A Short History of Drugs (On TV)

By Ilana Berman

Walter White is a simple man. He goes to work, comes home to family and lives an ordinary suburban life. And he cooks meth. The chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-dealer played by Bryan Cranston is the protagonist of the AMC series Breaking Bad, returning on August 11 for its final eight episodes. The show delves into the dark underworld of the meth trade and, in doing so, adds to a storied history of drug representation on TV. In honor of the upcoming series conclusion, we’ve decided to look back and explore some TV moments that reflected and defined the role of drugs in American life.

Dragnet: Invasion of the Psychedelics

The combustive atmosphere of the 1960s birthed a countercultural movement—one fueled by sit-ins, rock music, and psychedelic drugs. LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, or “acid”) offered a mind-bending trip to those looking for some higher state of being. As psychedelics grew in popularity among youths, older generations pushed back against the encroaching tide of change. TV star Jack Webb spoke for the old with his revamped 1950s series Dragnet.

The classic cop drama based its stories on actual police files, with Webb as the leading man, Sgt. Joe Friday. At its most popular in the early ‘50s, the television show reached an estimated 38 million viewers each week (The New York Times, 12/24/82). Webb brought the series back to television in 1967, but this time playing to an audience upset by the invasion of the counterculture into everyday life. Friday regularly butted heads with hippies and drug abusers, such as the teens who tried to build their own nation on an island off the California coast, or a young couple who chose their marijuana habit over their children, or a cult leader who peddled drugs to elementary school students.

LSD was first on Friday’s hit list. In the premiere episode of the ‘60s Dragnet, Friday finds a boy tripping on acid with his face painted gold and blue. He can’t convict the boy because no law existed prohibiting the consumption of LSD. When such a law is eventually passed, it’s too late for Benjie “Blue Boy” Carver.

“He kept saying he wanted to get further out,” says Benjie’s friend, to which Friday replies, “Well he made it. He’s dead.” [Check out assistant curator Arthur Smith’s take on the legendary episode].

Today, the episode is laughable in all of its campy glory. Friday and his pal Gannon were anachronisms fighting to keep up with the times. But years before Richard Nixon declared his “War on Drugs” in 1971, Dragnet served up some law and order, television style. It educated viewers on the wrongs of drug use and set a precedent for cop shows that would evolve through the following decades. 

Miami Vice: Cracking Down on Drugs

By 1986, cocaine was the most rapidly spreading illicit drug in the world (Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine). Cartels smuggled the precious substance from producers in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia into America’s cities. Miami was the nation’s largest cocaine transshipment point (The New York Times, 7/19/87). Its proximity to South America, bustling sea trade, and lax law enforcement made it ideal to both small-fry dealers and prime-time kingpins. The city also served as the sunny setting for the TV hit Miami Vice.

Created by Anthony Yerkovich and produced by Michael Mann, Miami Vice (1984–90) was a landmark series in its portrayal of the drug trade. The buddy cop show featured Don Johnson as “Sonny” Crockett and Phillip Michael Thomas as Ricardo Tubbs; mismatched undercover agents in an endless hunt for cocaine cowboys, gun runners, and miscreants.

Miami Vice was revolutionary in the way it married the glamour of a city to the grit of a trade. For instance, Crockett and Tubbs were not clad in boxy blue uniforms—they donned sleek white suits and bright shirts. They were not relegated to clunky cars but instead drove convertibles. And their crime fighting was set to a hip soundtrack geared to the new MTV generation. At the same time Miami Vice glamorized the fight against drugs, it also glamorized the lavish lifestyle of traffickers. Even so, the bad guys usually met a gruesome end.

The sleek drama aired the same year as the 1985 music video “Stop the Madness,” which featured stars like David Hasselhoff and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar singing about the dangers of drugs. Two years later came the 1987 ad, “This is your brain on drugs,” which compared a fried egg to a drugged-out brain [watch video on left]. First Lady Nancy Reagan joined in on the anti-drug crusade with her Just Say No campaign, making an appearance on an episode of Diff’rent Strokes to warn against drugs in Arnold’s (Gary Coleman) elementary school.

These videos, along with Miami Vice, sent a message about drugs to America: They are dangerous, they are widespread, and they must be stamped out. Though cocaine and crackdowns defined the 1980s TV landscape, a new drug soon grabbed the attention of America’s youth.


Dawson’s Creek: The Agony of Ecstasy

Ecstasy—the drug of choice for glow-stick lit ravers—became a pop culture obsession in the ‘90s, not unlike LSD and cocaine did in previous decades. “X,” or “e,” was once relegated to the margins of society. But by 2000, the drug began to spring up in the American heartland, as described in the Time Magazine piece “The Lure of Ecstasy” by John Cloud. Once again, TV acted as a barometer for the mood of the nation.

Dawson’s Creek (1998–2003), the soapy drama about a group of close-knit teenagers, tapped into this new drug phenomenon with the episode: “Great Xpectations.” The episode begins with Andie (Meredith Monroe) getting into Harvard. She battles with depression, and it is difficult for her to enjoy the success. So when Andie and her friends decide to hit up a rave, she takes an ecstasy tablet in order to let go and have fun.

But the pill causes Andie to faint and suffer a near-death experience. Although she lives, Dawson’s Creek suggests that many others don’t. Andie is a lucky one. This episode of the teen drama told kids: “Don’t do drugs.” It’s a recycled message. But the creators of Dawson’s Creek repackaged it for the ‘90s, using ecstasy as the focal point. It was like holding a mirror up to the millennial drug culture.

Dawson hits the nail on the head when he says the following: “I remember when parties used to be bowling and birthday cakes, you know? Now they’re high-res adventures that could actually kill you. Another perk of growing up in the new millennium.”

The Wire: Feeling for the Dealers

In the post–9/11 world, where the war on drugs took a back seat to the war on terror, a seminal show emerged that would change the conversation about drugs as a topic and television as a medium. That show was David Simon’s The Wire (2002–08).

The HBO series delved into the drug trade in Baltimore, profiling both cops and criminals. Baltimore was to The Wire as Miami was to Miami Vice—a setting that was not just a place but a way of life.

Drug criminals were portrayed as humans, not robotic killing machines. Members of Avon Barksdale’s (Wood Harris) gang often threw around words like family and loyalty. We saw that these criminals had relationships, anxieties, and fears. Yes, they profited from selling drugs, but they also suffered from societal failures: poverty, institutional abandonment, broken education systems, and more.

The criminals weren’t just the bad guys. And the cops weren’t just like good ‘ole Sgt. Friday. They could be seen instigating fights with innocents for a laugh, eating food while surveying bodies in the morgue, or lying to dealers in order to force confessions. And the cops, like their criminal counterparts, suffered from a system that marginalized them as human beings. 

The Wire painted the drug trade in many shades, exploring both drug criminals and cops with equal nuance. It also added to a new stage of drug representation on TV. Audiences were dissuaded from passing judgment on characters and instead encouraged to consider the circumstances that shaped them. Vince Gilligan builds on this model with his show Breaking Bad.


Breaking Bad: Crystal Meth and Humanity

When high school chemistry teacher Walter White is diagnosed with lung cancer, life looks bleak. He does not have the financial means to take care of his family and himself, but he is too proud to ask others for help. Instead, Walt uses his knowledge as a chemistry teacher to cook crystal meth. Walt’s journey from teacher to cook to kingpin is the driving force behind AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008–13).

Breaking Bad is anchored by an anti-hero (not unlike Don Draper of Mad Men and Tony Soprano of The Sopranos). Walt may come to cook meth, then distribute meth, then kill for meth, but audiences still empathize with him. It’s because of his Average Joe status that most of the time, we even root for his success. But when Walt’s cancer is cured and he keeps cooking, we see a pollution of motives. Why does he continue to put his family at risk?

Walt is a hardcore gambler. He could walk away from the table and cash in his chips but instead keeps playing until his luck runs out. Walt doesn’t have to take the drugs he makes to be considered an addict. He is addicted to the rush of being bad. So is Nancy Botwin (played by Mary-Louise Parker) in the Showtime series Weeds. But Walt’s descent into the drug world is far more shocking because of his well-developed underdog persona.

Breaking Bad pushes viewers to consider the character over the crime. In doing so, the lines between good and evil, right and wrong are further blurred—and the story becomes less a product of the time and more a timeless study in human behavior. Whether it’s coffee, power, or crystal meth, addictions large and small consume us. Breaking Bad advances the discussion of drugs on TV by delving into this truth. VIDEO: watch the cast and producers of Breaking Bad at PaleyFest.

From the psychedelic counterculture invasion of Dragnet to the family-man-turned-crystal-meth-dealer in Breaking Bad, drugs have provided inspiration for a litany of TV shows. Over time, the treatment of drugs on TV has evolved. Patronizing lectures gave way to character portraits, the line between right and wrong became a bit harder to distinguish, and the topic of drugs became less important than the idea of addiction. Shows about drugs have changed in many ways, but continue to reel in viewers.

It's easy to get hooked..


About the Author
Paley Center intern Ilana Berman is studying history and film/television at Boston University. She is a native of Miami, Florida, and loves all things TV. Her favorite Breaking Bad character is Saul Goodman because he is an upstanding citizen and fashion icon.