If there is one lesson to take away from the success of “Breaking Bad” it is that the role of the drug dealer on TV shows has changed over the decades of the medium’s existence in a way that those writing for TV shows in the 1950s could never have imagined in their wildest dreams. You need do nothing more than watch TV shows dealing with drug dealers in a chronological pattern to learn just how much the concept of morality underwent a sea change in the latter half of the 20th century.
Iconic tough guy Mike Hammer may seem an odd fit for the guy who played quirky Carl Kolchak to such perfection, but yes, it was Darren McGavin giving drug dealers the business in an episode titled “A Shot in the Arm.” While that title clearly references back to the popular film “The Man with the Golden Arm” one cannot but be a bit taken aback at its rather explicit meaning for a show produced in 1958. What is even more shocking about this early portrayal of drug dealers on American TV is the junkie whose aunt and uncle have come to Mike Hammer for help in getting her off heroin. The drug dealers facing off against Mike Hammer were no idiots. They went after an upscale target sure to have much easier access to ready supplies of cash than the low-lifes you might expect to see in a story about drug addiction on 1958 television.
“Dragnet” features probably the most iconic image of a drug dealer in all of 1960s TV. Not your average drug dealer, either, if not necessarily a precursor to the anti-hero drug dealer image of Walter White. In this case, it is the drug dealer himself who calls the upper-middle-class of American strata home, though you can bet that a good many of those kids who are buying his stash of the newest drug in town also have pretty nice houses back home. The new drug in town in this particular portrait of a drug dealer on “Dragnet” is closer to what Walter White gets involved with because it is also a chemical creation. The downward spiral and ultimate end of the drug dealer known as “Blue Boy” can be seen coming from a mile away. Far more interesting and featuring one of the all-time classic scenes in TV history is the portrait of a drug dealer as hippie guru (based on Timothy Leary) in the episode “The Big Prophet. Needless to say, both psychedelic versions of a dealer of hallucinogenic drugs are about as far away from “Breaking Bad” as it is possible to get.
This anthology series featured a number of episodes about drug dealers, but one of the more interesting has to be “The Ho Chi Minh Trail.” For one thing, the unusual title refers to the often murky line that connects low-life street drug dealers to the big-game traffickers. Those street dealers are about as stereotypical as drug dealers come in in 1970s TV shows: loud, flashy, young black dudes. Heck, one of the drug dealers is even played by the guy who played Huggy Bear! The traffickers pulling in the real money are strikingly different. An older white doctor and a much more professional black man who brings us much closer to “Breaking Bad” than “Dragnet” ever got. In fact, you just may be ever so slightly reminded of a certain chicken restaurant mogul.
If the definition of an anti-hero includes an aspect of desiring to him on our TV screen more than we want to see the literal hero of the show, then most certainly Mel Profitt is a huge leap forward toward the eventual transformation of the drug dealer from pure villain into anti-hero established by Walter White on “Breaking Bad.” Of course, much of that aspect could be explained by the fact that Mel Profitt is played by Kevin Spacey while the titular hero of “Wiseguy” is played by Ken Wahl. Like a grasshopper lording over an ant, Spacey’s whacked out incestuous-arms-dealer-cum-drug-kingpin sears through the TV screen and leaves Wahl’s ashes in the dust every time they have a scene together. That would go a long way toward explaining who Mel Profitt could be a drug dealer we care about more than the cop sent to bring him down were it for not for the fact that Spacey does not dominate the screen in the same way during scenes with another deep cover agent on his trail, Roger Lococco. Therefore, what was a more unsettling realization that there was in Mel Profitt some sort of deeply disturbing but perversely admirable quality about him had to have been put there by the writers. And that is why I consider Mel Profitt of “Wiseguy” to be the tipping point in portrayals of drug dealers on TV that eventually led to Walter White.