I watch two or three TV series a week, and there is so much drinking on these shows that I can find a drink in every episode of every show I watch. But most of the time I don’t even have to look carefully. There are always bottles popping, celebratory tumblers of whisky clinking. Excessive drinking, the kind we see on shows like Californication and Cougar Town, is the most prevalent, and probably always has been, because it makes us laugh. But the drinker in me isn’t drawn to those types of programs. In fact, I like to avoid them, because who likes to see drinkers losing control? (It’s possible that watching a Prime Suspect marathon last summer, witnessing Helen Mirren’s character Jane Tennison’s painful descent into alcoholism, put me off realistic portrayals of alcohol use forever). TV is about fantasy: I’m a lawyer at a prestigious Chicago law firm (The Good Wife). Now I’m a hotshot woman producer for a 1950s news magazine (The Hour). While I’m working at these difficult jobs in my mind, I would like to keep my drinking tasteful, but still frequent. As in every day.
I don’t have to look far. Mad Men may have opened the doors to a new style of on-screen drinking, borrowed from actual drinking habits of the 1960s, but the recession made it ever more acceptable for dramas, particularly workplace dramas, to portray drinking in all the ways that Donald Draper and company do. That is to say: at work, alone, every day, at lunchtime, first thing in the morning. This is, of course, a different style of drinking from the casual social gatherings that happen on sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother and Happy Endings. It is a style of drinking fraught with emotional drama: with sex and, of course, with work. And it is so pervasive that it is practically a recurring guest star. Lots of actors are out of work, but prop stylists seem busy.
Beer is not a part of this renaissance. The casual yet pretty much constant kind of drinking that I’m talking about seldom makes an appearance on any of the shows I watch regularly, or any shows that I watched as research for this. In fact, the purpose of beer on TV these days seems to be to indicate rowdiness, total intoxication, sloppiness, and so on. In one episode of The Hour, which debuted last summer on BBC America and will return for season two this summer, the staff of the titular news program is in a pub celebrating antsy but talented young reporter Freddie’s (Ben Wishaw’s) birthday, clinking pints of “flat beer,” as he puts it. The light in the pub is bright, and under it everyone looks pale and smashed. We can pretty much feel the headache Freddie is going to have the next day. He’s a fan of cigarettes, cheap wine and cheap beer. His colleagues prefer dancing and good wine, whisky, or vodka.
That evening, Freddie ends up sleeping with Lix, the older ex-photojournalist in the office, who always has a handle of something strong in the office, lives in the office, keeps her hairdryer in the office, works on the weekends, and calmly saunters around the place during the day with a saucer of tea, looking every bit composed, sober and up-to-date on the chaos going on around the world. In other words: hero. With Lix, we are meant to believe that drinking has no ill effects, or at least that they’re extremely short-lived (a cup of tea will whip us back into shape in no time).
Preceding Freddie and Lix’s little tryst in the darkened office, the whole staff goes from the stark light of the pub to a secret little smoke-filled club in a less reputable area of town, where the booze takes on the sexy and dignified quality it usually has on the show. Alcohol is just an accessory to the bar’s sultry atmosphere, and a hangover is the absolute farthest thing from our minds.
Posh drinking has spread from throwback dramas like The Hour to contemporary dramas including The Good Wife, Up All Night, and Tim Allen’s comeback Last Man Standing. Alcohol is a distractingly frequent presence on these shows, and the drinks seem so much more obvious, more talked about, or more strategically placed. In the case of the dramas, the characters display a “work hard, play hard” attitude that makes alcohol look much, much better than it did on Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison or The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty.
Archie Panjabi’s character Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife, probably the most captivating woman on television right now, has a distinctly different approach to drinking. Perpetually single but for the odd tryst with an old flame or a professional rival of some kind, male or female, Kalinda mostly drinks alone at a swanky-looking bar with sleek marble countertops. Her drink of choice is straight tequila, but she handles any kind of liquor effortlessly. When joined with someone else, her aim is to get the other person to drink too much, open up, vent, and maybe — if they’re fighting for the other side — give out information they’re not supposed to. Meanwhile Kalinda sits there, placid, sometimes flirting, always asking the right questions, always a detective.
Kalinda certainly works hard and plays hard. As the in-house detective at the title character’s law firm, she is locked in an endless chess game with the state’s attorney’s office, her bosses, the law firm’s clients, and a host of criminals, accomplices, and dirty-handed politicians. She effortlessly hops from one source to the next, but, like many of the TV detectives before her, she is obsessed with her work and lives a private and solitary existence. She uses people, they use her, and she seems incapable of ever letting her guard down. In an episode from season two, Kalinda’s most enduring love interest, Cary, then the deputy state’s attorney, kisses her in an after-hours moment at the office, then flees, not because he wants to, but more likely because he is convinced that she will never commit to him. The bar is all the respite Kalinda needs from her long, labyrinthine days. We long for her to just get it on with Cary, but her cool demeanor and how she wields it is much more interesting to watch.
In the case of comedies, drinking — specifically wine — is also part of a “work hard, play hard” philosophy, it’s just that the work includes children as well as going to an office. Nancy Travis’s character on Last Man Standing is trying to endure her marriage to Tim Allen’s character; Christina Applegate’s character Reagan is raising a newborn and working as a producer for a show hosted by a high-maintenance Oprah/Tyra type named Ava (Maya Rudolph). In an early episode of that show, Reagan and her husband Chris (Will Arnett) spend the precious few waking hours after their baby goes to bed bidding on a hideous VW van on eBay and consuming four bottles of wine. In a later episode, Chris is trying to bond with Reagan’s father over his fear of death. The exchange is stilted and awkward until the father picks up a bottle of wine, says, “This helps,” and proceeds to open it. Chris’s face immediately softens into relief, and the bonding begins. Later that night, wide-eyed and blissful, Chris tells Reagan he “had such an amazing time” with her dad.
Up All Night’s use of drinking isn’t exactly a shoutout to the 99 percent. After all, Chris is a Los Angeles lawyer on paternity leave and Reagan produces a seemingly successful daytime show. But these characters, while gainfully employed, now have a child; the anxiety of attempting to pay for at least one child’s education has commenced, joining the anxiety of trying to hold down a job. Even happy people soak themselves in wine to relax, to be able to sleep at night, in other words.
Nancy Travis’s character seems perfectly happy. She is a new grandmother. Her daughters are as different as three sisters could be, but get along well, even producing a music video together, and she is armed with plenty of barbs to match her husband’s stubborn, “manly” ways. Still, she appears to have a glass or three of wine every night, and in one episode, when she accidentally locks her wine cabinet with a child safety lock, we see her rattling the door in desperation, trying to break in. The camera goes inside the wine cabinet to show her pressed up against the glass, crestfallen.
Where are these writers getting their ideas from? Oh, right: us. In a pleasant slackening of the old rules, it is increasingly acceptable to see people’s alcoholic vices play out on the small screen. These characters are toasting us: the unemployed, the underemployed, and the anxiously employed. If we aren’t parents yet, we drink to steel the nerves that come from long hours of working for the future. If we are parents, we drink to escape from the daily whirligig of raising and providing for children. Whoever we are, in whichever target demographic, we seem to be drinking. Well, I am, anyway.