This piece was published in partnership with the Influence.
There are plenty of (mostly recent) examples of drugs being aptly fictionalized on TV. Whole series, like Breaking Bad, That 70s Show, Broad City , and The Wire have managed to pull off pretty realistic depictions of substance use.
And then there's the iconic time Jessie Spano on Saved by the Bell screamed, "I'm so excited! I'm so excited! I'm so [sob] scared," having spun out of control due to a caffeine pill addiction. The pressure of her mounting school work and her new aerobics-enthusiast girl group Hot Sundae is just too much. Jessie incurs and then kicks her addiction within a few days.
It's far from the only instance of television getting drugs hilariously wrong. For some writers, it appears to have been a struggle to grasp any kind of reality at all. In other cases, they're simply meekly perpetuating the "drugs are bad" trope institutionalized by America's drug war.
Evidently, caffeine pill use was an issue of major concern in the the early 90s, because The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had its own preposterous storyline. Will Smith, like Jessie, is overwhelmed by his commitments in the episode "Just Say Yo." He starts taking the pills, which he hides in a vitamin bottle in his locker.
Meanwhile, his cousin Carlton has a distressing pimple and unfettered access to Will's locker, so he ganks what he thinks is a "vitamin" from Will's stash on prom night. Oh, the fictive follies! What follows is an intense scene where Carlton dances like a maniac and yells like he's in Thriller, then collapses in the middle of the weakest prom ever thrown by and for private-schooled rich kids.
Carlton is rushed to the ER and forced to stay in the "chemical dependency unit," despite seemingly being pretty OK. Will confesses to his uncle that they were his pills. Uncle Carl reprimands Will—"My son could have died because of you"—and forces him to tearfully apologize to the family.
Few shows did a better job of capturing post-Reagan era fear-mongering than 90s teen soap Beverly Hills, 90210, with multiple characters developing sudden addictions during the show's run.
Reformed mean girl Kelly Taylor develops an instant dependence on blow when her dad stands her up for their lunch date, even using his consolation check to snort a line in her bathroom (her artist boyfriend, Colin, just left vials around, apparently). The daughter of an ex-model hot mess, Kelly has previously never touched any drugs on the show. Overnight, she's feeling up her boyfriend to get his coke and fighting about their "stash"—not to consume while drinking or partying, but just to get her "through the day."
Her friends confront her use of "lethal narcotics," though it's hard to imagine anything more horrifying than their severe makeup, which launched a thousand Bratz dolls. Kelly only quits after her drug dealer tries to rape her.
Donna Martin gets hooked on pain meds following a Jeep accident. Once she starts excessively using pain meds, Donna also needs "uppers" (because the medication makes her "so tired"), creating her own prescription drug symbiosis. She scores "deamphetamines" from her boyfriend's brother (which in the 90210 universe is traded in tiny, ornate metal boxes), a fictitious amphetamine. To further feed her swiftly acquired habit, Donna steals an entire bottle of "uppers" from her father's clinic.
When her "deamphetamine" source shuts down, Donna freaks out on a pharmacist, begging for pain meds, but he denies her because she's already crushed 60 pills in one week. Donna then cries to her daddy that she has "back spasms" and "like, eight million sketches due… tomorrow," so he hands her "enough pills to last a few days"—but that pill fiend does them all that night. Donna ODs and falls into a coma. Fortunately, she's quickly revived, so she can point her sad eyes at the camera and remind kids that drugs are bad.
The show doesn't stop there. Backward hat–wearing David Silver becomes addicted to "crank" while he's struggling to both study and stay awake for his college DJ shifts.
When he asks the station manager, Howard, who looks like a 70s suburban dad on his way to a key party, if he can play a recorded set, Howard scolds him that his show must be live and instead gives him crystal meth. The integrity of his graveyard DJ shift must be protected, but here, stupid hat kid, take some crystal meth!
Because this is 90210, David is now completely ensnared by "crank." Before long, he's gotten fired. David finds a new dealer, steals $150 from his dad, and then his house is raided by the cops for $150 of crystal meth (which he narrowly succeeds in flushing down the toilet with the help of his brooding alcoholic and formerly drug-addicted buddy, Dylan McKay).
Even square Brandon Walsh falls victim to drugs, when his mentally unhinged, Tom of Finland-inspired girlfriend, Emily Valentine, doses him at an "incredibly hip" underground club. After he declines her offer to take U4EA (90210's fictionalized version of ecstasy), the drug that "brings new couples closer together," she secretly buys two small packets from a hulking dealer in a leather jacket (of course). She orders two sodas, and looking over her shoulder at her unsuspecting boyfriend, dumps U4EA in both drinks, in full view of the bartender and everyone but Brandon. Aside from motivating him to awkwardly jerk his body at her, the drug just makes him kind of rude and annoying, and they seem more like they're drunk than like they're rolling.
Speaking of teenagers on ecstasy at a clandestine party, the maudlin crew of Dawson's Creek suffer their own bizarre MDMA plotline. In "Great Xpectations" (groan), overachieving crumpled flower Andie McPhee realizes her dream of being accepted to Harvard. Because she's not reeling from elation, Andie fears her antidepressants are inhibiting her ability to feel anything.
The gang decides to judgmentally frown at a rave when invited/challenged by the antagonist du jour, and through a ridiculous daisy chain of events, Andie finds herself in possession of the two tabs of ecstasy. Tonight, Andie (in her perpetually grating child voice) "just wants to have fun," so she decides not to heed the anecdotal wisdom of repentant party girl Jen Lindley and "sorta" pops a pill, asking Lindley to keep it a secret from her brother, Jack.
Things begin fine—she's dancing and molesting everyone's hair—until she launches herself onto a moon bounce, and the lights begin spinning menacingly, and she collapses, her fall whimsically cushioned by the inflatable bounce house. EMTs arrive, Jack suggests Jen should be the one who deserves to be hospitalized, and everyone does their best to look worried.
Andie's trip to the ER is blamed on the combination of ecstasy and her antidepressant, but in earlier episodes, we learn the medication she takes is Xanax, which is used to treat anxiety, not depression. Additionally, in "His Leading Lady," we see a close up of the pill bottle, which reads "Zanac 20 MG," and the pills are large and dark, nothing like Xanax.
Andie escapes unscathed, but her tearful brother says her antidepressant is a "time bomb when mixed with the wrong thing" and laments that "she could have died."
In this PSA masquerading as an episode, the message is universal: Work hard, get into Harvard, and one night of fun will probably almost kill you.