The Most Pro-Drugs Hour of Television Ever Aired

The Most Pro-Drugs Hour of Television Ever Aired

He’s so excited, he’s so excited… and he’s totally not scared at all.

I have to believe that the producers of Glee had Saved by the Bell in mind when they wrote the October 7 episode, “Vitamin D.” In it, Finn is completely worn out from studying, preparing for a big performance with his singing group, and football practice. And in her (highly temporary) new job as school nurse, Will’s wife Terri helps him out with a couple of tablets of decongestant, which she promises will give him the energy to handle everything. Finn is skeptical, but Terri says it’s fine because they’re over-the-counter.

The most famous episode of Saved By the Bell ever aired is probably “Jessie’s Song,” from its second season. Elizabeth Berkley is completely worn out from studying and preparing for a big performance with her singing group (but not football practice). So she starts taking caffeine pills, which she thinks will give her the energy to handle everything. Slater is skeptical, but Jessie says it’s fine because they’re over-the-counter.

But that’s where the two episodes diverge radically. In “Jessie’s Song,” the pills quickly bring America’s sweetheart to the verge of a complete mental and physical collapse.

It’s Elizabeth Berkley’s best acting outside of Showgirls, and it really did convince a generation of teens that caffeine pills were dangerous. All you have to do is Google “I’m so excited, I’m so excited, I’m so scared” to see what an impression this episode made.

The important thing is, the pills leave Jessie completely unable to sing at her big audition, ending her dream of landing a record contract. The drugs backfire with horrible consequences. In Glee, not only does Finn perform, he performs awesomely. Watch the stunned expressions on everyone’s faces.

The message is clear: this stuff works. In fact, Glee makes decongestant look so good that I’m tempted to pick up a package. Based on this show, they will probably make me a much better writer.

TerriLet’s rewind a little. Finn can’t even stay awake in glee club practice, much less sing and dance. So he goes to the school nurse, hoping she’ll let him sleep for a while. Instead, Terri lectures him:

When I was in high school, I captained the cheerleading squad, I kept a perfect 4.0 GPA, I cultivated my popularity, and I maintained a loving relationship with the boy who would become by husband.

And then she reveals her secret: pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in over-the-counter cold medications (as well as spelling bees).

Think about what a glowing endorsement that is. Terri says she used it for years, and it didn’t hurt her or wreck her life. In fact, it brought her mind-boggling success–the kind any kid would envy. The writers are basically saying that taking two decongestants a day will give you the energy to do pretty much anything. They not only admit the drug is effective, they exaggerate its effectiveness. Finn leaves glee club practice to visit the school nurse. He returns during that same practice, ready to take on the world. He goes from being a zombie, to being a 28 Days Later zombie. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure decongestant doesn’t actually hit you that quickly or that hard.

In a later scene, Finn mentions getting new football plays drawn up, and completing a Spanish assignment weeks early. In the course of 24 hours, this wonder drug has completely transformed his life. If you were trying to create an ad for the abuse of Claritin, could you do a better job than this? (Even though Glee doesn’t cite any particular brands, the box of “Decongestant D” Terri waves around looks strikingly similar to Claritin D.)


Compare and contrast with Jessie Spano.

And it’s not just Finn, of course. All the boys take decongestant to prepare for their performance, and it brings them to a whole new level. “How were we supposed to know they’d rock the house?” one of the girls complains afterwards. “They’ve never been good!” Then the girls find out the secret and take a little Vitamin D, and their performance is also off the charts. “Ladies, I don’t even know what to say,” Will gushes. “I don’t know what you guys did, but whatever it was, keep doing it!” Here’s the message I’m getting: decongestant will not only let you get all your work done, it will let you do the work better than ever before.

And the writers keep making this stuff look better and better. Terri suggests that Ken Tanaka, the football coach, propose to his girlfriend. He says he can’t because he’s terrified she’ll reject him. She gives him two decongestants, and sure enough, he’s engaged by the end of the episode. So it gives you energy, courage, and maybe even a little luck. And although I somehow doubt this engagement will end happily… pseudoephedrine: is there anything it can’t do?

If there are any dangers to taking this stuff, we don’t learn about it in this episode. Nobody has a Saved By the Bell-style freakout. When the truth comes out, Terri protests that nothing bad happened, and the only thing the principal can say to argue with her is that somebody got arrested for trying to buy 36 boxes. The only hint that maybe decongestant isn’t 100% safe is that Terri won’t give any to pregnant Quinn (a shocking moment of good judgment).

boxThe show’s half-hearted anti-drug argument seems to be: decongestant gives you so much wonderful energy that it’s simply not fair. You will be too good for anyone else to compete. In Glee, decongestant is not a mild performance enhancer, like a cup of strong coffee. It completely transforms you, to the point where you can’t even take credit for your accomplishments. “Even if we win, it’s not going to be satisfying,” says Rachel. Of course, our protagonists are eventually steered to shore by their moral compasses. But given the amazing effects this easily-obtainable substance has, I’m not sure I buy this change of heart. In another episode, Finn becomes convinced that the glee club’s success is the key to him getting a scholarship, and therefore the key to his entire life. If those are the stakes, is he really going to throw out that box so quickly?

And what about kids in the real world? What are they going to think after watching “Vitamin D?” I’d be shocked if there wasn’t one teenager somewhere in America who watched this and said, “Wow, does Claritin really do that?” But before you fire away with your angry comments, keep in mind that I am no longer a Glee hater. I still think it’s  rough around the edges, but it’s grown on me somewhat. (Which is a good thing, because I don’t think anyone else on this site has been writing about it.)

And I don’t particularly care if the show does get kids hooked on decongestant. If it makes them sing that like, maybe it’s a win-win.

26 Comments on “The Most Pro-Drugs Hour of Television Ever Aired”

  1. Bthinking #

    Quick edit.For the last line, “makes them sing that like” should be “makes them sing like that”.

    Will save overthinking for a bit later. I must say that, it’s shocking how the glee posts have mainly been made by the authors that aren’t wrather and sheely.

    @Belinkie – Welcome to the dark side… where smashing musical numbers can justify all the terrible plot development of a show.


  2. cushman #

    I suspect that there are quite a few drowsy teenagers at school today, duped into buying a product that doesn’t work for everybody. I am one of the large minority of people who get knocked out with any sort of antihistamine, non-drowsy formulae included. Going on a long flight? No need for Ambien. Claritin D all the way!


  3. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @El Acordeonachi –
    Thanks man, I’d never seen that Family Ties! It totally fits the classic mold of showing that these drugs backfire, and PREVENT you from doing whatever you needed energy for. That’s why I was so surprised that Glee never got around to a scene where the kids crash hard and fall apart. But as Terri claims, you can take these pills for years without it catching up to you. The whole argument against them isn’t that they’re dangerous, it’s that they’re TOO AWESOME.

    @Bthinking –
    Just because I’m watching it doesn’t mean I’m 100% onboard.

    Actually, here’s a question from the “Throwdown” episode. This isn’t Will’s first year teaching at McKinley, right? It’s just his first year leading the Glee Club. So what’s the deal with him SUDDENLY flunking all the cheerleaders? The implication is that Will has been giving the cheerios passing grades for years, even though they deserved F’s, and now he decides to stop. And can we agree that Will would never, ever falsify grades just because someone is a cheerleader? The guy’s a straight arrow, who looks at teaching like a religion.

    This is (another) example of how the writers wanted something to happen (Will flunking the cheerios) and they just DID it, regardless of whether it makes any sense at all.


  4. Lewis #

    I like that Will’s idea of giving someone dancing lessons is to dance around them while they stand still, and then knock them over (in re: “Mash-Up”)


  5. Lewis #

    (I am watching the “Mash-Up” episode on Hulu right now, btw).

    Apparently they decided that it was Ken Tanaka’s turn to be a jerk.


  6. Lewis #

    On the other hand, they continue to make Puck one of my favorite characters.


  7. Lewis #

    UGH. GOD. Like one episode ago, Finn NEEDED to do Glee for a scholarship. Now, he quits it so that he doesn’t get a hard time from football players.

    Do they even watch the earlier episodes when they write the new ones?

    At least they had a head-fake towards continuity when they had Kurt mention that he quit the team.


  8. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Lewis –

    I’m with you, man. I can’t decide whether I’m gratified they at least remembered Kurt was supposed to be on the team, or pissed off, because he CLEARLY hasn’t been in a single locker room scene since that one episode.

    But I think what a Glee fan would say is that the lack of continuity is a CHOICE, not a mistake. Yes, Finn is exhausted to the point of passing out in one episode, but completely fine in all the others. Yes, the principal will insist that the glee club can only perform from a certain set list, and then nobody ever mentions that again. Yes, Kurt is the hero of the football team in one episode, and then no one ever mentions it again. But that’s because this is kind of like The Simpsons – crazy things happen in every episode, but they don’t spill beyond that episode.


  9. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    And on a completely unrelated note, I’m sort of sorry they broke up the Puck/Rachel and Sue/Ron couplings so quickly. There could have been a lot of humor in those situations. And I’m kind of sick of watching Rachel look sadly at Finn – giving her something else to do (like make Puck jump through hoops to get to second base) would be a nice change.


  10. osumarko #

    A better anti drug message came from the most recent episode of Community. The character Annie, who in the pilot was referred to as Annie Aderral, mentioned that her using a aderral bc she was told it would help her study but really resulted in her losing her scholarship and being forced to attend a community college.


  11. Lara #

    This was the first episode of Glee I’ve managed to catch, so I’m not sure what to think about the show… I assume the bit at the end where the girl (sorry, no time to google names) decided to throw the drugs away and do a workout instead was the “moral of the story” scene… Every cheesy family sitcom I can think of would have taken it more seriously than that. “Just put the drugs down and go back to being a good girl” is a pretty weak version of “just say no”. Are they assuming that their audience already knows that “drugs are bad” these days?

    Hopefully Twitter will remind me again when it’s on next week, I suspect perhaps this was an odd place to come in on the story…?


  12. Lewis #


    The problem is that the Simpsons doesn’t tell an ongoing narrative, it is purely episodic. So it there is a straightforward status quo that every episode can start from.

    But Glee is telling a story that continues from episode to episode. If they wanted to go Simpson’s route, then we’d need to drop the ongoing plot about going to nationals.

    The closest thing to “ongoing story, but no serious concern for continuity” I can think of is something like Scrubs style (in which there are over the top elements that are not even regarded as part of the continuity later in a single episode — only occasionally subverted for humor value), which makes it much easier for an audience member to track what is really part of the continuity and what is not. I’d classify that as something more like magical realism than disregard for continuity anyway.

    If Glee is going for Simpson’s style, it is failing, so I think there is a problem even if one grants the presumption that the show isn’t aiming for realistic continuity in the sense I’ve been griping about.


  13. Lewis #

    @Matthew Puck is currently my favorite character, and I too was sad that he and Rachel didn’t make it a full episode. I hope they get back together, in part because Puck is just a much more interesting character than Finn.


  14. Tom P #

    The Saved By The Bell episode was supposed to be taken as serious. This was clearly supposed to be taken a comedy. If anything, it was a (rather effective) satire in to steroids/HGH in competition.

    And, really, it was far more honest then the Saved By The Bell episode, as Jessie’s freak-out was WAY overdone to sledgehammer the point.


  15. stokes #

    This is really interesting. I don’t want to kneejerk defend Glee. But might Glee’s anti-drug message be BETTER than Saved By The Bell’s?
    Saved by the Bell suggests that caffeine pills are bad because they prevent you from being an awesome singer. But what if pills *don’t* prevent you from being an awesome singer? Then the pills are no longer bad, right? It’s a small step from “Pills are bad because they make you perform worse” to “Pills are bad if and only if they make you perform worse.” And while caffeine pill addiction is a serious problem, I’ve got to imagine that the overall number of Jessie Spano level meltdowns is pretty low.

    Glee, on the other hand, suggests that the pills are bad because cheating is bad. And what’s more, they show the two young, hot, talented leads simply deciding – without being told what to do by an authority figure – that they aren’t interested in drugs. The message is twofold:

    1) Performance enhancers are bad because cheating is bad. And not even because it’s WRONG – which you could wriggle out of by saying something like “well, everyone else is doing it too, so I’m just leveling the playing field” – but just because it’s not enjoyable.

    2) Young, hot, talented people do not like using drugs. Therefore, if you want to be young hot and talented, do not do drugs. (For more on this front and how it applies to things like fairy tales, see Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment.)


  16. Lewis #

    One more thing: Glee really needs to stop having plotlines centered around the main characters quitting glee. They are becoming increasingly contrived, and it’s just not good drama or comedy.


  17. Lewis #

    @stokes I’ll grant you that there is something to be said in defense of the episode’s take on drugs. Everyone in the show (except the villainous wife) takes the attitude that the drugs are bad, despite their positive effects on one’s performance in glee, etc.


  18. Gab #

    I actually found the lack of a meltdown rather refreshing in this instance of a drug abuse teen drama. It’s a new take, a new spin on the anti-drug message. Maybe I’m older than my years, but I feel like the whole “exemplary freak-out” thing is getting kind of old and stereotypical. I remember being as young as a fifth grader in D.A.R.E. and not taking some of the scare tactics of anti-drug campaigns seriously because, for whatever reason, scare tactics have never really worked on me. Granted, I’d never do drugs because I get that they’re bad for you, blah blah, but I appreciated how the portrayal in _Glee_ let the students decide for themselves because they already knew drugs are a bad idea because I was like that in high school and college: I already knew it was a stupid thing to do, so why bother?

    This reminds me of those “your brain on drugs” ads. I remember the egg, and thought it was alright. But a few years ago, there was a “sequel” ad, I guess you could call it, where Rachel Leigh Cook totally pulverizes a kitchen with a skillet, every blow representing something else that gets destroyed when you do drugs. I thought that was overkill. Like, excessive overkill. To the point where teens or young people without enough common sense to not take the risk would think, “Dude, that looks kind of awesome just to try,” or perhaps think that if something so “small” could have that much power over you, it’s worth trying at least once, just to see what it feels like, etc.

    Another example: those gross anti-smoking ads done in claymation where kids lick dead animals and fish and stuff. I mean, yuck. I’d never smoke, but that choice has absolutely nothing to do with those ads and was made well before they came about, so I find them rather tiresome and annoying. And with the information available nowadays, IMO, if a person is going to smoke, those ads aren’t going to change their mind and make them not. They already know it’s dangerous and most likely going to result in cancer or something, so they know what they’re getting into when they begin the addiction in the first place. This relates to my theory on why I never took the TV episodes seriously: Jessie’s meltdown came after what, a few days of using the caffeine pills? I wasn’t around drugs when I was little, but I had enough common sense to recognize addiction relates to mental illness and that the scenarios represented like that were highly unlikely because those processes are usually much more gradual. Portrayals like the ones in that old HBO series “Lifestories: Families In Crisis” were more realistic because they showed how the person slowly slipped into the pool as opposed to cannonball-ing in like a Jessie.

    Okay, totally rambled there. I guess I’m sort of dancing around the question of whether the sudden freak-out method is effective to normal people (because I do realize I’m rather… unique…). And I also wonder if maybe Glee is just thinking outside the box and trying to break stereotypes, this case being the generic Anti-Drug Episode for a series “aimed at teens.” For let’s not forget, this series is a “teen” drama, “teen” to be taken with an oversized grain of salt.


  19. Lewis #

    @Matthew Belinkie

    I missed your earlier point about failing the cheerleaders. My assumption is that he was probably passing them when they didn’t deserve it rather than failing them unjustly. There’s something less ethically icky (in a gut reaction sense) about cutting them a break on their spanish grades all along, than the reverse, even if neither is acceptable by the standards of how teachers really should grade.


  20. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Lewis –
    So you’re saying he was cutting them a break just because he hates failing people, not because he is trying to protect the cheerleading squad? Maaaaybe. But in that case, it’s probably stupid of him to point that out to the principal. “I’ve been giving them inflated grades for years!” In any case, I’ve asked the boys who do the special Glee podcast to tackle this one.


  21. M Chan #

    Hey guys, I want to clear up some of the science here. Claritin D is NOT pseudoephedrine. Although it is also a decongestant, Claritin D is loratadine, which works by an entirely different physiological pathway (for those of you who are curious, pseudoephedrine alters the autonomic nervous pathways, which are responsible for body secretions; Claritin D blocks histamine receptors, which mediates allergic responses). There is NO pseudoephedrine in Claritin.

    Long ago, pseudoephedrine was the active ingredient in Sudafed, which is where the drug gets its brand name. However, because of the possibility of pseudoephedrine to be converted into methamphetamines, the substance has been banned by the FDA. Nowadays, what is now called Sudafed contains phenylephrine, NOT pseudoephedrine.

    So again. There is no pseudoephedrine in Claritin, nor is there any in Sudafed. In fact, no legal over-the-counter drug certified by the FDA contains pseudoephedrine.


  22. stokes OTI Staff #

    But there is still a difference between vanilla claritin and claritin D. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had both, and claritin D knocks me for a loop. And I’m pretty sure that regular claritin is loratidine too. Maybe the D version is stronger? Or it’s just cut with a bunch of caffeine to offset the drowsiness caused by loratidine?


  23. Lewis #

    @Matthew Belinkie

    They should have a special “continuity nitpick of the week” section, where we can tell them what was most wrong with the show they like so much.


  24. Heather #

    After reading this article I took a Claritin-D, no joke, ask God. It DID make me feel better. However, I went to sleep and did not rock a mash-up competition.

    Ingredients of Claritin-D:

    240g psuedoephedrine sulfate (nasal decongestant)
    10mg loratadine (antihistamine)


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