TNT’s reprisal of Dallas, CBS’ iconic 1980s primetime soap opera, has gotten a lot of press (and viewership) for its over-the-top melodrama, marked by backstabbing, double dealings, infidelities, and revenge. While it certainly has all that, what’s flown under the radar is its surprisingly nuanced portrayal of addiction. Rendering alcoholism not as a moral failure but rather as a chronic disease that, like diabetes, can be managed with the right tools and effort, is a welcome perspective—and one that reflects the real stories of millions of Americans.
Sue Ellen Ewing, one of the main characters then and now, has a long history of alcoholism. Her frequent bouts of sobriety and relapses were a hallmark of the original series, which frequently hinted, both subtly and directly, that if only her philandering husband, JR, could stay faithful, she wouldn’t need to fill her emptiness with alcohol.
But when we meet up with her again 20 years later, she is a new woman: confident, sober, and running for Governor. It seems like she’s finally kicked the habit once and for all.
Then, in a cycle familiar to longtime fans, JR’s death sends her into a tailspin, causing her to hit the bottle once again. It seems as if, despite her decades of sobriety, she’s learned nothing and is beyond help.
That all changes when she believes she set fire to the family ranch in a drunken stupor. Her (mistaken) realization causes her to search desperately for a drink, even swiping a bottle of aftershave from the hospital’s gift shop. But, instead of giving in to her addiction this time, she tosses the aftershave in the trash and takes responsibility for her actions, declaring, “I started the fire… I was drunk, and I came down to get more to drink… And then I passed out….I’m an alcoholic — and I will be, until I die.”
While this initially seems defeatist, it’s immediately followed by a Sue Ellen clearly determined to reclaim her life. In a moment of insightful clarity, she tells her daughter-in-law, Pamela, who nearly died of an overdose herself, “I didn’t die when I passed out and set that fire, but I just as easily could have.” Sue Ellen further demonstrates her understanding of the nature of addiction when she implores Pamela to work on the issues that led her down such a destructive path—instead of blaming others, as Sue Ellen herself had been quick to do in the past.
Perhaps most inspiring is that Sue Ellen, despite years of struggle, doesn’t see herself as beyond hope. Her new resolve shows that she, like the 23 million Americans who have found the road to recovery, is ready to do whatever it takes to manage, treat, and control her disease. With years of sobriety behind her, she understands that the rewards are worth the struggle. Her insights about her own behavior make clear to the show’s millions of viewers that it’s impossible to be in control of your own destiny when you’re in the grip of addiction; that the fight to replace a disrupted life with a productive and self-directed one is worth the effort; and that a relapse is not a sign that addiction is insurmountable, but rather that additional support or treatment is needed.
This is a fresh alternative to the media’s frequent portrayal of celebrities’ relapses as evidence of the ineffectiveness of treatment. Now it is up to Dallas’ writers to take advantage of this unique opportunity to illustrate a recovery process that is every bit as nuanced and realistic as its depiction of addiction, highlighting (rather than glossing over) the fact that as long as a person is willing to do the hard work of treatment, there is hope of lasting recovery.