Mass Media and the Power of Televised Addiction
by Emma Haylett
The average American youth watches 1,200 hours of television per year—that’s 300 more hours than they spend in school, if you’re wondering. It equates to 1200 minutes per day of time spent in front of a glowing screen, time that used to be spent—well, we don’t remember, do we? Television is everywhere we look, present in the lives of children and adults, teens, tweens, babies. And chances are, your knowledge base is far greater now, you’re more an expert on current events since you picked up The News Room, you know more about drugs than when you started watching Breaking Bad.
Well-produced television has the unique ability to accidentally educate us in ways other media can’t. By presenting to the audience an artistic depiction of an addict, we become instant experts. The problem is in identifying what is accurate and what is not. Below, we look at three popular addiction-based (or drug producing) television shows and their portrayal of the addict and their addiction. Caution: may contain spoilers if you’ve watched less than half the series.
This show, which aired from 2005 until 2012, told the story of Nancy Botwin, a widowed mother of three who began selling and producing marijuana in an attempt to maintain her ritzy lifestyle. Though she begins as a pot dealer, she eventually rises to high ranking member of an international drug cartel. Like many shows of this nature, Weeds explored the ground between protagonist and antagonist, allowing them to be one in the same.
While main character Nancy doesn’t smoke weed, other characters in the show are often seen smoking and, on occasion, doing cocaine. The portrayal of the effects of marijuana use is fairly accurate—smokers experience anxiety, hunger, red eyes, etc. Where the show struggles is in the portrayal of the drug dealing world, which varies greatly by drug, something Weeds fails to take into full consideration.
The show has also been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes—an unwed mother with a bad attitude who is also black, a Hispanic maid, an Indian man at the Quikeemart, a number of Jewish family members who fall into unfortunate stereotypical categories.
Shameless (the American version)
While other drugs are occasionally depicted in Shameless, the show focuses largely on the alcoholism of Frank, a negligent (at best) father. This year, the show enters its fourth season following the lives of the sixth Gallagher children who have learned to function in spite of their father. Unlike other shows that explore alcoholism, the central focus of Shameless is the effect of alcoholism on the family. Creators also were interested in the larger conversation about poverty and alcohol abuse, which the show explores.
The show is at times a bit outlandish, Frank’s behavior is fairly accurate for that of an alcoholic. He is moody, irresponsible with money, and manipulative. He’s quick to sell out his own children for personal gain, and seeks relationships that are extremely one-sided. Frank’s family is often disappointed by his behavior, but learns to stop making excuses for him. Perhaps most heartbreaking are the scenes with his youngest daughter, who defends her father throughout his alcoholism and is continually let down, despite her eternal optimism. Frank’s fleeting sobriety is also accurate of many addicts—minor attempts completed for short term rewards.
In its final season, AMC’s Breaking Bad tackles what is perhaps the darkest world of all—the use, abuse, and production of methamphetamine in what appears to be a nice (read: safe) urban setting. The premise of the show is simple—a chemistry teacher gets cancer and, in an attempt to provide for his family, begins secretly producing meth so that he can afford treatment and leave a little extra cash. We learn early on that it is not that simple, of course.
While the show could be criticized for the need to create such an elaborate scenario in order to show middle-upper class white people using or making drugs, it does fairly represent the depths of meth addiction and the potentially corrupt nature of money and power.
We see poverty stricken addicts living in squalor who fail to care for infants, domestic abuse, and a variety of addiction-related deaths, ranging from murder to overdose. Breaking Bad creates a dangerous (by realistic) world in which nothing (minus the striking blue meth) is beautiful. Characters struggle internally and externally to get clean, to get power, to get out.
Television is a powerful tool, and by accurately portraying the darker side of drug and alcohol abuse, we broaden the knowledge base of people who may not otherwise access information. There is a certain obligation then to be truthful and accurate, while still manufacturing the drama these programs are famous for. When a well-produced program can change perceptions, it is worth celebrating—if for no other reason than it helps us feel less alone.
Emma Haylett believes in books that make you want to eat the pages. When she’s not at graduate school or serving as a Certified Prevention Specialist Intern, you can find her advocating for innovative drug and alcohol treatment across the United States.