At this year’s Emmy Awards, the final season of Breaking Bad earned a deserved slew of statuettes. America has been infatuated with the chronicle of Walter White, a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who cooks meth to pay the bills, since it debuted in 2008. Below, our newest contributing editor Kyle Bridge considers the role of drugs in some television series.
In an interview with Katie Couric earlier this year, Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston praised President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform as “fantastic.” “Yes, there are problems,” he continued, “but… I don’t think basic health care should be a privilege of the rich.” Reasonable enough.
Many commentators manning the desk at Fox News’s The Five were unpleasantly surprised. “How weird is it that a guy who plays a dark, brooding anti-hero is really a puppet to the man. I mean, he just propagandized for President Obama,” co-host Greg Gutfield remarked.
But no one following Cranston on the interview circuit would have been shocked, as he mentioned the sorry state of American health care in several interviews throughout Breaking Bad’s five-year run. In fact, Walter White’s sole motivation hinged on the pitfalls of private insurance (and perhaps, later in the series, his ego). The show’s last episode aired September 29, 2013, two days before Affordable Care Act open enrollment began, neatly capturing the uncertainty of pre-Obamacare America. “[T]he show might not have worked [otherwise],” Cranston joked in a 2011 Rolling Stone interview. “Thank God Obamacare wasn’t in play five years ago. Whew!”
Breaking Bad is just the latest show to feature drugs as both instrumental and incidental to its core message. The Wire, which wrapped the same year Breaking Bad premiered, is perhaps the most powerful and copious example. With respect to Joe Spillane, The Wire’s drug war premise explores numerous problems in urban life including police surveillance, the plight of the working poor on both sides of the law, addiction, sensational news media, and sclerotic political and law enforcement bureaucracy. Most of the time drugs were either on-camera or just out of frame.
Other programs like Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and even House inject drugs into plotlines to greater or lesser extents, and often to convey essentially unrelated ideas. Maybe that’s a result of drug culture bubbling up into mainstream culture, changing attitudes toward punitive drug policy, or simply producers avoiding the generally disappointing outcomes of chronic drug use. And, of course, some shows feature illicit substances for overt antidrug warnings (see below for a sincere if corny example). How does your favorite show use drugs?