Pop culture

'Breaking Bad'-themed letter fools newspaper advice columnist

May 6, 2014 at 8:03 PM ET

IMAGE: Bryan Cranston as Walter White on "Breaking Bad."
Ursula Coyote / AMC
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) on "Breaking Bad" certainly could've driven his TV wife to seek some newspaper advice.

Walter White was the one who knocks, but someone in Winnipeg has decided to be the one who pranks. On May 1, the Winnipeg Free Press published a letter in its Miss Lonelyhearts advice column that described not a real-life problem, but the situation of the fictional Skyler White (Anna Gunn) from AMC's critically acclaimed "Breaking Bad."

The mischievous letter-writer tells the columnist her husband of 15 years was recently diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, and since then has changed, is smoking marijuana, has a second cell phone, and often comes home in the middle of the night with no explanation. The letter-writer also claims to be pregnant, and says she also has a moody son and an overdrawn "chequing" (Canada, eh?) account. The letter is signed, "Stressed and Confused." (No mention is made of a former student and business partner named Jesse — which perhaps would've tipped someone in the writing-and-editing chain off.)

Miss Lonelyhearts, however, misses the show parallel and offers up some serious advice, which Skyler herself could've used. 

"You have to get tough now," she urges. "Your husband knows he's going to die and it won't be long, so he's doing whatever he pleases. He may not be thinking of you, his child and the baby any more, or when he does, it makes him depressed and panicky." The columnist also urges the letter-writer to check into food banks, support for single mothers, and make sure she's using condoms in case the cancer-stricken husband is cheating on her — even lying about the reason if necessary.

"Your husband has focused on his shortened life," she advises. "You must stand up and become a protective Mama Bear to your children."

The columnist may not have noticed she was being punked, but readers did. 

"Just keep him away from old campers," wrote one. "Seriously, Ms.L, you totally got trolled. How did you not pick up on that?"

Wrote another, "Uh ... seriously. Either the letter writer or Miss L seriously thinks we're stupid enough not to recognize the plot of 'Breaking Bad'"?

Free Press editor Paul Samyn admitted in an email to the Poynter Institute that "Miss Lonelyhearts was not in on any joke," writing, "She treats all letters as sincere requests for help."

It's far from the first time a trickster has passed off a fictional plot as a real problem. In April, someone repurposed the storyline of the 1985 music video for "Voices Carry" by 'Til Tuesday, sending it in to Slate's "Dear Prudence" column (last letter on first page) and receiving an answer.

Samyn points out that a 2004 Dear Abby column had to be pulled when editors realized they too had been victims of a TV-centric prank. That letter-writer based their dilemma on a 1990 "Simpsons" episode where blue-haired Marge almost falls for Jacques, her sexy French bowling instructor. D'oh!

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