Rehab is for quitters!
In any show featuring a recovering alcoholic (or other such drug addict), they will inevitably return to drinking at least once during the series. This happens quite a bit to recovering alcoholics in real life as well, but it's not as inevitable as television would have us believe. In a drama, this is almost always a Very Special Episode. In a comedy, it can be done either as a Very Special Episode or just for laughs. The relapse can be caused by trying to drown sorrows.
Anime and Manga
Subverted in Monster, where a recovering alcoholic is thought to have fallen off a roof after having a drink.
Marvel Comics' Iron Man has fallen off the wagon more than once. In fact, he has tried to help fellow superhero Ms. Marvel/Binary/Warbird in her own battle with alcoholism. In Fear Itself he sacrifices his sobriety to Odin in order to get the god's attention.
Haunting In Connecticut. Where the father starts out in recovery and later falls off.
Airplane!: "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking...". A Running Gag, where a person in the control tower starts relapsing on a series of increasingly more serious drugs throughout the course of the film.
William Munny in Unforgiven. First drinking. Then violence.
Silent Movie: Mel Funn is precariously on the wagon for the first part of the movie - everyone knows he has a problem, but he manages to keep away from the drink. Then he finds out his lady love Vilma Kaplan is a mole sent to pretend to love him and sabotage his film, and he falls off, HARD. Of course, she actually is in love with him and wants to help him, so they sober him up with The Power of Love and lots of coffee.
Thea in Applause does well for a time with the drinking, but does give in to drink and becomes confrontational toward her ex-husband.
In the 2011 film Warrior: Paddy Conlon after Tommy berates him one time too many.
Averted in Rachel Getting Married. Despite coming straight of rehab to her dysfunctional family on the weekend of her sister's wedding, and being shown in situations that imply she's sneaking off to to drink or use, Kym stays clean and sober throughout the film.
Vimes falls off the wagon in Men at Arms. In Feet of Clay, the next book he appears in, he pretends to fall off again, as part of a scheme to make the person who's trying to frame him for murder look foolish.
The title character's (tragically inevitable) fall Off The Wagon he climbed onto in the first chapter is one of the key plot points of The Mayor of Casterbridge.
In The Bat Harry Hole is a recovering alcoholic and after spending most of the book sober and pointedly avoiding alcohol falls off hard after a quick succession of murders including his partner and the woman he was seeing and spends the rest of the book in or recovering from a drunken stupor.
New Tricks, Brian Lane, built up to over the whole of the most recent series.
Law & Order, Lenny Briscoe hits the bottle, and it leads (somewhat indirectly) to the death of a major character.
Babylon 5, Michael Garibaldi relapsed on two occasions: first, when he was framed for an assassination plot and on the run, and second, when he learned that he was physically incapable of killing the Smug Snake Psi Cop Al Bester, who mind-raped him and forced him to betray his friends.
Subverted in the My So-Called Life ep appropriately titled "On the Wagon". Patty suspects Rayanne has fallen off, but it turns out she hasn't.
Battlestar Galactica Saul Tigh does this at least once an episode, to the resignedness of his commanding officer. His wife, Ellen, simply never gets ON the wagon in the first place and is probably mainly responsible for Saul's drinking: because I'd drink too, if I had to kill my wife for being a suspected Cylon collaborator and then find out that oops, I'm a Cylon myself.
Life had an episode, "Powerless," where Dani Reese is forced at gunpoint to start downing vodka shots. Of course, Reese had spent the beginning of the episode at a bar before going to her AA meeting. She was technically going to the meetings to get over her drug addiction, not her alcoholism— which doesn't really make it any better, but does explain why the guy holding her at gunpoint didn't have the advantage he thought he had.
Averted (so far) with Capt. Don Cragen, who has been known to keep a bottle of vodka in his office and serve others from it.
Played straight with SVU's Sonya Paxton, though, who apparently fell off the wagon and came to court drunk, causing a mistrial and her going to rehab. She was never on the wagon, but was playing the Functional Addict.
In flashbacks in the LOST episode "A Tale of Two Cities," Jack gives his sober father, Christian, a good shove Off The Wagon, which ultimately leads Christian to lose his job, go on a bender, and die.
Subverted in an episode. The title character's father, habitual drinker Ken Titus, goes on the wagon, and his relatives find his sober behavior so insufferable that within two weeks they have an intervention to urge him to start drinking again.
Played straight when Titus' business closes he starts drinking again. Five minutes into the next episode he sobers up for a total of 10 minutes of him being a drunk.
Played with in an episode, when recovering prescription drug addict Dr. John Carter finds an unaccounted-for bottle of Vicodin in a patient's room, pockets it, and takes two of the pills. Averted in that he almost immediately forces himself to vomit up the pills, before they can take effect. This is still treated as a (minor) relapse by his evaluator, Dr. Kerry Weaver; and his monitoring period is extended as a result.
Breaking Bad has Jane Margolis, who ultimately dies of a heroin overdose. Jesse, himself, got on the wagon afterwards, but he falls off of it a couple times.
Rescue Me plays with this quite a bit in Tommy Gavin's case. After spending most of Season 1 in various stages of drunkenness, he goes on the wagon in Season 2. The audience is occasionally shown a scene of Tommy descending into drunkenness after something particularly tragic happens to him, only for it to be revealed that it was just in his head and he's still sober, albeit miserable.
In the sixth season of Grey's AnatomyChief Webber falls off the wagon. He was subtly shown drinking and dropping hints for several episodes before the show called attention to it.
In Leverage "The Bottle Job" Nathan falls off the wagon. And stays off.
Done hilariously in Father Ted. While the parochial house is entertaining a former television personality, Mrs. Doyle persuades (i.e. forces) him to have a bit of sherry. He quickly degenerates into a drunken wreck who destroys their living room, rants about his dismissal from the BBC (which was because of his alcoholism) scares off Father Jack, and then jumps out the window. At the end of the episode, he decides to have another drink of sherry (having been convinced that he could hold his drink) and a single sup is enough to have him ranting and jumping through the window again.
Averted in After You're Gone where Jimmy is a recovering alcoholic. In one episode, he has a very important appointment, but has spilled a drink on himself. His friends, trying to protect him, lock him in an empty room. He finally gets them to release him. He tells them he left something in the room and would they get it for him. They do, and he locks them in.
Mad Men's Duck Phillips is a recovering alcoholic who falls off the wagon in Season 2's "Maidenform." While at first at least somewhat sympathetic (he fell off in the middle of a messy divorce), he becomes increasingly dickish as he slides further and further back into alcoholism. By Season 4, even Peggy—who still trusted him to some degree—comes to see how much of a tremendous asshole he's become.
In Eastenders, Phil Mitchell seems to fall off the wagon on average every six months. And now he's a recovering crack addict as well, what's the bet there won't be a relapse at some point?
In the Gag DubSoupy Norman, the titular Soupy is regularly mentioned as having been a former drink and drug addict, but has now been sober for over a year ( that's nearly 12 months! ). However, every time he appears in the show he is so drunk that he can barely stand up or speak coherently, and regularly tries to start fights with the character Jack, who answers the door. What makes this funnier is that Jack makes the comments about Soupy being sober for so long just AFTER he's kicked Soupy out for being drunk. Of course, Jack's whole character is based around the fact he never remembers anything, even if it happened a few seconds before.
There's a interesting case when the six-year sober Pete goes through a un-intentional "Freaky Friday" Flip with his female partner Myka... who was at her High School Reunion and had just downed three vodka martinis. Oops.
Well, won't this be fun to explain at the next AA meeting...
He's also fallen victim to several Intoxication Ensues artifacts, at one point sarcastically referring to "artifacts that mean I have to call my sponsor".
What Would You Do? had a scenario in which an actor went to a busy bar on Long Island, claiming to be celebrating his first year of sobriety and wanting to have just one drink. Almost everybody there pointedly refused to buy.
Borgen's resident Team Mom, journalist Hanne Holm, shows up drunk to a press conference after her estranged daughter fails to show up for a birthday lunch.
Happens to a boyfriend of Elaine's in Seinfeld, leading to a discussion between Jerry and George whether the relapse is termed being "off the wagon" or "on" it.
On Shameless (US) Jody is a recovering sex addict. None of the other characters take this seriously and convince him that some "adventurous" sex will not hurt him. Jody quickly goes off the wagon and starts engaging in more and more extreme sexual acts. Sheila stages an intervention and in the end Jody is chained to a bed and forced to go cold turkey.
In contrast Frank is able to stay sober for periods of time but he is never "on the wagon". He always plans to start drinking again and his sobriety is just part of some scheme he is hatching.
Defective Detective Jimmy McNulty from The Wire spends the first 3 seasons as a self-destructive Functional Addict whose alcoholism and destructive behaviors are both gradually spiraling out of control. At the very end of the 3rd season he wises up by reaching out to Beadie, a potential long term Love Interest, accepts a demotion from Homicide to a less stressful position as a beat cop, and gives up drinking. He then spends all of season 4 sober even when others are drinking around him, enjoys a loving and harmonious relationship with Beadie, and even shows how a low level cop can be a Reasonable Authority Figure in the neighborhood. In season 5, however, attempting to investigate the biggest and most ruthless drug dealer in Baltimore sends McNulty off the wagon, and he seems intent on making up for lost time, because he starts drinking and womanizing harder than ever and soon pushes the self-destructive behavior further than he ever had before...
In one episode of 30 Rock, Liz accidentally gets her ex-boyfriend Floyd, who is a recovering alcoholic, drunk when the fish she ordered was served with a sauce made from Jack Daniels. The alcohol was supposed to cook out, but since Floyd ordered the sauce on the side, it wasn't cooked.
Macklemore once wrote a song about his humiliating relapse.
This happens all the time with professional wrestlers, particularly older veterans working the independent circuit. Scott Hall and Jake "The Snake" Roberts are amongst the more notorious examples of this, but far from the only ones.
At TNA's Victory Road pay per view in 2011, Jeff Hardy showed up loaded for his match against Sting. The subsequent match ended up going less than a minute.
The most famous example is Jake Roberts' appearance at a 1999 pay per view titled Heroes of Wrestling. Prior to his match with Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart, Jake cut a slurred, rambling, incoherent promo. When he came to the ring, he was so drunk he couldn't even stand up straight, engaged in lewd behavior with some fans at ringside, then got in the ring, held his snake up to his crotch and started stroking it. Needless to say the match didn't last long.
Sadly many wrestlers never recover from substance abuse problems, leading to a shockingly long list of those who have died of unnatural causes before the age of 50 including Mr. Perfect (Acute Cocaine intoxication), Eddie Guerrero (Heart attack caused by years of steroid and perscription drug abuse), The British Bulldog (Same thing), Crash Holly (Choked on alcohol induced vomit), Miss Elizabeth (Drug overdose), Bam Bam Bigelow (Drug overdose), the list goes on and on.
Funky Winkerbean's title character went through a bout of alcoholism in the '90s after the first Time Skip, but got it under control and remained sober through the second Time Skip as well. A 2010 strip appeared to show him finally depressed enough about his life to order a screwdriver... but subverted this trope when Funky instead vented his problems to the bartender and left without drinking anything.
Mafalda: The title character asks a friend if he knows the typical story of someone who falls into an old vice he's struggling to get over. Turns out this is because someone she knows is living that drama: Her little brother, Guille, who went back to sucking on his pacifier.
When withdrawal symptoms are shown, it tends to focus on short term, acute symptoms (see the horrific sequence in Trainspotting). However, lower impact withdrawal symptoms can last for months, even years. Insomnia, delirium, depression... that's one reason why they're called "recovering" rather than "recovered".
The dramatic "No More for Me" gesture is discouraged by many doctors for this very reason. It might feel good at the time, but lowering your intake slowly over the course of a few weeks is much less traumatic and much easier to stick to.
Averted in Unreal II: The Awakening. One of the characters is a man who was once deep into the bottle, and manages to hold throughout the series - despite, as the main character points out, having numerous opportunities to smuggle in some booze.
Played for laughs in Fable II. After completing a quest for a man, said man's wife tells him to get back on the wagon. He instantly responds, "Wagon? Where? Kids, look out for the wagon!!"
In Misfile, Rumisiel tries to spend more time off the wagon than on it; he is getting better though.
In Homestuck: Following a forced conversion to Trickster Mode, Roxy, after five months of relatively comfortable sobriety, promptly declares her intention to get off, as the powerup sets its users free from any mental limitations on their deepest desires.
Comprises almost an entire arc in Homestuck when Gamzee runs out of sopor slime, he just starts killing people. It takes his best friend consoling him to cause his kill-happy rampage to stop.
Dr. Rockso gets clean in one episode. In his return episode, he falls off the wagon, gloriously.
In a later episode, Pickles goes dry after a drunken international incident involving a flying drum kit. Later on, he has to get drunk to save the band with the exact same stunt.
Earlier, Pickles' old band Snakes and Barrels went clean after breaking up, but shortly before their reunion concert they were convinced to take a hit of experimental drug Totally Awesome Sweet Alabama Liquid Snake. This comes back to bite them later (in the same episode when Dr. Rockso falls off the wagon) while they're trying to put on a show as a new straight-edge band.
Subverted, of all things. They were doing a civil war re-enactment of... questionable historical accuracy. Somebody offers Barney, who had previously been a raging alcoholic, a drink. He worries that he'll fall off the wagon, decides to drink it anyway...and marvels when he still feels fine.
In "Deep Space Homer", Barney goes on the wagon for astronaut training and aces all his tests. However, he degenerates back into his town drunkard persona after celebrating with a toast of non-alcoholic champagne.
More than that, Barney keeps getting on and off the wagon to the point where his current status as an alcoholic changes from episode to episode.
Played for Drama in The Venture Bros., during an episode in which Sergeant Hatred runs out of medication that suppresses his pedophiliac urges. He locks himself in the Venture compound panic room for an extended period, and even considers buying a child prostitute to keep himself from being a danger. The incident is resolved when he is lured out of the panic room by Hank, disguised as Princess Tinyfeet, and is subsequently subdued and tranquilized by Henchman 24.
Fantastic Mr. Fox: Mr. Fox says this word for word when apologizing to his wife about stealing birds again, after he promised he wouldn't ever return to that profession. Hilarious in Hindsight as George Clooney's character in Ocean's Eleven got in trouble for the same thing.
A running gag in Superjail! is that the resident Butt Monkey, Jared, falls off the wagon. WHAT wagon he falls off of varies; you name it, he's been addicted to it.note This includes alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, and junk food.