“You drink for the wrong reasons”: 20-plus functional pop-culture alcoholics
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1-2. Nick and Nora Charles, The Thin Man series
Introduced in Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 novel The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles are pop culture’s prototypical bickering married couple, as well a template for subsequent husband-and-wife sleuthing teams. But they’re best remembered as a pair of perpetually pickled socialites with wits as dry as the martini that now bears their names. Over the course of one novel, six films, a radio series, a handful of TV adaptations, and one troubled Broadway musical, the drink never prevents Nick from solving a case, nor does it drive a wedge between him and his wife. (It certainly doesn’t endear Nick to Nora’s hoity-toity California relatives, but the private-detective thing never did it for them, anyway.) Real drunks are seldom as tolerated or long-lived as Nick and Nora—probably because they don’t have entire libraries of repartee at their disposal.
3. Morris Buttermaker, The Bad News Bears (1976 and 2005)
Of the many elements that mark Michael Ritchie’s 1976 film The Bad News Bears as a product of another age, the portrayal of minor-league-pitcher-turned-pool-cleaner-turned-youth-baseball-coach Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) as a desperate alcoholic in search of a quick buck is perhaps the most telling. (Though to be fair to contemporary times, Richard Linklater’s 2005 remake starring Billy Bob Thornton doesn’t tinker with that too much.) The rest of the league initially sees Buttermaker and his Bears as a joke, but the coach’s innate resourcefulness shows through some key scouting moves that eventually earn the team a place in the championships. Once there, Buttermaker can see clearly enough through the sudsy haze that too much success has turned him into an overly competitive asshole, so he throws the game by pulling the all-stars and putting in the benchwarmers. It’s a generous move that ends with the coach cracking open his prized beer chest one last time—a low-budget (and highly illegal) way to let the movie’s true champions celebrate like they’ve just won the World Series.
4. Lucille Bluth, Arrested Development
Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter), high-class matron of the Bluth family, is so committed to her cocktails that she can’t be bothered to put down her martini glass even when making air quotes. In fact, one “lesson” she passed down to her children was the myth that a bottle of vodka quickly goes bad after being opened, so it must be used up quickly. Typically, the only nourishment in her system is alcohol and an estrogen pill—with the occasional piece of toast to go along with her breakfast cocktail—so it’s no surprise that she’s taken a few forced trips to rehab. In spite of her lack of moderation, she still manages to secretly mastermind the Bluth Company’s most unsavory activities—not to mention emotionally terrify and control most men who come under her influence.
5. William “Bunk” Moreland, The Wire
Detective William “Bunk” Moreland (Wendell Pierce) carries a good share of The Wire’s darkly comic soul on his shoulders, especially when he pairs his cigar-chomping, well-attired decorum with booze. Yet he never crosses over into pure recklessness, even when vomiting outside the bar during a “policeman’s wake,” disastrously cheating on his wife, or profoundly muttering “Shit is… fucked” while boozing by the railroad tracks with his partner and mutual enabler Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West). “Dignity above all,” Bunk tells his colleague Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) during a playful moment. Indeed, simply keeping it together—that is, maintaining some integrity while negotiating the Baltimore Police Department’s frustrating politics—is a Bunk specialty that not all the players in the show can master. When McNulty takes up drinking again in season five, it touches off a meltdown that finds him both ruining a promising relationship and fabricating a serial-killer case. Even Bunk is sober-minded enough to back away at this point.
6. R.J. MacReady, The Thing (1982)
Working in the merciless Antarctic cold is enough to drive anyone to drink, especially if the only thing approximating female company is a chess-playing computer voiced by Adrienne Barbeau. So it’s no surprise that R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), the tough-guy protagonist of The Thing, is seldom seen without a bottle of hard liquor in his meaty paw. Yet that doesn’t keep him from maintaining a (relatively) cool head when shit goes down, or from leading a desperate bid for survival in the face of a shape-shifting alien predator. Drunk or sober, MacReady is the man you want by your side.
7. Bender, Futurama
Philip J. Fry’s felonious pal is the ultimate functional alcoholic: The only way he can function is with a steady stream of booze. In Futurama’s optimistic vision of alternative energy, bots only require a stiff drink every once in a while to keep their parts in working order. Thus Bender is, in essence, on a perpetual bender. Any libation will do: Olde Fortran Malt Liquor, say, or Pabst Blue Robot. But this type of alcoholism requires commitment. In the first-season episode “I Roommate,” Bender goes off the bottle and quickly turns into a slurring, stumbling wreck, as his friends beg him to “have some malt liquor—if not for yourself, then for the people who love you.”
8. Norm Peterson, Cheers
Norm Peterson (George Wendt) is often on the losing side of life: His real first name is Hillary, his wife Vera is apparently kept out of sight for a reason, and he’s the type of guy who’d throw a toga party and be the only one to show up in costume. Still, he always has a reserved seat at a bar where not only does everybody know his name, but they cheerfully yell it at him every time he walks through the door. Throughout the run of Cheers, Peterson holds down a job as an accountant, and then later as a housepainter, but perhaps his most important occupation is that of the cherubic presence on the corner stool at Cheers. In spite of an epic thirst and an infinite bar tab, he manages a fairly happy existence—and Cheers is a better place for that. As he muses in “Someone Single, Someone Blue”: “Bars can be very sad places. Some people spend their whole lives in bars. Just yesterday, some guy sat here next to me for 11 hours.”
9. Cul de Sac Crew, Cougar Town
Not even the Cheers crew did as much per-minute damage to their collective livers as the Cul De Sac Crew. Put it this way: Grayson (Josh Hopkins), who owns a bar, drinks less than anyone else on the show aside from Travis (Dan Byrd), who’s underage. It isn’t incidental, either—much of the sharp tinge of the group’s repartee stems from the fact that they’re all usually a bit tipsy. It’s one of the many ways the show harkens back to screwball comedy.
10. Uncle Duke, Doonesbury
One of the most iconic characters in Garry Trudeau’s long-running comic strip is also its least original. Trudeau freely admits that the amoral, narcissistic, self-medicating Duke was originally an unsubtle caricature of the late Hunter S. Thompson. (Thompson, in turn, was furious with the likeness, though it bothered him less near the end of his life.) Like the gonzo journalist, Duke engages in plenty of vices that are more dangerous than a martini, yet booze remains the character’s security blanket. In spite of his endless daze, he always ends up where the action is: That bubbly cloud of intoxication that usually hangs around Duke’s head hasn’t prevented him from serving as captain of Donald Trump’s mega-yacht, running an orphanage (to profit off the government kickbacks, naturally), or, more recently, serving as a troubleshooter for corrupt Middle Eastern dictators.
11. Inspector Morse, the Inspector Morse series
British author Colin Dexter introduced Chief Inspector Morse in his first book, Last Bus To Woodstock, heading up a murder investigation around the Black Prince Pub. Morse wasted no time in taking advantage of the bar’s hospitality: On duty or not, it doesn’t really matter. Over the course of the series’ 13 novels (as well as the beloved TV show starring John Thaw), it’s rare not to find Morse at a pub at some point, asking for a pint of their best bitter. His longsuffering assistant Sergeant Lewis rarely gets to have a beer: He has to do all the driving, and if he does get a drink, he’s likely paying for the round.
12-13. Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone, Absolutely Fabulous
The alcohol consumption of AbFab’s Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg scenario: Do they drink because they think it makes them sophisticated, or do they just like boozing, hence decided it’s the fabulous thing to do? Does it really matter? Edina and Patsy are by and large unable to accomplish anything without each other and a bit of their beloved Bollinger champagne, a.k.a. “Bolly.” Most episodes of the show begin with the friends’ delusions of glamour and grandeur, then dissolve into the messy aftermath of overindulgent middle-aged women who can’t hold their liquor and drugs. Luckily for them, they work in the public relations and fashion fields, respectively, where such ridiculousness is not only tolerated, but encouraged. Due to their habits, Edina will never lose weight and Patsy will never escape the cruel ravages of time, but at least they have fun.
14-15. Dean and Sam Winchester, Supernatural
In between all the monster-killing, demon-hunting, and apocalypse-averting that keeps the Winchester brothers (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) busy, they seem to spend the vast majority of their downtime dead drunk. And a fair amount of their research time, planning time, and, really, any time they’re onscreen and not actively engaged in a life-or-death struggle with the forces of evil. It’s hard to blame them—when you’ve died almost half a dozen times each, lost everyone you ever held dear, and faced Satan himself, drinking too much is easily the least of your worries. Hell, alcohol is probably your best friend. As their mentor/partner Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver) said in a recent episode, “Just because it kills your liver don’t mean it ain’t medicine.”
16. Beggar So, Drunken Master
In an early scene in 1978’s Drunken Master, Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei-hung pigs out, refuses to pay, and generally acts like a total cock at a restaurant, incurring an epic beatdown from the eatery’s goons (led by a fuzzy thug named Gorilla). It’s an awfully extreme reaction to the restaurant losing $1.05 worth of food, but it sets the stage for the passed-out old dude at a table nearby to step in. Clearly blitzed, with his nose red and speech slurred, Beggar So (Simon Yuen) still finds the coordination to dismantle the entire waitstaff using only a towel—and he does it while flipping all over the place. Beggar So, who’s right back at the bottle as soon as they escape, reveals that he’s the same shit-canned sensei that Wong’s father hired to clean up Wong’s act, and he proceeds to run Wong through a vicious, half-in-the-bag training program.
17. Jane Tennison, Prime Suspect
Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) always liked a drink throughout the long run of this British crime-show institution, but she began to lean more heavily on the bottle as the series progressed. While it didn’t interfere with her moving up through the ranks, her dependency did start to take a personal toll—though not as heavy a toll as the show’s producers initially foresaw. Rather than ending as planned with her death, the series concludes, at Mirren’s suggestion, with Tennison attending her first AA meeting.
18. Saul Tigh, Battlestar Galactica
The Galactica’s self-loathing executive officer has seen the bottom of many a bottle, but he’s also guided the fleet through many a battle. Tigh (played by Michael Hogan) has plenty of reasons to drink, including his checkered military career, an unfaithful and power-hungry wife, and other issues we won’t get into for the sake of the spoiler-averse. He’s also a short-tempered cuss riddled with unfounded resentments, including a passionate dislike for cocky fighter pilot Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff). Lucky for Tigh, he’s as tough on the inside as he is outwardly gruff—his liver wouldn’t have survived the series’ run, otherwise.
19. Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, True Grit (1969 and 2010), Rooster Cogburn (1975), and True Grit: A Further Adventure (1978)
Whether referring to Charles Portis’ original novel or portrayals by John Wayne, Warren Oates, or Jeff Bridges, it’s pretty liberal to call U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn a “functional” alcoholic. A veteran of the American Civil War with a ripped-up face, an estranged son, and a depressing living space in the back of a Chinese grocery store, Cogburn seems to realize his only joy while pounding whiskey and killing people in self-defense (and sometimes “self-defense”). But when his “grit” is called into question, he manages to sober up long enough to put together a truly kick-ass plan for dealing with Ned Pepper’s gang and save a snake-bitten Mattie Ross in the process—all presumably while dealing with some serious withdrawal. By the time Wayne’s Cogburn appeared in an eponymous sequel, he was back off the wagon.
20-plus. The cast of Mad Men
“I bet daily friendship with that bottle attracts more people to advertising than any salary you can dream of,” Roger Sterling (John Slattery) tells his charge Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in the Mad Men episode “New Amsterdam.” It’s certainly one of the aspects of the show that attracts viewers curious for a glimpse at a (seemingly) consequence-free world where million-dollar accounts are discussed over tumbler after tumbler of liquor. At the end of Mad Men’s fourth and most recent season, The Daily Beast tracked the drinking habits of the main cast, with Draper clocking an inhuman 13.5 drinks during the course of “The Good News” alone. The way Sterling, Draper, and their cohorts gulp down the hard stuff, they’re lucky they’re selling Maytag products, rather than living in Maytag boxes.