The series Breaking Bad is drawing to a close. The anticipation of the last episode and how it will end is both painful and delicious for casual viewers and fans alike. Entertainment gurus and armchair enthusiasts have been weighing in on their predictions. We know that Walter White feels like he has no choice, that outside forces push him into the direction of cooking meth. But even so, it’s shocking to think of how the portrayal of drugs on TV had changed so dramatically, and in such a short time. Would this particular show be acceptable even a few years ago? Sure it doesn’t glorify drugs, but many of the scenes are gritty and the process of cooking meth, realistic. This Emmy award winning series would have been unpalatable to American audiences only a decade ago. TV is a great indicator of a country’s mood and culture. But how have drugs been portrayed on TV in the past, and how is Breaking Bad an indicator of our shift in attitude of drugs in the media?
In the 1960’s Americans saw a flood of recreational drugs entering into American society. As a pushback against the counterculture movement, an old school 1950’s style cop show called Dragnet premiered. The first episode aired in 1967. Sgt. Joe Friday and his trusty pal Gannon took on hippies, drug pushers and users. Episodes involving drugs included a group of teenagers who attempted to create their own country on an island off the coast of California, a young couple who neglected their children to focus on marijuana use and a cult leader selling drugs to grade school children.
In the very first episode, Friday comes up against a young man on LSD, his face painted gold and blue. There is no law against acid at the time. When a law finally makes it on the books, the boy is dead. Though ridiculous by today’s standards, Dragnet was addressing the flood of drugs and drug culture in America four years before Nixon declared war on them.
With the cocaine craze of the 1980’s came Miami Vice. Airing first in 1984, two buddy cops “Sonny” played by Don Johnson and Ricardo Tubbs played by Philip Michael Thomas, took on the evil drug cartels with sun splashed Miami as its backdrop. This was the first show to portray a glamorous city with a seedy, drug laced underbelly. The luxurious lifestyle of drug kingpins was first portrayed as well.
Miami was a good choice, as it was America’s biggest entry point for cocaine. There never seemed to be a want for gun runners, cocaine kingpins or reprobates for Sonny and Ricardo to whollop. Also in the 80’s, a music video with Kareem Abdul Jabar and David Hasselhoff called “Stop the Madness,” Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” campaign, a Diff’rent Strokes episode warning about drugs, and that infamous commercial starring an egg, done to a narrator’s warning, “This is your brain,” when the egg is shown, and “This is your brain on drugs,” once it hits the pan “Any questions?” and the egg sizzles for a while before the shot fades out. Other, less famous public service announcements followed, and were laughed at and ridiculed by a number of 80’s teens.
Though illicit drugs continued to be consumed at a voracious rate, different substances going in and out of fashion at different times, nothing came close to today’s realistic portrayal of drugs on TV such as Breaking Bad. In the 1990’s we see the same type of warning episode. This time the substance in TV’s sights was ecstasy. This psychedelic was taken by ravers to feel universal love, party and dance the night away. A popular teenage drama called Dawson’s Creek took the substance on. Highlighting the dangers the episode was entitled, “Great Xpectations.” One of the characters Andie, played by Meredith Monroe, is accepted to Harvard. Though she should be happy, she is fighting off an onset of depression. So she and her pals go to a rave, drop ecstasy and party. But soon poor Andie faints. She has a near death experience that frightens her immensely. Although she is okay in the end, the episode implies that other teens may not be so lucky.
Breaking Bad has turned the portrayal of drugs on TV on its ear. But it may project a stronger anti-drug message than the previous shows. It doesn’t glorify drugs. Nor does it give unrealistic warnings that teens and others ridicule and laugh at. Instead, the struggles of Walter White and his former student are loaded with terrifying scenes and unimaginable stress. Far from glorifying drugs, it shows them in their true and worst light.
By: Philip Perry