From ‘Bones’ to ‘Bent,’ Why Television Loves Gambling Addicts

I was quite charmed by NBC’s Bent, the sitcom about a stressed-out lawyer, Alex, (Amanda Peet) and her cutie of a contractor, Pete (David Walton), it’s inexplicably burning off to embarrassingly low ratings. Anything that stars Joey King and Jeffrey Tambor deserves at least some strong effort at promotion. And one thing stood out to me while watching the pilot and the second episode (NBC is showing them two at a time, a sad demonstration of the network’s eagerness to get rid of what should have been a solid fall season premiere). Pete’s character is a perfect example of a growing category of characters on television: the charming gambling addict.

It’s not as if gambling addicts are entirely new to television screens. Seeley Booth, the dapper FBI agent portrayed by David Boreanaz on Bones, has a serious gambling problem that the show has played to both dramatic and comedic effect. On How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson includes problem gambling among his other compulsive proclivities—he’s well-known enough in Atlantic City to have a regular gang of Asian gaming buddies. It was inevitable that Luck, HBO’s recently-canceled show about the world of horseracing, would have a gambler somewhere in the mix, as it did with Jerry, who can pick winners but inevitably lets his winnings slip through his fingers. Switched at Birth even has a teenage gambler.

Gambling addiction is a perfect fit for television in a number of ways. Gambling addicts don’t have to be kept out of bars, a common default social setting for shows with younger characters, particularly on multi-camera sitcoms. Other than stress, problem gambling doesn’t take an inherent physical toll or come with nasty side effects, so you don’t have to worry about compromising on Hollywood’s standards of attractiveness. And it’s a convenient, but not omnipresent dramatic device that can be deployed when you want to introduce risk or temptation into a character’s storyline.

But gambling addiction is also the perfect television flaw for a recession fueled in part by easy access to credit and a collective gamble that the economy would only continue to grow. These characters are the collective manifestation of a sense that we could beat the system, a sense that we now know is false and is prompting some serious reassessments. They’re charming and handsome (and interestingly, universally male)—in other words, they’re people we want to identify with, rather than condemn or push away, a balance that lets us assign them responsibility but also encourages us to stick with them through the process of managing their addictions. We can’t run away from the problems we’ve created for ourselves, and neither can they. And they make the point that all kinds of people can fall prey to the lure of easy wealth, whether they’re corporate honchos with unidentified functions like Barney, otherwise-upstanding FBI agents like Booth, or regular guys like Pete. It’s nice, but unrealistic, to believe that we all could have seen around corners and avoided trouble when trouble was presented in such a tempting package. Gambling addict characters don’t help us grapple with the larger financial system that benefitted from this collective delusion. But they can help us understand temptation, and the perpetual struggle not to fall for easy promises.