BY LEE ROSS, ACUMEN EDITOR WITH DR. SHANTELLA SHERMAN
Television writers rarely afford viewers storylines that incorporate the long-term, often rocky recovery of characters when scripting portrayals of addiction. Historically, the consumption of intoxicants, particularly alcohol, has been positioned as rites of passage from adolescence into adulthood, and alcoholism a personal or inherited flaw in television and film.
Researchers, including Cristel Antonia Russell and Dale W. Russell have found that primetime television programming in the U.S. continues to offer mixed messages about the impact of alcohol and alcoholism. They concluded in “Alcohol Messages in Prime-Time Television” in The Journal of Consumer Affairs:
Whenever alcohol is central to the plot of an episode, it tends to be associated with negative elements such as a crime, addiction, or lowered job performance. Overall, messages associating alcohol with positive outcomes, such as having fun or partying hard, are primarily communicated visually in the background.
Acumen found through its own ongoing content analysis that the Russells’ theories hold true in most cases. We found that even with programming like Nurse Jackie, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, alcohol and drug use – however devastating their impact on the principles of the shows, became shadow characters. As a result, the scenes that should have encouraged abstinence or sobriety instead made light or comedy of intoxication. Audiences were therefore less offended by scenes of casual use, abuse, or consequences that came with alcohol and drug use.
One brilliantly realistic portrayal of addiction and recovery; however, comes from the British soap opera, Coronation Street, and the character Peter Barlow. While the Rover’s Return pub (neighborhood bar) remains the central locale for community socializing, meals, drinks, and drama on the show, Peter Barlow’s long road to recovery has given viewers facing addiction and recovery a spot-on glimpse of long-term recovery.
In fact, for 21 of the show’s 60-year history, viewers have watched actor Chris Gascoyne battle, first an addiction to women, and then to alcohol – culminating in recent months with full-scale liver failure. Peter’s backstory is one of loss and abandonment at an early age – his mother died in an electrocution accident, and he was sent with his twin sister to live with relatives while his father remarried. After joining the Royal Navy at 15, Peter moved stealthily from one relationship to another – seemingly addicted to women. His philandering caught him out in 2002 when he ended up marrying two women – Lucy and Shelley -- in a bigamy storyline. With the death of Lucy four years later, Peter gains custody of his wee son Simon and turns to alcohol to cope with the responsibility.
“Peter’s character epitomizes the struggle that those in recovery navigate. The writers, I think, have been very conscientious about how they script him to meet challenges and cope with crises in his life,” sociologist Clayton Cornish told Acumen. “There is so much in Peter’s past that is unresolved, including abandonment issues and needing to be nurtured, that mirror many people in recovery.”
Cornish said some viewers become frustrated with Peter because they want him to end his alcoholism, not fully understanding that recovery is a process that has no closure point.
Those issues came to a head in late 2020 when Peter’s liver began to fail and he grappled with whether or not to fight for a potentially life-saving liver transplant. He is also challenged to repair broken relationships and seek support from his father, son, and then-estranged girlfriend, Carla Connor.
“It was rewarding to watch Coronation Street bring Peter full-circle where he takes ownership of his selfishness and self-destructive behavior,” viewer Lois Adler told Acumen. “The relationship between Peter and Carla Barlow reminded me of my parents. They both drank to excess, and my father was a raging, childish man. My mother drank because he drove her to it with his instability. When my dad was not around or in rehab, my mother never touched a drop of alcohol because she didn’t have him triggering her. Still, she loved him and stood by him and spent the last 30 years of their 46-years marriage, sober.”
Vanessa Hebditch, Director of Communications and Policy at the British Liver Trust, said in a statement: “The [Peter] storyline shows just how hard it is for many people with alcohol-related liver disease to stop drinking, even when they know they have a life-threatening condition. Alcohol-related liver disease and mental health issues are closely intertwined, and people often need a lot of help to stop drinking.”
Gascoyne gives an award-winning performance, going full method-acting for the storyline. Episodes are still available through Britbox, Hulu, and YouTube.
[PHOTOS COURTESY OF ITV]