Addiction and Media
by Matthew Beale — Old Dominion University
November 01, 2012 – 07:36
This month the front page looks at drug culture and begins with drug trade in television and convergence culture. Representations of drug culture on television have been around for years, but only recently have fictional television shows begun to make them central pieces of their story. Shows like Weeds, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Nurse Jackie feature characters selling drugs, buying drugs, using drugs, and producing drugs. Each of these shows indexes these aspects of the drug trade in different ways, creating a varied representation of drug production and consumption.
Jason Mitchell provides us with an important context for this month in his blog on The Wire’s place on the TV landscape that he has his students read when teaching his course on the show. It begins with a history of HBO and its original programming and moves into a discussion of how Oz, Deadwood, and the Sopranos paved the way for The Wire. Perhaps most essential to our theme this month, there is a discussion of the complex narrative of the story at the end and the aesthetic and stylistic choices that the show’s creators made regarding the delivery of the narrative. Mitchell notes that The Wire’s creator, David Simon, and co-creator Ed Burns come from backgrounds outside of television (journalism and law enforcement/teaching, respectively). The naturalistic vision of the show’s premise is interesting to consider in contrast to the highly dramatized vision of television vet Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad.
This difference in representation can be understood even further in this essay by Tomas Hachard that discusses Walter White as a classically tragic figure. Hachard sets White up in opposition to Tony Soprano and characters from The Wire, arguing that neither Soprano nor any major characters from The Wire underwent the change necessary to be considered a classically tragic figure. This is interesting to think about as we consider representations of drugs and drug culture in the media. Dramatically, drugs are often used as catalysts for change. This is frequently alluded to in Breaking Bad, as we see Walter White’s mixing of chemicals to produce his blue methamphetamine mirror his mental state and reflect the numerous changes that his character has undergone in the four and a half seasons of the show.
Much as The Wire was not produced within a vacuum, Breaking Bad is purposefully set within a cultural moment. In his book Complex TV, currently being open reviewed on MediaCommons Press, Jason Mittel notes that Walter White’s character starts out as a kind of male counterpart to Nancy Botwin from Weeds, the “‘respectable’ middle class parent entering into illegal drug business in a moment of crisis,” and builds on Bryan Cranston’s earlier work as the father in Malcolm in the Middle to transfer some suburban sympathy into the new show.
The intersections between these shows and reality are mixed and relate very much back to the audiences reflecting on the shows. For instance, in “The Uncannily Accurate Depiction of the Meth Trade in ‘Breaking Bad’” Patrick Radden Keefe remarks on how very similar the trade culture in Breaking Bad resembles the research he’s done on Mexican drug cartels. While significantly less academic reactions to the show Weeds show the disconnect between narrative and reality and reminds us of the difference between overarching drug culture and individual drug cultures.
Drug culture is not only addressed in grand narratives on major television networks. Addiction is a common topic for reality television as well. One of the longest running reality shows is Intervention, which narrates the process of an addict from intervention to rehabilitation. While a television show based in reality, the show seems much more connected to to grand narratives like Breaking Bad or Nurse Jackie. In “Everybody Hurts: Addiction, Drama, and the Family Television Show Intervention,” Jason R. Kosovski and Douglas C. Smith argue that the type of rehabilitation that individuals in Intervention receive is not what most addicts will, including the pervasive use of resort like treatment centers and such representations may endanger those needing help (854). The success of Intervention has led to other addiction based reality shows, like My Strange Addiction, a show that chronicles culturally unacceptable compulsions like eating rocks and drinking urine. The show calls into question what counts as an addiction and provides viewers with anything but antiheroes.
Convergence culture is critical to the discussion of mainstream media. The much loved shows addressed within this post have, of course been responded to online. The participatory aspect of this makes for the desire to put these kinds of shows into conversation with other media. For instance, “The Wire as RPG,” a video made by collegehumor.com, mashes The Wire with 80’s style video games. The juxtaposition both pays homage to and undercuts the show; Intensity is sacrificed for laughs. However, it also functions as a cultural critique. Mashups are often created as parody and here is another that mashes two shows loved by similar audiences: Breaking Bad and Arrested Development. Similar issues work in The Oatmeal’s “Proximity to violence vs. Amount of hair on one’s head.” Here, the creator of Oatmeal points out the show’s own tropes while also playing with them.
These examples of online convergence culture get at something deeper than play, though. Convergence culture and the need to continue to be part of worlds that traditionally were meant to be passively watched is, if not an addiction, certainly a way more and more of us are spending our time. The official The Wire ran through March 2008; however, “The Wire as RPG” was original content posted by College Humor in September of 2012. The show remains socially relevant because of its fans. This brings us to our final discussion, with The Wire, and Weeds finished and Breaking Bad in its final season, is this a cultural phenomenon in decline?
In the next two weeks we will be taking on addiction, new media, and work. We will also discuss the term ‘addiction’ itself and what addictions are approved of by society.
College Humor Staff. “The Wire as RPG.” College Humor. 6 September 2012. Web. 8 September 2012.
Gazer, Eliot. “Breaking Bad Arrested Development Mashup.” Vulture. 19 October 2012. Web. 24 October 2012.
Hachard, Thomas. “The Beginning of the End of Walter White.” NPR. 10 July 2012. Web. 20 October 2012.
“Hooray Showtime’s Weeds is Finally CANCELLED.” Stuff Stoners LIke. 19 June 2012. Web. 30 October 2012.
Inman, Matthew. “Proximity to violence vs. Amount of hair on one’s head.” The Oatmeal. Web.15 October 2012. Web.
Keefe, Patrick Raden. “The Uncannily Accurate Depiction of the Meth Trade in ‘Breaking Bad.’” The New Yorker. 13 July 2012. Web. 23 October 2012
Kosovski, Jason and Douglas C. Smith. “Everybody Hurts: Addiction, Drama, and the Family in the Reality Television show Intervention.” Substance Use & Misuse. 46:852-858. 2011. Web. 24 October 2012.
Mittel, Jason. Complex TV. MediaCommons. Web. 20 October 2012.
Mittell, Jason. “The Wire in contest of American television.” MediaCommons. 9 February, 2010. 20 October 2012.