From Jessie to Jenelle: Substance Abuse in Teen Shows from 1990-2014

Saved by the Bell week at WEIO! August 25-29!
Saved by the Bell (Screen: NBC)

Depictions of substance use and abuse in television shows aimed at teenagers has changed from the very special episode of Saved by the Bell where Jessie got hooked on caffeine pills to Teen Mom 2‘s Jenelle Evans, who has publicly struggled with drug addiction.  Or has it?

Television aimed at pre-teens and teenagers has changed a lot in the last 20 years. I realize that statement is as pointless as saying, “The temperature outside changes between summer and winter.” But the degree 1 to which that change has occurred is pretty vast.

There once existed a magical time when television shows addressed real issues in the most superficial way possible. This magical time was called “the ‘90s.” A type of episode from this era was known as a “very special episode” where a certain issue was addressed, ranging from domestic issues like divorce to societal issues like racism. The point of a very special episode was that it was special: the issue was addressed, confronted, and solved in half an hour. Because if you make it to adulthood, you know fully well that earth-shattering issues can always be tied up into neat little packages with a bow of finality on top.

This type of television is in stark contrast to the television today’s young people are now watching 2. Today’s shows showcase both fictional characters and real people who are dealing with very complicated, and sometimes dangerous, issues that not only aren’t contained in one episode but often are the basis of entire series.

MTV: teaching teenagers that a reality show solves life's major problems since 2009 (Screen: MTV/Amazon)
MTV: teaching teenagers that a reality show solves life’s major problems since 2009 (Screen: MTV)

With that in mind, I would like to look at the past 20 years of television for teenagers with one end of the spectrum being the very special episode of Saved by the Bell where Jessie is hooked on caffeine pills and the other end of the spectrum being Jenelle from Teen Mom 2, who went through a very public battle with hard drugs, specifically heroin.

If you were looking for an article dedicated to the glory that is “Jessie’s Song,” please exit this article via this link and read what our wonderful3 Editor-in-Chief has written.

Disclaimer: I had to choose only a few series to look at, otherwise this article would be 90 pages long. I know that many of you will read this and think, “But you forgot _____! It was such an obvious example!” To which I say, add it in the comments. The more examples, the better. Now, on to the very special article:


  1. pun completely intended  
  2. did I just say “young people?” Oh dear lord, I did  
  3. I call him wonderful because for my birthday one year, he sent me a little teddy bear wearing a t-shirt that says, “I’m so excited! I’m so… scared!” with little pills subbing in for the ellipsis. I keep it prominently displayed in my house at all times.  

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About Becca Marshall 36 Articles
Becca has been writing about film and television since convincing her junior high English teacher that comparing and contrasting the film and stage versions of Romero and Juliet was a good idea for a term research paper. After getting her BA in English and film studies, she doubled down on liberal arts and got an MA in television, radio, and film from Syracuse University. Becca is incredibly proud to be an Aggie and entertains her non-Texan friends with Southern colloquialisms. Her hobbies include watching Golden Girls and her interests include all things zombies - she's simple, not basic. Email:
  • Clare Snyder

    I remember a ghastly episode of Family Matters where Laura took diet pills. It was hilariously over the top. I think they must have been diet pills laced with PCP or something. Generally it feels like 90s “very special” sitcom episodes about drug use were cartoonishly overblown, showing the affected character acting spastic rather than giving a grimmer look at a scarier possible fate (like becoming a crack whore…which would have been a Family Matters episode worth watching, for sure) 😉