From Jessie to Jenelle: Substance Abuse in Teen Shows from 1990-2014

A big difference between ‘90s characters’ drug habits and 2000s/2010s characters’ drug habits are their reasons behind drug use. In “Jessie’s Song,” Jessie takes over-the-counter caffeine pills because she wants to stay awake to study and be in a band with Lisa and Kelly. Jessie’s incessant need to succeed academically and not let down her friends has led her into dangerous territory. Jessie doesn’t want to escape her reality: she wants to reach the pinnacle of her potential.

Turning to drugs to reach one’s highest potential was also addressed in the very special episode “Tiffani’s Gold” in season 3 episode 17 of California Dreams1.  In this episode, Tiffani, a petite high school volleyball player in a band, is trying to qualify for nationals. No matter how hard Tiffani practices and works out, her coach tells her that she still is not as good as the taller girls on the team. When a shady character approaches Tiffani and tells her to take steroids to boost her game, Tiffani decides this creeper has the right idea. Her friends/bandmates pressure her to make the nationals team so that their band will gain publicity. Whose job is it to generate publicity for a band? The band’s manager. Who supplies Tiffani with steroids and tells her to succeed at all costs while the poor girl has an injured wrist? Her band’s manager. Within a week, Tiffani is hooked on steroids and although she is performing so well that her coach assures her she’s going to play at nationals, Tiffani’s behavior is becoming more erratic. Her friends/bandmates finally confront her and make an immediate 180 by telling her that she should feel no pressure to go to nationals. And the problem is solved. Just like that, Tiffani acquiesces, lets go of her dream, and in literally 2 days has kicked her steroid addiction.

Blossom is one ‘90s show that gave a somewhat2 different3 approach to substance abuse. Blossom’s older brother, Tony, is introduced on the show as a recovering alcoholic and drug user. Tony works at a donut shop for years, illustrating how substance abuse can lead to real world consequences. Unfortunately, the character takes a less realistic turn as the series progressed: Tony relapses while in Vegas and marries a stranger. Not only is Tony able to immediately hop back on the wagon with no other relapse troubles, but he and Stranger decide to stay married and a healthy, loving relationship springs from this drunken mistake.  This series succumbed to the same temptation other ’90s shows fell victim to: a desire to give their characters a happy ending overrode a realistic depiction of substance abuse.

Exhibit A of how to treat drug addiction (Screen: NBC/Netflix)
Exhibit A of how to treat drug addiction (Screen: NBC/Netflix)

The desire to give characters struggling with substance abuse a happy ending is seen in Saved by the Bell’s drug episode when it ended with Jessie telling her friends that she was fine now and that her mother was going to take her to the doctor in the morning for counseling. California Dreams’s episode ended with Tiffani needing 2 days of assistance, and then a title card informing the audience that, in 1995, one million Americans suffered from steroid addiction, half of that number consisting of teenagers. There’s no generalized information about other types of substance abuse among teenagers or even information on where to get help.  No, the ‘90s tried to scare you with one episode and an unspoken “just say nope to dope” nod to the audience before the characters all lived happily ever after.

  1. It must be noted that Fergie of The Black Eyed Peas makes a cameo in this episode as a cheap bimbo. Was she even aware the cameras were rolling?  
  2. Six is named after how many beers it took her mom to get drunk enough to sleep with her dad and thus get pregnant with Six  
  3. Blossom’s grandfather appears on the show a few times and is shown to be a big drinker, but nothing negative is ever implied about this – even though he’s drinking in the home of a recovering alcoholic  

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About Becca Marshall 36 Articles
Becca has been writing about film and television since convincing her junior high English teacher that comparing and contrasting the film and stage versions of Romero and Juliet was a good idea for a term research paper. After getting her BA in English and film studies, she doubled down on liberal arts and got an MA in television, radio, and film from Syracuse University. Becca is incredibly proud to be an Aggie and entertains her non-Texan friends with Southern colloquialisms. Her hobbies include watching Golden Girls and her interests include all things zombies - she's simple, not basic. Email: becca@whatelseison.tv