I give Claudia Lonow — once a teen semi-star as Michele Lee’s daughter on Knots Landing, a real-life recovering alcoholic, and creator of Rude Awakening — a hearty congratulations for turning the most unfortunate part of her resume (the addiction, not the Knots Landing role) into a comedy popular enough to rate a second season that commenced recently. That said, I must also confess that no other sitcom on the air makes me want to reach for a tall glass of something that will fuzz my senses enough to ignore the lousy punchlines and mostly awful acting on this show.
If that sounds irreverent or rude, well, hey: Look at the series’ title and the tenets behind it. Rude Awakening stars Twin Peaks’ Sherilyn Fenn as recovering alcoholic Billie Frank, Jonathan Penner (The Naked Truth) as her pal Dave, and Rain Pryor as their mutual chum Jackie, a drug addict whose own recovery slipped into a coma when she did the same at the end of last season.
This being a sitcom, Jackie not only survives, she survives to make a joke about it: ”If anyone can bounce back, it’s me; I’m like the Energizer Junkie.” This being cable TV, Showtime grants Lonow and her writers freedom to present characters who curse, ridicule, and fail at sobriety. But this being Rude Awakening, such freedom leads to an awkward mix of impudence and mawkishness (Billie says to a newborn baby, ”If you ever need someone to help you get off the bottle, you know who to call”).
In a sense, Rude Awakening is all too successful in its portrayal of the 12-step philosophy, which encourages a level of self-absorption (presented as fearless self-examination) that can, no doubt about it, save one’s life, but which can also make one a very big bore to be around. Billie and her sober Rude buddies are just such morose navel gazers, and the series’ sole attempt to contrast this — with a character who revels in her love for booze and pills, Billie’s mother, played by Lynn Redgrave — is even less funny than the bores. Redgrave’s overacting makes the raucous gals on Absolutely Fabulous seem like shy sparrows.
Television has always been of two minds about the use of drugs and alcohol. Dramas involving such substances are almost invariably thinly disguised lessons in their evils (go no further than Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue, certainly the most artfully drawn alcoholic in TV history). Comedies favor slapstick substance abuse, from the sloppy-drunk slurriness of comedian Foster Brooks, who hit it big in the ’60s, to today’s foolishly proud crackhead on The PJs.
The most frequent references to drugs on a current sitcom are made in That ’70s Show, in which the teen protagonists are forever trying to smuggle six-packs and kegs of beer into the house, and whose signature shot is the 180-degree spin the camera takes when the kids are sitting in a circle gabbing after smoking a joint (only the smoke, not the joint, is visible).
Is this, as many would say, ”irresponsible”? I’d counter that any youth who is turned on to drugs by That ’70s Show is a sheltered child indeed. One might as well start trying to tote up the percentage of young ‘uns who decided to start inhaling after reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Besides, there’s no telling what sorts of pop culture you get as a result of mind-altering chemicals. Given the testimony of the recent book and subsequent movie Permanent Midnight, about the frenzied heroin habit of writer Jerry Stahl, we apparently might have been spared the sitcom horror of ALF had Stahl remained straight. On the other hand, in his forthcoming history of rock & roll Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll 1947-1977, historian James Miller quotes Paul McCartney as saying ”Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a drug album,” in the sense that, as he freely admitted to producer George Martin, he and the rest of the Fab Four were smoking marijuana ”all the time” while recording it.
The problem with drugs and alcohol is that their effects are so utterly unpredictable, inspiring art and entertainment both first-rate and pathetic. And when you take the nefarious substances out into the real world, things only get dicier. Take, for example, this season’s editions of MTV’s docuwhatsits The Real World and Road Rules. To be completely blunt about it, the only interesting aspect of either of the current editions of these series involves the screwups. Real World’s Ruthie, whose binge drinking, soon to inspire an apparently much-needed intervention by the cast and crew, is the show’s sole compelling subplot. And Road Rules’ Veronica and Pua recently failed to show up for a job requiring them to work in a circus in Brazil because they were too hung over.
Boot ‘em, I say; it’ll make our lives as viewers poorer, but theirs as people, better. Rude Awakening: C-