The 16 Greatest TV Characters Who Struggle With Addiction

Addiction isn't easy to portray without going over the top. These TV characters are the best when it comes to small-screen addicts.
The 16 Greatest TV Characters Who Struggle With Addiction

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Addiction is a tough battle that thousands of people struggle with every day. Although it's certainly not the defining trait of the following TV characters, it does play a big part in their chaotic and/or violent behavior.

From hidden gems to cartoons, from sitcoms to teen dramas, here are my picks for the best junkie TV characters who never fail to stir up all kinds of antics and emotions as we watch!

16. Camille Preaker in Sharp Objects (2018)

Camille Preaker is one of Amy Adams's top performances, yet it's pretty under appreciated outside critical circles. Marti Noxon's HBO miniseries is swirling with dark, almost ghostly visuals, where Camille returns to her hometown as an investigative journalist.

Wind Gap is your typical Republican town in Missouri, which thrives off of small-town gossip. Suffocated by Wind Gap's closed mindedness and her mother's disapproval, Camille fled to the city—only to be followed there by her inner demons.

It's amazing how well Camille is able to write and work given her vodka bottle breakfasts and car naps, interviewing locals in last night's makeup. Camille is also prone to self-harm and did a stint in psychiatric care.

Sharp Objects has an air of True Detective about it, except with a feminist twist and more individualized focus. Investigating the murder of two young girls, Camille gets more than she bargained for as the days slip by in a whiskey haze.

15. Joseph in The Virtues (2019)

The Virtues is one of the rawest depictions of alcoholism on TV. Joseph is far from being a comic relief character or a stoned sidekick. Instead, he's a deeply traumatized father in recovery.

Startlingly played by Stephen Graham, Joseph opens this Channel 4 miniseries on the verge of a relapse, left to his own devices while his son emigrates to Australia.

Searching for answers in his Irish roots, Joseph is plagued by memories of the orphanage he grew up in. From this alone, you can probably guess what happened there...

Its biting realism only adds to the grueling yet masterful execution of The Virtues, which is a quality also found in director Shane Meadows's more famous TV series This Is England (also starring Stephen Graham).

14. Dexter Morgan in Dexter (2006)

Dexter Morgan (played by Michael C. Hall) is a little different than the other addicts on this list. Instead of opioids or alcohol, Dexter is addicted to murder; he has the constant urge to kill people.

But unlike most TV serial killers, Dexter is arguably a good guy! He's a forensic blood spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police, and he vows to only kill bad people while actively upholding the law through his job.

In the same way that people nickname depression the "Black Dog," Dexter refers to his addiction as the "Dark Passenger." It's something he doesn't want—and he tries often to curtail—but all the self-awareness in the world won't get him there.

13. Barney Gumble in The Simpsons (1989)

Barney Gumble is a minor character in the iconic cartoon sitcom The Simpsons, but that doesn't mean he isn't memorable. This town drunk may not have a catchphrase, but he has a trademark belch!

Voiced by Dan Castellaneta (who also voices Homer Simpson, Krusty the Clown, Grandpa, and others), Barney went from being the show's laughing stock to an unexpectedly tragic story.

Creator Matt Groening first handed us glimpses of Barney's potential, which he lost to his life-destroying love of Duff beer. Over time, Barney was reduced to a caricature of his depressed drinking habits.

In "Mr. Plow," Barney was set for Harvard University; in "Homer's Barbershop Quartet," he's discovered on Moe's bathroom floor with the voice of an opera singer; and in "A Star Is Burns," Barney moves us to tears with his short film about his struggles with alcoholism.

"Don't cry for me," he concludes. "I'm already dead." Pretty heavy stuff for a yellow family cartoon comedy...

12. Patrick in Patrick Melrose (2018)

Benedict Cumberbatch impressed critics as Patrick Melrose, based on the semi-autobiographical novels by Edward St. Aubyn.

Although it was met with high praise, Patrick Melrose has been somewhat forgotten since its release in 2018, especially after Cumberbatch went off to play Marvel with the big boys.

The five-part miniseries opens at breakneck speed, following the English lawyer-to-be on his grief-filled bender in New York. From the outside, it looks like he's scrounging for Quaaludes and heroin, but it's actually more complicated than that.

Zig-zagging between the 1960s, 1980s and 2000s, Patrick Melrose offers heartbreaking flashbacks to the abuse Patrick suffered as a child. Hugo Weaving plays the slimeball father that flings Patrick into addiction, who brims with energy and sarcasm to avoid vulnerability.

11. Dr. Gregory House in House (2004)

Half of the doctors in medical TV shows are addicts, chiefly because they have such easy access to drugs and work in high-pressure environments. The most famous, though, is Gregory House.

Set in New Jersey, Dr. House is the head of diagnostics at a teaching hospital. He falls into the common stereotype of socially difficult genius, although he's less awkward and more of a flat-out misanthrope.

Dr. House's motto of treating the symptoms, not the person, means he can avoid seeing patients at all costs. He's cynical, rude, witty, and completely hooked on painkillers, which he consumes in the open so as to seem in control. (Hint: He isn't!)

10. Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock (2010)

Sherlock is one of the most popular TV shows of the 21st century, owing to its smart writing, inventive editing, and central lead performances.

Benedict Cumberbatch landed himself in Hollywood for his fast-talking abilities, this time playing the borderline sociopathic investigator Sherlock Holmes in a modern-day setting.

The only person who manages to hit any emotional vein is his roommate and partner, John Watson (played by Martin Freeman).

Sherlock's addiction doesn't play a huge role in Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat's version of the novels, mostly because he has so many eccentricities that they all blur into one!

Unbound by the laws of the standard human brain, Sherlock is able to dip in and out of his addiction. Sometimes he'll turn down a drink just to ponder his current case, and other times he's found cosplaying as a homeless man, high on heroin in a crack den...

9. BoJack in BoJack Horseman (2014)

BoJack Horseman is surprisingly clever for a cartoon about a talking horse. Across six seasons, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg puts an anthropomorphic spin on the alcoholic washed-out-actor trope, with BoJack being a former sitcom star trying to mend his broken life.

Instead of focusing on the crippling effects of withdrawal or the dangers of criminal activity and overdosing, BoJack Horseman uses satire to paint a realistic portrait of addiction in an unrealistic alternate universe.

The motif of drowning is a near-perfect metaphor for addiction, which BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) suffers after the loss of his former co-star, who overdosed. BoJack Horseman unexpectedly gets psychoanalytical like this at times, all while remaining hilarious.

8. Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos (1999)

David Chase's multi-award-winning crime show The Sopranos would be nothing without Christopher Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli).

Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini) is at the center of the Italian-American mob, surrounded by tons of different people—and one of them is Christopher, referred to as Tony's "nephew" but is actually his cousin.

Christopher is Tony's protégé, who sees Tony as a father figure after his own father dies. Despite his impulsive nature, Christopher is trusted with top secret mafia tasks, but as loyal as he is by nature, his major addictions jeopardize his position of trust.

He might dip in and out of AA meetings, but Christopher's heroin habit makes him a prime target for turning state evidence. Running a criminal organization is hard enough without a high, car-crashing nephew. What will Tony do about it?

7. Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit (2020)

Perfect hair and fancy eyeliner aside, Anya Taylor-Joy impeccably portrayed a young, alcoholic genius on The Queen's Gambit.

The "Queen's Gambit" is a term referring to a chess opening move, which Beth Harmon is a master of. But Beth doesn't just become a chess prodigy at eight years old—she also becomes a drug addict.

The orphanage where Beth grows up dispenses daily tranquilizers, and she quickly gets hooked on them. She starts watches hallucinatory chess pieces move across the ceiling as she plays games in her mind.

Rising through the ranks of chess notoriety, Beth lands in Moscow to play against chess world champions. The more money she wins, the more pills and booze she can afford—yet, even so, Beth remains calm and hardened on the surface, for which Anya Taylor-Joy won a Golden Globe.

6. Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot (2015)

Studies have shown that higher IQs often lead to higher risks of developing depression and/or mental illnesses. And what's a quick—albeit brief and detrimental—escape from all that? Drugs!

In Mr. Robot, Elliot Alderson is gifted but miserable. A cybersecurity-engineer-turned-vigilante, Elliot manages to hack the entire world by targeting E Corp—the largest conglomerate in the world—and cancelling all debt records under the guise of the "fsociety" movement.

Like most hackers, Elliot lives a lonely life in the shadows, hunched over his desk with his hood up against the world. But most hackers aren't addicted to morphine! Elliot maintains a controlled level of intake to avoid overdosing, but it doesn't make the withdrawal any less agonizing.

Rami Malek had been acting for a while before he led Mr. Robot, but Sam Esmail's TV thriller is really what put him on the map.

5. Klaus in The Umbrella Academy (2019)

Robert Sheehan is an Irish actor who's loved for his eccentric personality, best known for his breakthrough role in the E4 British show Misfits, in which he starred as a hilarious, immortal delinquent.

The energy Sheehan brought to that performance made him a top casting choice for Netflix's The Umbrella Academy.

Klaus is an androgynous American junkie who's unpredictable, law-breaking, and never serious. Oh, and he has superpowers.

One of seven supernatural siblings, Klaus uses drugs to keep the spirits he sees at bay (understandable), but even when he's sober, he's still a fun-loving hippie who accidentally starts a cult...?!

4. Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders (2013)

Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy), head of the Peaky Blinders gang, is partial to whiskey. In fact, the entire family is comprised of borderline alcoholics, as was common for gangs in 1920s Birmingham.

But none of them get as high or as hammered as Arthur Shelby. Actor Paul Anderson somehow makes us sympathetic to this murderous psychopath who has a few screws loose. For all his hot-tempered, grisly violence, our hearts still break when we think he's dead.

The sixth and final season of Steven Knight's critically acclaimed drama sees Arthur take a turn for the worst. He's always been an unpredictable drunk after his days digging in the war, but since discovering opium, Arthur seems beyond help. Once again, hearts shatter.

Sure, Tommy himself has dipped his toes in the sea of Midnight Oil before, but only Arthur becomes a full-blown addict who can't stand up straight for his kids. Like most of the show, it's tragic to watch—the oldest brother looked after by the younger.

3. Frank Gallagher in Shameless (2011)

Frank Gallagher might just be the most famous alcoholic on TV. But he doesn't stop at just alcohol! He'll also take any drug he can get a hold of, mixing cocktails of booze with ecstasy and innumerable powders.

Viewers often debate between the US and UK versions of Shameless, but we're going with William H. Macy's version of Frank for this list. (Mainly because the US remake is a little less of a soap opera.)

Originally played by David John Threlfall in the British version, Frank is a genius-turned-alcoholic who spends most of the series passed out on the floor, ranting at the pub, or scheming for benefits.

Frank is a fascinating character who everyone loves to hate, but Shameless would crumble without him. The plotlines are an endless stream of problems, tragedies, and misadventures that can mostly be traced back to Frank as he dips in and out of his kids' lives.

Macy had a huge task in filling Threlfall's boots, but he did it effortlessly. Frank's total lack of anxiety or self-preservation is hilarious, yet also really sad when you think about it.

2. Rue in Euphoria (2019)

Zendaya won two Primetime Emmy Awards for her performance as Rue in HBO's teen drama Euphoria. There was also one particular scene that earned a standing ovation for the actress.

In season two, Zendaya's Rue screams at her mother, then runs across main roads to avoid the hospital and slips into a bath of morphine. That scene was shot the same year Zendaya was swinging across buildings as Spider-Man's girlfriend. (Talk about range!)

Euphoria is a teen drama that's darker than any other, weaving together multiple messy storylines between a bunch of Los Angeles high schoolers. The show tackles themes of mental illness, sexuality, and toxic masculinity with artistic style.

And in the middle of it all is Rue, an opioid addict who'll take anything from fentanyl to marijuana to Xanax.

1. Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad (2008)

An uptight, middle-aged chemistry teacher and baggy-clothed teenage meth head make an unlikely pair, but they somehow made the greatest character duo in modern TV history.

Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul) is the teenage junkie in Breaking Bad alongside burgeoning drug kingpin Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston). Thanks to his time on the streets, Jesse is able to sling Walter's chemically pure meth and make them rich. If only it were that simple...

One of the most iconic scenes in Breaking Bad—other than the pizza on the roof—is when Jesse starts floating above the bed when he first tries heroin. (Vince Gilligan played around and struck gold with that visual!)

Although Walter White is the prime focus for all Breaking Bad-related analyses and character breakdowns, Jesse Pinkman is our favorite character. Despite all the bad stuff that happens to him, he remains a kind soul caught up in the wrong crowd. He deserved much better.