In Bed with Cowboys: The 10 Ways Television Uses Booze as a Prop



I can’t decide whether I’m sick or depressed. I spent all day in bed Wednesday, watching a show called “Longmire” on Netflix. Yes, I binge watch TV. Longmire is this grizzled cowboy sheriff, with what appears to be an unrequited yen for his female deputy and a thirst for Rainier Beer. All the important conversations and the telling of secrets and lies in Longmire’s stage set cow-town, happen over drinks at the Red Pony Saloon, where a character’s angst or unreliability is measured by the number of shot glasses and frayed lemon wedges that are lined up in front of them on the bar.


My favorite scene happens after a ridiculously scripted verbal and gun battle, where Longmire learns the identity of his wife’s killer. The bad guy is so bad (he also killed his own son – you weren’t going to watch this were you?), he uses his dying breath to gasp something like, “Try explaining this one to the Feds, haha…” as he inexplicably stabs himself in the already bullet riddled gut.


After the EMTs bag the baddie, and Longmire’s hand-hewn cabin and name are cleared by an army of Hazmat wearing FBI agents, days seem to pass. We are supposed to get that Longmire has been doing some soul searching… A tumbleweed rolls, dust blows and the camera pans to our hero scowling deeply in a rocker on the front porch, with a long gun over his knees, a newly grown scruff and 300 crumpled cans of Rainier in a pile behind him.



Our hero at the Red Pony…


TV Uses Alcohol as a Prop

What would the movies and television do without alcohol as a prop? There are a handful of accurate depictions of addiction on TV, “Mad Men” and “The Wire” spring to mind, and the rest rely on 10 basic categories I will affectionately call The Booze Clues:


  1. The Celebration: The characters look at each other conspiratorially, celebrating a special occasion with a single bottle of champagne. They make a huge deal of opening the bottle (the cork shoots toward a Tiffany lamp or an eyeball with hilarious good cheer) and then a thimbleful is poured into crystal flutes with a sort of “aren’t we racy” savoir-faire. The Celebration is usually a harbinger of a torrid sex scene.
  2.  The Stress Reliever: In this scenario, the person has just been visited for the third time by a plucky detective looking for a missing person (buried under the lilac hedge in their backyard). The character shuts the door and beelines for the broom closet, where he unearths an ancient cache of crème de menthe and drinks it straight from the bottle like medicine.
  3. The Functioning Alcoholic: Usually reserved for police officers or detectives on a big case: the character begins to act erratically at work, until their partner (who like Longmire, has not acted on their romantic stirrings) knocks on their door at midnight and finds this character in a pizza box strewn apartment, drinking whiskey out of a cracked jelly jar alone. 

    One of my favorite depictions of what alcoholism is really like…

  4. The Novice: This is when the nerdy girl, or the studious girl, or the goody-goody girl goes to a wedding and gets tipsy and does something out of character and embarrassing. She tells the groom she’s in love with him, or runs over the family dog, or knocks over the biggest wedding cake ever baked onto the mother of the bride…
  5. The Addict: You’ve got to hand it to TV – there’s not a lot of subtlety, even in the best shows. The addict is the ruddy complexioned, cigarette smoking, box living, ally cat who sometimes holds a secret or an important clue in their addled brain or filthy bedroll.shame
  6. The Gangster: I love this character. He’s the mob boss, or the gang leader: he owns a strip club and every time you see him at work, he’s standing in the fray with naked women, legs akimbo, hanging from poles as a backdrop. He’s always badass sober, and he never even looks at the strippers as he passes judgement and chastises lesser beings in his possy.
  7. The Social Exchange: This scene takes place when important information is exchanged that the audience must know about, or a romance begun. The characters (always a man and a woman) sit in an incredibly fancy restaurant talking. We never see them eat. But they always have enormous glasses of red wine they sip with excruciating slowness. Often one of the parties leaves in a huff, throwing a damask napkin to the table or
  8. The Neighborhood Bar/Pub: Like the Red Pony, the neighborhood watering hole on television is the ultimate place for a plot to unfold and characters to define themselves. This is often where a variation on a theme happens – a woman drinks the guys under the table to show how tough she it, or a man gets silly-drunk to show he has heart, etc.
  9. The Buddy Comedy: Also called a romcom or Reality TV. Get a few housewives together on television, and they’re going to gossip and drink white wine and do a caper. Get a few guys together and they’re going to drink some brews, chase women and cack-handedly rob a bank.realitytv
  10. Native Americans, Cowboys, Ghetto Dwellers, Ethnic Neighborhoods, Cops, Lonely Women, Spring Breakers and other Sure Things: If you find any of these demographics on television there is sure to be a lot of alcohol flung about, bar brawls, sobbing, and drunken despair.

    Jackpot! A Native American in a bar (Red Pony) who’s the best buddy of a cowboy (Longmire)! Gonna be some drinking going on…


I understand the need for scene-breaks and comic relief and foreshadowing in an abbreviated, television storyline. I even understand that the drinking of booze usually foretells the coming of an interesting plot twist (God knows I’ve spun enough drinking yarns myself). But I wish there were more accurate portrayals on television, of what alcohol can do to a person. I wish there didn’t have to be so much of the lives portrayed on the small screen, so inextricably mixed with the drinking of alcohol…


Or does art just imitate life?


Today I’m not drinking because I’m kind of annoyed by how much booze is used as a prop on television…


How come you’re not drinking?