The War on Drugs makes for good drama. It has inspired Hollywood for years and lately a recent surge of television shows like "Breaking Bad," "Weeds" and "The Bridge." These shows are trying to do something new, however — showing the complexity of the conflict, with bad guys on both sides of the border.
For decades people have been fascinated with gangsters and black market economies. Just look at the "Godfather" trilogy or "Scarface," where Al Pacino plays a Cuban immigrant who takes over a drug cartel in 1980s Miami.
University of Southern California professor Josh Kun said the contemporary drug scene along the U.S.-Mexico border makes for especially compelling television because it has gangsters, an underground drug economy and a war.
"It takes those ideas and then experiences them through the lens of the U.S.-Mexico border, which has also had a long history within U.S. popular culture as a sight of exotic fascination, as a sight of danger and marginalization," Kun said.
For a long time Hollywood’s portrayal of Mexicans has featured mostly negative stereotypes. Take actor Demien Bichir. He played a drug lord in Showtime’s "Weeds" and now stars in the new FX drama "The Bridge" as a Mexican police officer. Bichir recently told Fresh Air he has turned down a lot of roles.
"Of course, we in Mexico have given Hollywood a lot of stories, a lot of creepy stories sometimes, corruption stories, and so that's our fault. But sometimes it's a little too much," Bichir said.
But in shows like "The Bridge," "Weeds" and "Breaking Bad," some of those stereotypes are turned around. The villains or scoundrels are often white. The shows go deeper than the surface of the so-called drug war to expose the role of the U.S. consumer fueling the conflicts.
"The Bridge" is based along the El Paso-Juarez border. It’s a crime thriller with the drug war as its subtext. In one scene, a woman rancher in Texas shows her boyfriend the tunnel in her basement that is used to move drugs and immigrants from Mexico into the U.S. Passing them on the stairs, a drug dealer drags a dead body from the U.S. into Mexico.
The central character in "Breaking Bad," an Albuquerque high school chemistry teacher turned meth cook, takes it to a whole new level when he turns the tables on a Ciudad Juarez drug cartel.
Pop culture experts like Kun say some of these new shows have the potential to change the way people think about the U.S. and Mexico.
"It actually tries to understand them as part of a very complex social and economic web that actually has nothing to do with drugs and has everything to do with economics and national territory," Kun said.
The drug war drama extends way beyond the border. The HBO series "The Wire," which ended in 2008, was set in Baltimore. The creator, David Simon, is a former crime reporter. He considers his dramatization of the drug war much more than entertainment. He says it is a critique of unrestrained capitalism that is at the heart of the drug business. Simon shared his views in this interview earlier this year with The Guardian.
"And so then you introduce a War on Drugs, you create inner city areas where the only viable employer is the drug trade," Simon said. "We are the jailingest country on the planet right now."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is a fan of "The Wire," and has asked Simon to write another season. Simon took advantage of the request to ask for policy change. In an email published in the Atlantic Wire, he said OK, as long as the Justice Department will “reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanising drug prohibition.”