There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane: What Morality, Medicine & Documentary Can’t Explain

Acclaimed documentarian Liz Garbus‘s most recent documentary feature, There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane (which premiered this week on HBO), examines what might have led supermom Diane Schuler to drive a borrowed minivan southbound in the northbound lane of the New York’s Taconic State Parkway two years ago. With her two young children and her three nieces (all under the age of ten) as passengers, Schuler drove her borrowed minivan at a high rate of speed until it collided head-on with another vehicle. The crash caused the deaths of eight people, including all three occupants of the other car, four of Schuler’s five passengers, and Schuler herself. Police investigators retrieved an empty vodka bottle from Schuler’s vehicle and the official toxicology report subsequently revealed both that Schuler’s blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit and also that Schuler had recently ingested marijuana.

Beyond these details of the incident, the only certainty the documentary offers is suggested by its title, There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane.

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POINTS Guide to the 83rd Annual Academy Awards

In case you hadn’t heard, the 83rd Annual Academy Awards will be distributed on Sunday evening. And even if you haven’t paid attention recently (or ever), it might be of interest to you as a POINTS reader to recall that Oscar – the nickname for film industry’s most prestigious award for achievement – has long had a fascination with drugs, with drink, and with their influence. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the 2010 Academy Awards deliver comparatively few nominations for films instigated by drugs or alcohol in the outlying categories like “best foreign language” or “best documentary.”

But those acting categories? They deliver the drugs and the booze. Thus, I offer my own brief accounting of the influence of drugs and alcohol within this year’s nominated films and performances. Consider it “The POINTS Guide to the 83rd Annual Academy Awards.”

To begin, BEST ACTOR honors will almost certainly go to

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Television narrative has long mined drug and alcohol use and abuse for inciting incidents. As a plot device deployed to inaugurate conflict within a television narrative, drugs and alcohol can really do the trick, whether for single episodes or for multi-episode story arcs. In a dramatic series, this or that beloved character might become addicted to drugs or alcohol, while a situation comedy might devote a “very special episode” to the impact of drugs or alcohol upon one or more of its characters. Crime shows, in particular, are especially drug- and alcohol-dependent, with intoxicant related crimes contributing myriad story arcs for shows as historically and stylistically diverse as Dragnet, Police Woman and The Wire.

Yet within the last decade or so, several emerging televisual subgenres have begun using drugs and alcohol as a narrative device in ways that might prove historically significant. While a full accounting of the ways drugs and alcohol manifest on contemporary television screens certainly exceeds my task in this brief comment, several noteworthy ways that contemporary television narratives “use” drugs and alcohol warrant consideration. (For the purposes of this discussion, I employ the term “television narrative” to address a diverse array of televisual genres, including both scripted dramas and comedies alongside what is widely referred to as “reality” tv, the myriad documentary television programs which, though ostensibly “unscripted,” nonetheless utilize a range of editing and production techniques to sculpt the dramatic action internal to each episode and, often, across the span of a multi-episode “season” of programming.)

The three subgenres I would like to highlight are, in turn, domestic dramas of narco-trafficking; “drunk girls gone wild” reality shows; and, perhaps most ubiquitously, RehabTV.

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