Alex P. Keaton and the Dawn of the Adderall Age

Speed, it seems, is a part of everyday life. Much as Americans did when faced with the telegraph in the 1840s, or Future Shock in the 1970s, people oft remark that everything seems to be happening faster, changing more rapidly than ever before. This time around, maybe amphetamines have something to do with it. Barely a day goes by without someone commenting on the dangers of overmedicating our kids, giving restless nine year olds any number of addictive stimulants to get them to sit down and shut up. The New Yorker has written worryingly of “neuroenhancers,” which permit college students, like athletes on steroids, to bolster their performance by studying longer and better than their peers. Even the Hold Steady touched on the trend with their terrific song, “Ask Her for Adderall.”

So I was surprised to catch a relatively early portrayal of “neural enhancement” in a 1983 episode of Family Ties. The sitcom gave us one of the worst TV theme songs of all time, but it also consciously exemplified the age, as symbolic of the 1980s as Cheers or The Cosby Show. The show starred Michael J. Fox as an ambitious, greedy young Republican, brother to a ditzy shopaholic sister, Mallory, and son of aging boomers. TV lore tells us that Family Ties was originally meant to center on the liberal parents, played by Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross, showing how 1960s refugees dealt with raising a family in the Reagan Era. The formula was to be “hip parents, square kids,” but test audiences warmed much more to the conservative offspring; producers decided to shift the focus of the show toward the antics of Alex P. Keaton. In the episode “Speed Trap,” Alex is worrying about his big term papers and final exams – being the end of the first semester senior year, these were the last grades that Harvard would see on his transcript before deciding whether to usher the aspiring Rove/Gekko into the halls of power, where he rightly belonged. Given the pressure, Alex is little interested in watching the PBS special produced by his loser dad. He is, however, open to the idea of trying some “diet pills” that Mallory’s obese friend Effy has to offer. They can help you study! All he has to do is whore himself out, promising Effy a date, and break his conservative principles by indulging in drugs – the failing, one suspects, of his parent’s generation, not the Reagan Youth.

After asking his framed photo of Richard Nixon if he would ever do something he knew was wrong if his career depended on it, Alex caves and decides to take the drugs. Later on, Mom invites Alex to a game of Monopoly, which the budding capitalist can’t resist. “Midterms and exams come and go, but the family unit is the one true constant in life!” a suddenly animated Alex says, to the wonderment of his family. Fidgeting restlessly, he asks if the dice are in fine working order, moves people’s pieces around the board and generally reacts overexuberantly, like a junior Alan Greenspan in glee club. When little sis Jennifer wants a do-over, Alex calls it “a sin against capitalism!” He wants to wax and buff the kitchen floor. He installs a skylight. He builds trenches in the backyard, though the reason for that one is never explained.

At first, Alex’s experiment with neural enhancement seems like a success. He writes a brilliant disquisition on “Herbert Hoover, the Lost Savior” for his US government class. “I voted for Roosevelt four times,” a teacher comments on his paper. “Thank you for showing me the error of my ways.” (Of course, the teacher would have to be at least 71 to have voted for FDR in 1932, but the New Deal cast a long shadow.) Things start to come apart, though, when he runs out of pills. Without speed, Alex becomes agitated and angry, railing against “smut” (a television program about human reproduction; Mom, of course, has no problem with her young daughter learning about sex). He begs for more, and on the fateful day of his big test, Alex crashes, sleeps late, freaks out, and rummages through the garbage like a crazed crackhead.

The show aired in 1983, as crack was just beginning to unleash its devastation across America’s cities. If anything, the cultural reference seems more likely to be cocaine, the elite drug of choice in the late 70s and the Reagan Era. Although Ritalin (methylphenidate) had been used to treat ADD/ADHD since the 1960s, this use remained sufficiently limited in the early 1980s not to merit a mention on the show. Indeed, characters describe the medication only as “diet pills.” For Alex P. Keaton, hitting up a psychiatrist does not seem to be an option, and attention deficit disorder is not part of the discussion. “Are you taking amphetamines?” Dad eventually asks. “I know what the stuff does – I used it when I was in school!”

I don’t know if this was part of the script or the director’s intent, but at one point Michael Gross seems to be holding the bottle of pills with a vaguely mischievous look – like he might almost open it, and he and Alex might stay up all night repainting the walls and generally undoing the damage caused by the son’s week of speed-fueled frenzy. It doesn’t happen, though. The wisdom of the liberal ex-hippie parent, as well as his compassionate leniency, helps the young conservative come to terms with his self-destructive drug love. The 1960s (thesis) and 1980s (antithesis) – or is it the other way around? – come together to produce the happy synthesis of a loving, understanding family unit, where Dad can go about his lame liberal ways while helping his pernicious son avoid the mistakes of the past.

At no point, though, do the characters consider that stimulants could legitimately be used to help a student learn or simply function normally. The badness of drugs remains self-evident and uncomplicated here.

Several other TV shows touched on these themes in the years to come, as young characters turned to stimulants to cope with pressures to perform in various ways. Quite unlike Alex P. Keaton, the character of Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) was Saved by the Bell’s token feminist and outspoken liberal. As a part of the sitcom formula of less-pretty/left-leaning, Jessie was also the most academically ambitious member of the Bayside gang. In the 1990 episode, “Jessie’s Song,” her drive to study longer and harder led her to become dangerously dependent on caffeine pills – in notable contrast to the Family Ties scenario, Jessie did not have to break the law to abuse a controlled substance. Caffeine, concentrated in pill form, could make her work faster and enjoy greater focus – or, at least, greater stamina, as the idea of an “attention deficit” in need of rectification remains unmentioned. Jessie has no deficit; she just wants more attention than she already has. She wants to game the system by cheating the laws of nature and wrecking her body, albeit in an entirely legal fashion.

I’m not an addict

It’s worth noting that Jessie was also pushing herself to sing with the group Hot Fudge Sundae, and she wasn’t the only teen plagued by performance anxiety. In a 1994 episode of the teen soap Beverly Hills 90210, everyone is using one expedient or another: Brandon pounds coffee for an “all-weeker” ahead of midterms, Steve prefers a sugar high, and David at first goes for the Cliffs Notes. It’s a small step from skimping on Shakespeare, though, to crystal meth. David begins taking “crank” to cope with multitasking “four finals, two term papers” and his radio show. “Crank is not an everyday drug,” his friend/hook-up warns him. “It will fry your brain!” David claims he just needs it to get through the week (much like Alex P. Keaton), the character’s agitation and desperation suggests otherwise. Once he starts, he can’t stop, even though his friend believes that meth could be used judiciously, without sparking addiction or other adverse consequences.

Since the early 1990s, drugs have become more ubiquitous in pop culture, not just in the usual territory (gangsta rap or punk songs about sniffing glue), but in more tightly censored media such as television. From the constant pot-smoking of the kids on That 70s Show to the embalming fluid joint on Six Feet Under, the portrayal of drug use has become more common and, at times, less alarmist than in Nancy Reagan’s era. Tellingly, Chris Bell’s 2008 documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster found that the use of stimulants by pilots, who have a clear need for prolonged alertness, was commonly accepted, while the same pilots thought that the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes was just wrong. “In sports you should play fair,” a fighter pilot says. “In war, you shouldn’t play fair at all.”

What makes the difference? Is a truck driver taking “gas station speed” different from a student burning through a term paper on Adderall, whether prescribed or borrowed? Truck driving may not be measured like academia and athletics, in the sense that in the latter arenas a meritocracy explicitly confers awards and honors based on performance, but they are both dimensions of an ever-more intense society where success or even survival on the market requires facing ever-escalating pressures from competitors, bosses, and so forth. As Chris Bell’s film asked, “Is it still cheating if everybody’s doing it?”

A pervasive sense of unfairness seems to underlie these portrayals. If I’m going to succeed, I have to do whatever it takes. Hard work is not enough, especially since others have a leg up. As a frustrated Barry Bonds says in the film:

We just need to go out there and do our jobs, just as you professionals do your jobs. No… All you guys lied. All of y’all. In a story or whatever, have lied. Should you have asterisks behind your name? All of you have lied! All of you have said something wrong, all of you have dirt. All of you. When your closet’s clean, then come clean somebody else’s. But clean yours first.

It is pretty rich for Barry Bonds to play Jesus and demand that those without sin cast the first stone. But he legitimately points to a situation of widespread hypocrisy – “you professionals” may not be subject to the same drug tests, but what if you were?Such cultural artifacts give us a window into the frenzy of competition, where commonly available chemicals intensify the scramble for advantage. It may be appropriate that Alex P. Keaton, the avatar of Reaganism, signaled the arrival of an anything-goes spirit in the newly unbridled capitalist society of America in the 1980s. At the same time, the notion that legal prescription medication, like the diet pills on Family Ties, could be used for legitimate “neural enhancement” remains verboten, in a sense, despite the fact that many young people have been prescribed to Ritalin or Adderall for much of their lives, and many college students use the drugs legally and illegally.

The new sitcom Community offers a final morality tale, and one that centers squarely on ADD meds. A character played by Alison Brie was a rising academic star who ultimately lost her college scholarship due to an addiction to pills; dubbed “Adderall Annie,” she was driven by what appears to have been amphetamine psychosis to jump out of a window screaming “Everyone’s a robot.” Her single-minded determination, when combined with the seduction of neural enhancement, reduced her to attending a poorly regarded community college – not the scholastic triumph she had hoped for. Whether Annie came by the Adderall legally or illegally, she still suffered the ill effects of a drug that is expressly meant to bolster a student’s focus and ability to perform.

Shows like Family Ties, Saved by the Bell, and Community tap into a latent desire for equity. Whatever the pressures to succeed, and whatever means may be freely available to beat the other guy, these stories remind audiences that anything-goes can go nowhere fast, as the stimulant user flies too close to the sun and gets burned. Although it seems glaringly obvious that people do use stimulants to get ahead, from Bronx Science to Bayside High, we may want to believe that there’s no free lunch where meritocracy, competition, and brain chemistry are concerned.

Further Reading

  • Peter Conrad and Deborah Potter, “From Hyperactive Children to ADHD Adults: Observations on the Expansion of Medical Categories,” Social Problems 47 (Nov. 2000): 559-582.
  • David Herzberg, “‘The Pill You Love Can Turn on You’: Feminism, Tranquilizers, and the Valium Panic of the 1970s,” American Quarterly 58 (March 2006): 79-103.