From Miami Vice, to The Wire, to Orange Is the New Black, scripted TV shows have had a serious and sometimes unrecognized impact on public attitudes about drugs in America.



For 50 years, the U.S. has declared war on drugs. This week, NPR looks back on many facets of that fight. Our TV critic Eric Deggans says decades of scripted TV dramas have informed and misinformed perceptions of that war.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: David Simon created two of TV's most groundbreaking depictions of the failure of the war on drugs - HBO's "The Corner" and "The Wire."


DEGGANS: One classic scene from "The Wire" features a police lieutenant explaining how constant drug arrests in poor Black neighborhoods have destroyed officers' connection to the community they're supposed to serve.


ROBERT WISDOM: (As Howard Colvin) I mean, you call something a war, and pretty soon, everybody going to be running around, acting like warriors. They're going to be running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body count. And soon, the neighborhood that you supposed to be policing - that's just occupied territory.

DEGGANS: But Simon calls himself a, quote, "cockeyed pessimist" about actually ending that war. He says cop shows are part of the problem.

DAVID SIMON: I don't think we can win this narrative.

DEGGANS: Simon says many of these shows are written and filmed from the perspective of law enforcement.

SIMON: It's just too much fun for normative America, for the America that isn't vulnerable to these policies, to put the cameras next to the cops and venture in, like it's our modern-day Western.

DEGGANS: America's war on drugs was officially declared in June 1971 by President Nixon, who called drug abuse public enemy No. 1. Polls show the American public now mostly sees the war on drugs as a failure. And experts like Johanna Blakley, managing director of the Norman Lear Center, say the messaging in fictional TV series can be more influential than facts in news reports.

JOHANNA BLAKLEY: Entertainment is probably much more effective in terms of changing people's values and attitudes and beliefs and behavior even than news programming is. It kind of gets under that radar.


DEGGANS: Early police dramas like "Dragnet" set the example.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The story you're about to see is true.

DEGGANS: "Dragnet," on the air in the 1950s and '60s, lionized straight-arrow police detectives who lectured young people over how a hit of marijuana could lead to a raging heroin habit. Here's Joe Friday, played by Jack Webb.


JACK WEBB: (As Joe Friday) I know that, in fact, too many kids that begin with pot end up with heroin, then onto LSD. The minute they drop one acid capsule or ingest it in any way, they bought the farm. They've lost any chance to depend on and even restore that most precious of all inner senses - judgment.

DEGGANS: But it wasn't until NBC unveiled a little TV show called "Miami Vice" in 1984 that the war on drugs on TV got a serious makeover.


DEGGANS: It was an iconic hit based on flashy undercover cops, with hunky stars Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, MTV fast editing and a throbbing theme song from Jan Hammer.


DEGGANS: Oscar-nominated director Michael Mann was the executive producer of "Miami Vice." He says the energy of South Florida was its secret sauce.

MICHAEL MANN: South Florida was magic. It was really "Casablanca." It was also the northern banking capitol for the whole of the South American drug trade. And it was just this gorgeous Caribbean twilight zone in which anything seemed possible.

DEGGANS: Mann says the show's premise was inspired by laws allowing police to use any assets seized in drug arrests. Storylines sometimes came from shady characters producers met while hanging out in Miami nightclubs. But culture critic Nelson George says the glamour of "Miami Vice" also united America's gangster obsession with its law and order obsession.

NELSON GEORGE: What's interesting about "Miami Vice" is that Michael Mann understood what to give the veneer of the drug dealer - to give them the clothes and the cars. Now, that's sexy.

DEGGANS: One year before "Miami Vice" went off the air, a 1989 Gallup poll showed Americans had a record level of concern over drug abuse, fueled by the crack epidemic and worries about drugs imported from Mexico. But fast forward 10 years and new cable TV shows shifted the narrative to humanize drug users and dealers, including David Simon's "The Wire." In 2002, FX debuted "The Shield," an acclaimed series about a rogue abusive cop. Creator Shawn Ryan noticed, as he was writing the show, that public sentiment about drug users changed as people's idea of who was using drugs also changed.

SHAWN RYAN: I think it was easy for white America to have one point of view about the drug war when it was mostly hitting minority communities. What really changed was the opioid epidemic that began to affect people across all races and especially white people and especially people in rural communities.

DEGGANS: But viewers' ignorance about the racial inequities of the drug war may also have been inspired by TV. The Lear Center's Johanna Blakley says two different studies show popular police dramas often avoided depicting how people of color are disproportionately arrested and jailed on drug charges.


REGINA SPEKTOR: (Singing) The animals, the animals - trap, trap, trap till the cage is full.

DEGGANS: Netflix's Emmy-winning "Orange Is The New Black" debuted in 2013. It was among several modern dramas presenting a more critical and inclusive vision of the criminal justice system. But cultural critic Nelson George says there are some realities TV still struggles to face.

GEORGE: Americans are junkies. You name it - Americans like to get high. And that's the reality that America does not want to face.

DEGGANS: After more than five decades depicting the war on drugs, seems a TV industry still has a few things to learn and more stories to tell. I'm Eric Deggans.

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