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

This is in stark contrast to television that came out a decade later. Drugs and alcohol played a huge role in The O.C. Alcohol in particular was such a staple on the show that two studies found that the way alcohol was depicted in every episode was neutral to positive, and this impacted how viewers thought about alcohol. Spoilers: audiences viewed alcohol more favorably when they actually liked the show and were invested in it.

Marissa1 is the best example of a character with a substance abuse problem on The O.C. She struggles with alcoholism in particular throughout her entire run on the series, and it is understood that she drinks as a way to self-medicate her depression. At the end of season 3, when it looks like things might finally be turning around for Marissa, she is killed in a drunk driving accident when her intoxicated ex-boyfriend hits the car she is riding in. While this certainly portrays negative outcomes of drinking (dying on a poorly lit street at an unflattering camera angle is certainly negative), it doesn’t address other potential issues related to alcoholism and substance abuse, such as impacts on relationships, long-term health problems, or potential legal issues related to behavior influenced by substances.

To see a show that addresses some of these issues, viewers would have to wait until Teen Mom 2 came along in 2011. Beginning in season 1, viewers got glimpses into the drug problems one of the teenage moms, Jenelle Evans, was experiencing. The first season wraps up with Jenelle and her boyfriend, Kieffer, being arrested for breaking and entering, marijuana possession, and possession of paraphernalia. For the next few seasons, Jenelle struggles on-and-off with both drugs and Kieffer. The series never shows Jenelle or Kieffer taking drugs, but both discuss drinking, smoking marijuana, and snorting cocaine in front of the cameras.

Throughout the next few seasons, Jenelle is arrested repeatedly for drug related reasons. While this shows a more realistic depiction of the negative effects of having a substance abuse problem, it seems unlikely that someone not on a reality show could be arrested so many times and not face jail time. So, a completely realistic view of substance abuse isn’t portrayed, which is shocking because MTV said this is a reality series! Next you’re going to tell me that Long Island Medium isn’t 100% realistic.


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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: