Drugs, Inc., debuts tonight on the National Geographic Channel at 8 p.m. Eastern.
A documentary series on a hot-button issue is always going to be difficult. Drugs, Inc. wades right into those problems, but it does so with a very specific perspective that theoretically inoculates it from being criticized as propaganda, either as a drug apology or as pro-“War On Drugs” hyperbole. Instead, it aims for a more anthropological, detached point of view, appearing to detail a set of stories from various people involved with drugs: users, producers, dealers, cops, and doctors.
To be fair, Drugs, Inc. does a good job of letting its subjects tell their stories and demonstrate their humanity, despite generally being the sort of people who are frowned upon by society. I only had access to “Crack”, the first of the two airing tonight, which started with a couple of addicts named Jeff and Kat in Chicago, showing how they lived and what they did to try to get their next fix. There are also Peruvian cooks and addicts, and a drug bust in Miami before the show returns to Chicago to tie things together with a dealer and then a rehab psychiatrist. This chain conceptually shows who uses crack, how they acquire it, how they smoke it, who sells it, and who makes it, although it’s a little too disjointed to get the whole story – and it only narrates the process of transport from South America to the United States, a major component of the complete story. But I do think it does a good job of showing the interconnectedness and importance of the crack trade across the hemisphere.
But it’s impossibly to be truly neutral. Every story that’s told within the time constraints of the television show comes at the expense of a potentially different story. For example, Jeff is generally coherent and even somewhat charming, which makes him great for television but who can say whether his life and his story are good examples? Or how much of his behavior is altered by whatever incentives he was given to appear on the show? Sometimes these are simply rhetorical questions, but at other times, the act of creating the documentary with a narrative offers a clear point of view.
The best example of that comes at the end of “Crack”, after the counselor meets with Alexis, a prostitute and addict. Their conversation seems to be fruitful, and the documentary shows the doctor expressing the belief that Alexis is ready to work on her addiction. We then immediately segué to Alexis getting high in her motel room, saying that she liked the lady doctor and might take her advice at some point, but really she just wants to moderate her addiction. This gives the strong implication that rehabilitating these addicts is a fool’s errand. And maybe that’s the case, but it’s a case that doesn’t entirely fit with the anthropological viewpoint of most of the rest of the show.
The form of the episode also lends itself to specific interpretation in another way, via the music. The soundtrack tends to be comprised of the sort of sounds that are associated with tension and danger. Obviously crack is socially considered a dangerous drug, so it makes a certain kind of sense, but it does make me wish that I could see “Hash”, the second episode, and see if it had the sane tone, or perhaps “Marijuana”, which I believe was produced last season.
Despite those slight misgivings about the manipulation inherent to the form, I do think Drugs, Inc. does a good job of telling those personal stories overall, making even masked dealers seem slightly sympathetic. More generally, there are some interesting facts, like how the chemical-driven process which creates “paco”, the “poor man’s crack”, is used for South American slums. Drugs, Inc. isn’t quite stellar, but given all the ways that it could have been unbearable, turning out to be pretty good is fairly impressive.