Luke Perry, Dylan McKay and Addiction on TV and In Pop Culture

Luke Perry's Portrayal of Addiction on TV

Yesterday, it was our deeply regrettable duty to report the death of television star and 90s pop culture fixture Luke Perry from a massive stroke that he sustained this past weekend. Recovery Unplugged reaffirms our sincere condolences to Perry’s loved ones, friends and fans, and we wish them the strength and perseverance to get through this sudden and unexpected tragedy. We would also be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to discuss Perry’s contribution to elevating the discussion of alcohol addiction on TV and in popular culture, and bringing a new, however stylized, honesty and reality to the representation of the disease.

Warts and All: Perry’s Portrayal of Alcoholism’s Consequences

In his role as the conflicted yet undeniably likable Dylan McKay on the seminal 90s teen drama Beverly Hills 90210, Perry wove a rich and flawed narrative of alcoholism in a time when it was largely taboo to discuss addiction on TV to the series’ targeted demographic. His character went into debt, had issues with his family, relapsed (a lot), ran afoul of some incredibly dangerous people and even descended, for a time, into more serious illicit drug use. His infamous and now immortalized love triangle with Shannon Doherty’s Brenda Walsh and Jenny Garth’s Kelly Taylor was consistently dogged by his drinking, and the actions to which it led.

In other words, Perry showed the human inconvenience and struggles that alcoholics face on a daily and long-term basis, and he didn’t in a way that kept audiences rooting for him,  no matter how ugly or undignified things got for him. On a show that could have very easily been nothing more than bikinis, convertibles and privileged kids whining about how tough life is before prom, Perry’s Dylan McKay was often the narrative linchpin that made the show a legitimate drama.

Support and Empathy through Representation

By offering a more honest portrayal of Addiction on TV, Luke Perry helped to reach two distinct audiences: adolescents and teenagers who are always vulnerable to peer pressure at that stage of their lives, and younger alcoholics who felt their mistakes were too much to overcome. It can be far too easy to dismiss Luke Perry’s Dylan McKay as a pretty face outfitted with his trademark sideburns; however, the character’s ability to realistically and accurately portray the disease of addiction on TV, and depict the pitfalls associated with this lifelong struggle, will endure as one of the era’s most important and socially responsible television messages.