In Netflix’s dark comedy series Dead to Me, characters Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) and Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini) have a self-soothing ritual. They sip glasses of red wine poolside to cope with respective traumas: the loss of a husband and multiple miscarriages.
“It’s really a way for them to bond and as a kind of a lubricant to get them to loosen up, get closer with each other and kind of just a respite from the crazy world, which I think we can relate to,” says Dead to Me writer Kelly Hutchison.
Several episodes into the first season, we learn that they drink Cabernet Sauvignon. The dry red known to hold its own against steak tracks with Jen’s no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase personality. Judy’s tendency to overindulge also aligns with her chronic bad decision making.
Dead to Me isn’t the only series that uses beverage choices to develop characters. In many shows, drinks play non-speaking roles that are just as pivotal in shaping characters as dialogue and wardrobe.
In HBO’s Insecure, Los Angeles native Issa Dee (Issa Rae) navigates the world as a 20-something Black woman dealing with her career, friendships and romantic relationships. Fans are familiar with Issa’s penchant for Prosecco with a gin floater. She ultimately swaps gin for vodka, but more on that later.
Author and editor Britni Danielle explains how the wine and gin cocktail mirrors Issa’s on-screen character.
“She’s never had a moment where she had mad money and she was good financially,” says Danielle, cohost of the Black Girl Watching podcast. “She’s always been kind of struggling to make it.
“Prosecco is kind of like, and this is no shade to people who love Prosecco, but it’s kind of like ‘boughetto.’ Like it’s still a little bougie. but it’s also cheap, and I think that aligns perfectly with Issa Dee. She’s still bougie, but she doesn’t have the money to buy Champagne.”
And as Danielle points out, Issa and her friends imbibe often. The wine-gin pairing reflects the group’s collective alcohol tolerance.
“Neither [Prosecco or Champagne have] a super-high alcohol content,” says Danielle. “Issa and her homegirls drink enough to where you would have to probably drink the whole bottle to get properly wavey, so adding the gin helps you out a little bit more.”
As for Issa’s transition from gin to vodka, highlighted during Season 4’s “Lowkey Happy” episode, Danielle believes it could be the character’s attempt to make subtle changes in her life.
“I think maybe she was trying to do something new,” says Danielle. “This particular season, [Issa’s] been on a journey, so maybe that’s just her trying to change things up a little bit, but stick to her Prosecco because, you know, bubbles make you feel fancy.”
Certain drinks can communicate a character’s flaws. In the second season of Dead to Me, neighbor Karen (Suzy Nakamura) introduces a reluctant Jen to orange wine.
“She’s always just a little bit to the side,” says Hutchinson of Karen. She describes both the character and her preference for orange wine as “trendy and off-putting.”
On the Netflix series Grace & Frankie, tough-as-nails divorcée Grace (Jane Fonda) turns to her martini shaker in times of distress. Danielle says it’s not just a reflection of the character’s personality, but also her generation and role as a businesswoman.
“She made her life in the business world, and for a woman, particularly a woman coming up when she was probably coming up and building her company, you probably couldn’t drink fruity drinks,” she says. “You wouldn’t be taken seriously if you went to a business luncheon or a business meeting with a man and they ordered a martini and you ordered a Midori Sour. It just wouldn’t work.”
As the seasons progress, Grace relies less on martinis, which corresponds to her adjustment to a new life and softer attitude.
“In the first season, they kind of painted [Grace] as a straight-up alcoholic,” says Danielle. “She would be drinking all day and in the morning…she’s filling watermelon up with vodka.”
Throughout the show, and especially in the early episodes, Grace’s consumption demonstrates how she is hurting from her life’s upheaval.
“In that first season, she is trying to cope with her divorce, and then her husband told her he was leaving her for his best friend,” says Danielle. “That would probably drive most of us to drink heavily.”