Problem drinking is not the focus, nor is it the prime mover, but rather it appears as an intermittent, interminable trauma, as a pesky recurring intrusion on a functioning social group. To watch someone struggle with alcohol on Bravo is not to relish the disaster, but instead to say over and over, ‘Please, not this again…’”

Over on the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, which depicts the elite echelons of Utah’s Mormon stronghold capital city, another sobriety journey is unfolding. In this distinct housewives universe, cast members’ identities are tied up in their relationships to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, whether that primary bond is strong, compromised, or fully severed. For example, buxom blonde Whitney “wild” Rose and her husband Justin were extradited from the church because their relationship began with an extramarital affair that saw them “step outside of their temple covenants.”

Whitney’s dad Steve struggles with addiction, another big no-no in the Mormon church, which prohibits alcohol, tobacco, coffee and even tea amongst followers. We learn Steve’s story through the eyes of Whitney, who explains that growing up she had an idyllic relationship with her dad, who was a successful hairdresser, until he turned to prescription drugs to self-medicate in the wake of a divorce. Whitney is honest about the toll of Steve’s addiction, from his demands that she pay for his rehab to return the favor of her upbringing, to her role as intermediary between her dad and siblings. Steve’s narrative is that of a comeback story: we root for him as he attempts to regain the trust of his kids, enter a sober living community, and start picking up hairdressing shifts. This narrative is shattered during the reunion, when Whitney tearfully confesses that her dad has disappeared and is not returning her calls. She imagined they would be watching the show air together, happy, but now can only “hope that this show did not destroy him.”

Herein lies the tension between the audience’s empathy and genuine investment in Steve, Kim or another cast member’s recovery and the more primal death drive built into reality TV. As one ex-reality TV producer, put it…“Legally shows have to respond if someone asks for help. But of course [some shows] enable. Unfortunately we've been told that stable, well-adjusted people doing interesting things are boring on television. So you have to make these people more and more horrible each season to make the 'hit' stronger for the audience. In that sense it's the audience who are the junkies…If a Real Housewife is an alcoholic mess, people watch.”

Between the audience’s endless appetite for drama and a tenuous duty of care between producers and castmates, the intensity and pressure of having one’s recovery laid bare and narrativized will inevitably be too much for some. The portrayal of real addiction journeys on television can undoubtedly be educational for viewers who witness the struggles and ripple effects, and inspiring for those who see their own experiences normalized and reflected back sympathetically. Yet, even though we may not be proud to admit it, we love to see a housewife fail.

Until next time!

Xoxo Tara