The 10 most memorable drug moments on TV
Showtime’s new series Weeds (debuting Sunday, Aug. 7, at 11 p.m.) could be especially controversial, not because it’s about a suburban mom who makes ends meet by dealing marijuana but because it refuses to judge her behavior. Usually, TV comes down firmly on one side or the other on the subject of drugs (almost always anti-, though on occasions pro-). Take a trip with us back through time, all the way back to the 1960s (drugs apparently hadn’t yet been invented during the Leave It to Beaver 1950s), to relive the highs and lows of TV’s drug history.
Jack Webb launched the ’60s incarnation of his pioneering police procedural with a pilot episode called ”The LSD Story,” with Webb’s Sgt. Friday confronting a crazed acid casualty who calls himself the Blue Boy. Later the same year, in ”The Big High,” Friday busts a pot party at the home of a hippie couple who let their toddler drown in the bathtub while they’re stoned. Intended Message Drugs and the counterculture are destroying the fabric of society. Actual Message Friday, you’re a humorless buzz kill.
Over at CBS, the blatantly political Smothers Brothers saw their variety show yanked, in part for the overt drug humor of sketches like the recurring ”Share a Little Tea With Goldie.” But at NBC’s variety show Laugh-In, where the jokes flew by at Airplane! speed, drug humor was delivered with a wink and under the radar. Co-host Dick Martin told EW that the pilot episode contained seven pot jokes, but the network censors ”didn’t get one of them.” Intended Message Drugs are funny. Actual Message Drugs are hip.
Go Ask Alice (1973)
This movie-of-the-week was adapted from a best-selling novel about a teenage girl who experiments with various drugs, becomes a prostitute, and dies. Co-stars included William Shatner as her hapless dad and Andy Griffith as a with-it priest. Bonus unintended-irony points for the appearance by future celebrity drug abuser Mackenzie Phillips as an addicted street urchin. Intended Message Drugs will make your life miserable, then kill you. Actual Message Yeah, but the kids who don’t do drugs are geeks.
Good Times (1976)
In the two-part episode ”J.J.’s Fiancée,” J.J. (Jimmie Walker) leaves Chicago to elope with his girlfriend Diana (a pre-Fame Debbie Allen), only to learn that she’s a heroin addict in desperate need of a fix. Intended Message Heroin is bad. Actual Message You’re not safe outside the bosom of your family.
Angel Dusted (1981)
A made-for-TV movie that was later edited down into an Afterschool Special, this morality tale stars Jean Stapleton as a mom who sees her kids suffer the disastrous effects of experimenting with PCP. In the movie’s most memorable moment, daughter Helen Hunt jumps through a plate-glass second-story window, then shouts, ”It doesn’t hurt!” Intended Message Angel dust will make you do dangerous things. Actual Message But you’ll laugh about them later.
Diff’rent Strokes (1983)
Helping to usher in TV’s ”very special episode” trend, an installment called ”The Reporter” follows Arnold (Gary Coleman) as he gets citywide, then nationwide attention for an article he wrote in the school paper about grade-school drug use. First Lady Nancy Reagan stops by for moral support. Bonus unintended-irony points for the presence of regular cast members and future celebrity drug abusers Todd Bridges and Dana Plato. Intended Message ”Just Say No.” Actual Message ”What’choo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”
Family Ties (1983)
In the ”Speed Trap” episode, Alex (Michael J. Fox) is trying to keep up with his school work, so he persuades Mallory (Justine Bateman) to score diet pills for him. The amphetamines make him more hyper and irritable, and his growing dependency leads him to threaten his sister if she doesn’t get him more pills. Intended Message Even some legal drugs can be dangerous and addictive. Actual Message You don’t have to be a liberal to do drugs.
Partnership for a Drug-Free America ad (1987)
This blunt but indelible commercial shows a whole egg while the voice-over says, ”This is your brain.” Then the egg is cracked into a skillet, where it sizzles. ”This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” The ad became such a pop-culture staple that the Partnership updated it a decade later to evoke the effects of heroin, with a pre-stardom Rachael Leigh Cook using a similar skillet to smash up her entire kitchen. Intended Message Drugs fry your brain. Actual Message Mmm…eggs.
That ’70s Show (1998)
TV’s first unabashedly pro-pot sitcom rarely shows its characters actually lighting up, but it indicates when its characters are getting high in the Forman basement via the show’s trademark camera trick, the 360-degree whip-pan around the smoky room. Each character gets to exhale a bon mot before the camera turns to the next person. Intended Message Stoners are funny. Actual Message Stoners are clueless.
Six Feet Under (2003)
On this series, drug use is frequent, varied (pot, ecstasy, crack, alcohol), and both beneficial and harmful. An example: In the episode ”You Never Know,” Ruth (Frances Conroy) and Bettina (Kathy Bates) help Ruth’s sister, Sarah (Patricia Clarkson), kick Vicodin. But while Sarah is upstairs, writhing in cold-turkey agony, Ruth and Bettina are in the garden, sampling and enjoying her stash of pills. Intended Message Sometimes drugs are good, sometimes bad. Actual Message Too bad you can’t tell until it’s too late.
What do you think? Did we miss any classic moments? How do you think television handles the drug issue? Should the subject be addressed more on TV, or does the medium’s depiction of drug use do more harm than good?