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TV dramas colored by Mexico’s drug violence

The specter of real-world drug violence is putting a sharper, darker edge on both AMC's "Breaking Bad" and Showtime's "Weeds" even as Mexico's casualties spiral beyond the stuff of fiction.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When "Breaking Bad" features its own "narcocorrido" — drug ballad — in an upcoming episode, it's clear that Mexico's bloody narcotics trafficking culture has seeped into the TV drama.

The same is true for "Weeds," which shifted from homegrown American drug stories when it transplanted its marijuana-dealing mom closer to the California-Mexican border last season.

The specter of real-world drug violence is putting a sharper, darker edge on the TV dramas even as Mexico's casualties spiral beyond the stuff of fiction. Both AMC's "Breaking Bad" and Showtime's "Weeds" remain focused on domestic worlds and characters who turn to crime because of financial pressures, the shows' producers say, but the devastating foreign narcotics wars can't be ignored.

Drug violence has spiked since Mexican President Felipe Calderon began a national crackdown on organized crime in 2006. Battles among cartels, their rivals and soldiers have led to nearly 9,000 deaths and a cross-border crime spillover.

In recent weeks, the mayhem has included a grenade attack on a city police chief's house and a police station in the western state of Michoacan, and a deadly campaign aimed at killing a Ciudad Juarez officer every 48 hours to force the police chief to resign.

"We don't live in a vacuum and when my writers and myself read these stories in the newspapers, naturally our minds turn to the idea of incorporating some of these elements into our series," said "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan.

The Emmy Award-winning series stars Bryan Cranston as a cancer-stricken New Mexico chemistry teacher, Walter White, who becomes a methamphetamine maker to leave his family secure. This week, it received a Peabody Award, a prize given by the University of Georgia for excellence in radio and television broadcasting.

A crescendo of brutalityThe show's first year ended in a crescendo of brutality. Walter started doing business with a Mexican drug lord who, in the season finale, beat an underling in a fatal frenzy — leaving Walter to deal with the aftermath in this year's opening episode.

In the April 19 episode, Walter's brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), an agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency, starts work with a task force that includes the Mexican federal police.

"I don't want to give away the plot, but Hank does spend a little time outside Juarez (Ciudad Juarez, near El Paso in northern Mexico) and witnesses some pretty remarkable things," Gilligan said.

The same episode opens with a narcocorrido music video celebrating the exploits of a mysterious American, a maker of top-notch meth who is risking the wrath of the Mexican drug cartels, Gilligan said. Heisenberg — Walter's drug-dealer alias — is "a dead man who doesn't know it," the song by Los Cuates de Sinaloa chillingly warns.

Last year on "Weeds," Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) fled to the fictional Southern California town of Ren Mar and ended up involved in cross-border drug deals and in a relationship with the corrupt mayor of Tijuana, Mexico.

"We chose this area because we felt that it was hot and it was blowing up and we'd have stories to tell for a long time," said series creator Jenji Kohan. "So we're not surprised that there's endless stories and it's just getting hotter."

While her characters may be in fictional danger, the production has refrained from venturing into beleaguered Mexican states. Some scenes were filmed near the border but in California, according to Showtime.

"Weeds" has no political agenda — "We're here to entertain," Kohan said — but doesn't ignore the U.S. role in the drug wars.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently rebuked America's demand for drugs and failure to stop the flow of weapons that fuels Mexico's bloodshed.

Fact and fiction intersect on ‘Weeds’"I don't think we shy away from indicting Americans and their roles in abetting the corruption and the crime and the killing and the drug trade," Kohan said. "I don't think we shy away from the farce that is the border. There's culpability all around."

Mexico Under Siege

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Mexico Under Siege

The death toll is spiraling throughout Mexico as a war between the country's government and the drug cartels intensifies.

Production was set to begin this week on the fourth season of "Weeds," and Kohan says it likely will include intersections between fact and the show's fiction. But those contact points will be unanticipated, she said.

Stories that appear "ripped from the headlines" can unfold because the show's writers imagined such events "and we were proved right," said Kohan, citing last season's story line about hidden, sophisticated Mexico-U.S. drug distribution tunnels.

Does the show have to guard against being consumed by real-world drama?

"Oh, sure," Kohan replied. "We could go on and on about political intrigue and murder and violence in Mexico, but it's got to relate to how our characters are doing and what they're doing. Ultimately, we've got to take care of our people first."

The same is true for "Breaking Bad," Gilligan said.

"I don't think anything we read in the paper pushes us in any direction," he said. "Ultimately, it comes down to this one character, Walter White, and how the terrible decision he's making will impact him and his loved ones."

Besides, he said, spinning tales is what screenwriters do. "Breaking Bad" can do without the jolt of awful real-world violence that has claimed so many victims.

"We're professional liars who can make a story work for the audience. We don't need an extra layer of verisimilitude," Gilligan said. "As a citizen of the U.S. and of the world, I'd just as soon not have it going on — but we don't shy away from it."