Anyone who watches "The Real Housewives of New York City" is aware of one indisputable fact: Ramona Singer cannot be without a glass of Pinot Grigio. Ever. She said so herself on the most recent episode, when the seven ladies headed to Morocco for a two-week vacation micro-managed by LuAnn de Lesseps — Singer’s white wine fix was the first order of business, before unpacking her bags and picking a fight.
But it’s hardly the first time the "Housewives’ " reliance on alcohol has played a major role in a dramatic scene. Not five minutes into the season opener and one of the show’s stars was on the hunt for a bottle of Pinot.
“Mommy needs a drink,” Alex McCord blurted desperately to no one in particular. A camera crew catches the moment without judgment or commentary — the first of many more glasses the ladies will consume on season 4, to be sure.
Granted, that’s nothing compared to a typical episode of "Jersey Shore," where vodka-fueled tantrums regularly lead to destruction of property, all manner of verbal abuse and the inevitable closed-door heaving of a vomit-capped night. These days, from MTV’s "The Real World" to ABC’s "The Bachelor," viewers barely bat an eye to intoxication on reality TV, even when it results in a participant passing out cold or blacking out completely.
In fact, oftentimes, especially when the show centers around people living in a house together, it’s the production that plies the group with booze in an effort to drum up drama, according to multiple sources. One former judge on a reality series tells THR that cases of vodka were regularly delivered to the show's set and were budgeted for.
“I hear reality producers talk about how they intentionally supply alcohol into a scene and then screw with people and I can not believe my ears,” says Dr. Drew Pinsky, who battles alcoholism on a daily basis as a practicing physician and the executive producer of "Celebrity Rehab." “I'm treating Jessica Piper this year and she was talking about all the alcohol on the 'Survivor' set. It’s crazy.”
Indeed, with alcohol, it’s not so much an issue of glamorization, as movies are often criticized for when showing the high-life of, say, a cocaine addict like Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in "Scarface," it’s more like a circus act. Just bring in the clowns and get them drunk.
“Being in the business of recovery, my job is to help people get off drugs and alcohol, and these shows are trying to get people on drugs and alcohol,” says Pax Prentiss, co-founder of Malibu rehab Passages and a former addict. “They should be illegal.”
It’s a perception issue that’s not limited to reality, either. Scripted television’s worst offenders, according to Prentiss, include the HBO show "Entourage" and AMC’s "Mad Men," the latter of which practically mandates a three-martini lunch per episode.
“These shows are really affecting teens in that it makes them curious,” he says. “When you're 14, 15 or 16 years old and you see these big A-list stars drinking and partying on 'Entourage,' you think that’s what drinking and drugs is like, when the reality is it's actually a much darker place than how it’s portrayed on TV.”
Jonathan Murray, who’s seen "The Real World" through its 25 years on air, concurs. “It seems like drinking has become more of an issue among young people,” he says. “I think we’ve seen a rise in the abuse of alcohol, and 'Real World' has reflected that.”
So does the responsibility lie in the hands of television execs to snatch the proverbial keys away from someone whose bad behavior may lead to great harm? Are PSAs in order for future hot tub scenes?
Says Pinsky: “I'm very much a First Amendment guy so I don't want to be preachy or tell people how to do their business, but my goodness, we are hurting people, is that okay? You certainly would hope that there’s some way to frame it so that people can understand what’s happening rather than pass judgment or laugh at these people. It's really troubling.”
With reporting by Lacey Rose.