Editor’s Note: We here at Points are happy to welcome back guest blogger Ross Aikins, a self-proclaimed sports-nerd, journalist, teacher, and postdoctoral fellow at the National Development and Research Institutes in New York City. A recent PhD from UCLA’s School of Education, Ross blogs at www.yourblogondrugs.com. Today, he provides us with a meditation on one of television’s great drug-related programs, Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad might be the greatest TV show ever about drugs. And it’s about to end.
For those not familiar, Breaking Bad is an exceptionally high-quality AMC drama about a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White who, after discovering that he has terminal cancer, resorts to cooking meth in order to provide for his family’s future. His (literal) partner in crime is Jesse Pinkman, a former student of Walter’s and amateur meth-maker. Needless to say, the story gets complicated from there. You can read a fuller synopsis here.
What you need to know about Breaking Bad is that it is a critical hit, having won Emmys to date. It’s days are numbered, though, as it’s just entered the halfway mark of its fifth and final season that concludes next year.
Now read that completely loaded first sentence again and consider the pedantic lunacy of what I’m about to argue. What does it mean to be a qualitatively “great” show? And what makes a show “about drugs” anyway? Granted, these are hopelessly subjective classifications, but this is a drug history blog. For the sake of argument, let’s consider the entire history of television within our purview. I’ll respond to those two questions in reverse order.
- A show is “about drugs” either if its central plot revolves around drugs or if the main characters are addicts, dealers, cops, an anthropomorphic pothead talking towel, or otherwise primarily involved in the drug trade.
A good “about drugs” litmus test would be if somebody who had never seen a particular show were to ask an ardent fan “what’s that show about?” The first words in any credible response would have to include “drugs.” Lots of people love Sons of Anarchy, where drugs are a recurrent theme. But SOA fails that test since it is primarily about “biker gangs.” Similarly, The Sopranos is about a mafia family.
A show is also not “about drugs” if drugs or addiction are only an occasional subplot or multi-episode arc. For example, just because Jessie Spano was hooked on pep pills and The Pointer Sisters does not make “Saved By the Bell” a show about drugs. Same goes for the time Roger Sterling dropped acid, or the time Homer Simpson ate a hallucinogenic chili pepper.
In fact, let’s rule out comedies altogether. Drugs aren’t supposed to be funny, despite the best intentions of Daniel Tosh, Frank Reynolds, Workaholics, and both Chong and Cheech. Such performers belong to an entire genre of television predicated on the implicit notion that their humour is best enjoyed under the influence of drugs (well, pot). Now that’s a different blog entirely.
Nor are we talking about shows that may or may not themselves act as addictive drugs, such as the recent weekend I mainlined a season of Downton Abbey, or almost anytime A&E decides to run a Storage Wars marathon (neither of these shows are at all about drugs). This phenomenon surely—and embarrassingly—takes a multitude of different forms and, frankly, would be a misread of the criteria for this debate.
All this talk of television addiction and shame brings us to another rule: no reality shows. Intervention, True Life, and pretty much anything containing Dr. Drew unquestionably meet the “about drugs” criteria. But are any of these really “great”? It’s tempting to exempt MTV’s seminal reality series The Real World from this stipulation since it’s (arguably) a fascinating anthropological record of the evolution of substance use and general debauchery. I’ll just put that longitudinal content analysis of Real World cast members’ drug problems on my idea board for now. Besides, their primary drug of choice is alcohol.
Not that alcohol doesn’t or shouldn’t count, but Al Bundy and Archie Bunker’s well-intentioned drinking habits weren’t central to their respective stories, and Boardwalk Empire—while a fine program—isn’t about the right era. Also excluded are shows that are retroactively unintentionally about drugs because of latent revelations about performer or screenwriter addiction (e.g. the Charlie Sheen Era of Two and a Half Men, or any season of Saturday Night Live).
Thus by deduction, this debate boils down to television dramas. Weeds makes a fair case for inclusion, and Skins is intriguing because of its very concurrent focus on youth prescription drug use. Also virtually any “cop show” counts, with particular respect to Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, The Shield, or any of the CSI’s. But because each of these commercially and critically successful dramas were objectively eclipsed in every measure of quality, acclaim, and “about drug-iness” by The Wire, we’ll just say “The Wire.”
2. What makes any show “about drugs” the “greatest” ever?
For anybody who considers television to be banal, trite, or unworthy of scholarly pursuit, get ready to be impressed by the sheer amount of ridiculously overthought television scholarship available at your local research library. An informal survey of NYU’s stacks reveal over two dozen books specifically about The Simpsons, seven on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (!), only one about The Wire, and nothing solely about Breaking Bad. Though this quick bibliometric exercise is hardly conclusive, I’d say it proves that TV is an (apparently) rich area of scholarship. At least to some.
Wading deeper into the esoteric waters of pop-cultural nerdery reveals that there are two main factors that support the scholarly assumption that, unlike film, all of the objectively “best” television programs are relatively contemporary and most old shows are crap.
First, in “Everything Bad is Good for You” author Steven Johnson contends that good TV makes us smarter, not dumber, as evidenced by the complexity of serial dramas such as Hill Street Blues and The Sopranos, compared with, say, Dragnet. In other words (paraphrasing George Will) a more sophisticated delivery of stupid content represents cultural progress. Author and documentarian Martin Torgoff extended this critique of Dragnet in part because of its comically inaccurate portrayal of the real drug scene. So basically Dragnet is out, along with everything before 1985.
This brings us to the second reason why contemporary television dominates this debate about the “greatest show about drugs”: the gradual erosion of censorship, combined with the emergence of HBO and other racy premium programming exploded previous standards of realism in programming. This isn’t as salient in a debate about great television sitcoms or dramas that aren’t as dependent on edgy content to gain pop-cultural significance. But we’re talking about drugs.
Mad Men is the perfect postmodern application of these two phenomena (the increasing sophistication of serial dramas, and the decline of censorship) resulting in the undisputed superiority of contemporary television. As a society, it took us half a century to create a show that even baby boomer viewers concede portrays the ‘60s as both compelling and realistic.
It’s not that “great” shows didn’t exist in decades past, but great shows about womanizing ad executives, prisons, mafia families, biker gangs, or—importantly—drugs, couldn’t have existed previously. At least not like they exist today, attracting diverse viewership, amassing critical acclaim, and dominating the Emmys.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a show or moment in TV history where the standard of drug realism was reset to approximately where we are now with The Wire and Breaking Bad. Scholars point to several such moments where censorship barriers were chipped away meaningfully in other cultural contexts with race relations (All in the Family, Chapelle’s Show), violence (e.g. Oz, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and sex (Star Trek, Girls), which includes a dearth of books on drawing popular culture slowly “out” of the cathode closet. But there’s very little “scholarship” on the advancement of drug depictions on television.
This brings us, finally, to the greatest show ever about drugs. After eliminating everything but recent serial dramas that pivot around drugs, we’re essentially left with only two contenders: Breaking Bad versus The Wire.
Let’s not suspend the resolution of this debate any further: the winner is clearly The Wire. It has to be. Decades from now, no Ivy League media studies or urban studies curricula will be taught around Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan may be a great showrunner, but he will never receive a MacArthur “genius” grant. The best case for Breaking Bad, however, is that it’s not over yet. And if the series trajectory is any indication of what’s to come, Breaking Bad is getting deeper into the milieu of the legal system, penitentiaries, and other dark nooks and crannies of the meth trade. In other words, it’s becoming more like The Wire.
But it’s still not, nor will it be. These two fine shows are unique and dissimilar both in style and purpose. Breaking Bad is more of a character-driven drama. The Wire is an entire sociology of Baltimore that just happens to be a show. Moral repercussions are visible in both series, but they seem less balanced and realistic in Breaking Bad, which I would argue is its biggest failing.
The key difference between the respective role of drugs in each show is in how they portray the collateral effects of addiction, corruption, and associated violence. Drugs cause death and drama in both shows, but The Wire pushed their reach far further into complicated and obscured corners of society in ways that were novel for TV and far too well-researched to not be real. Breaking Bad is just a really good show about some really bad stuff.
In her book “Two Asprins and a Comedy” Metta Spencer extends on Johnson’s thesis and argues that, vicariously or empathetically, good television can enhance health and society. But the corollary case is less clear, which becomes problematic in a series that challenges viewers to root for or against a meth-dealing protagonist.
Think about that: meth dealing protagonists. How is this not a fundamental contradiction? And what does it say about America that arguably the best show currently is about methamphetamine? Fans would probably argue that paradoxical characters are one reason why the show is so compelling. The problem is that it’s still meth.
Breaking Bad has gripping moments of tragedy. But it’s clearly a fiction, and drugs are the vehicle to tell a dark anti-heroic story with a tighter cast of characters. Compared to The Wire, consequences in the Breaking Bad universe require a far greater suspension of belief, which is only egregious when considering that Breaking Bad’s focal drug is meth, “the world’s most dangerous drug.” This is a TV show with a broken moralistic rudder. Although, based on the title of the show, that’s arguably the entire point.
I’m assuming that the whole final season is already completely shot and just waiting to be released next summer. But if there was a right way to end it (with no spoilers, just a bold prediction) that “right way” might involve addressing the nastiness of meth. Breaking Bad might be the show most “about drugs” of all time, but it’s not the greatest.
 Spoiler alert disclaimer: Breaking Bad is over for the year, but regardless, this blog is pretty spoiler free.
 I know, it’s confusing, don’t ask.
 South Park fans will get this, but Towelie is not a “main” character, thus he (?) is not the best example.
 If you just read this and it evoked anything involving a Kardashian, then lord help you.
 Okay, okay, I’m making up additional arbitrary rules, but we’ve got to whittle this list down somehow. Plus, is Boardwalk Empire really at the level of Breaking Bad or The Wire?
 Speaking of writers, I don’t know why I felt inclined to include them here. Blame the SNL historiography “Live from New York” or film “Permanent Midnight” for the following hyperbole, but isn’t the default assumption that every television writer in Hollywood is on drugs?
 For example, while my index scanning of television criticism for “drugs” was unfruitful, most of these books about TV contain multiple cross-references to Karl Marx, despite Marx having died over a half-century before the invention of the cathode ray tube. I’m just saying.
 Or at least my parents.
 This is probably why there’s so much Buffy scholarship. Lisa Parks does this in her chapter “Brave New Buffy: Rethinking TV Violence” in Quality Popular Television.
 Trivia: the first interracial kiss on television was between Captain Kirk and Uhura.
 I’m referencing the fine book on LGBT film studies The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo (and the related documentary). Someone should write the spinoff book about LGBT-TV and thank me for thinking of the title. There are many books about Ellen, Will and Grace, etc.
 As was the case with The Wire at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, followed by Harvard University, the University of Virginia … there’s probably a lot of courses about The Wire. Can I stop hyperlinking now?
 Which The Wire creator David Simon did. After which he went on to produce the fabulously sincere and utterly unwatchable post-Katrina New Orleans series Treme.
 R.I.P. Wallace.
 Jesse’s heroin-addicted girlfriend, Hank, and poor, poor Jesse.