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Barbershop: Hollywood's Treatment Of The Opioid Crisis


Finally today, we're going to head into the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Today, we wanted to talk about how Hollywood is putting the opioid crisis front and center in one of the network's buzziest shows. And let me just say that we realize that the tens of thousands of families who are dealing with this every day cannot stop thinking about it. But, for others, the issue was brought forward in a rare way as the subject of the premiere episode of the "Roseanne" reboot this week.

Now, you might remember that ABC canceled the reboot of the popular '90s show after its star, Roseanne Barr, tweeted racist comments. Then the network decided to try a spinoff called "The Conners," which premiered this week. And in it, we learned that - spoiler alert - the Roseanne character died by way of an opioid overdose.


LAURIE METCALF: (As Jackie Harris) I just got a call from a friend in the coroner's office. The autopsy found that it wasn't a heart attack. Roseanne ODed on opioids.

JOHN GOODMAN: (As Dan Conner) It's not possible. We knew she had a problem. She was only on pain pills for two days after surgery. That was just Ibuprofen. It's got to be wrong.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk about it, so we've called Sam Quinones. He's the author of "Dreamland: The True Tale Of America's Opiate Epidemic," and he's joining us from Los Angeles via Skype.

Sam, thanks so much for joining us.

SAM QUINONES: Pleasure to be here, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: Also joining us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif., is Jeff Yang. He's a CNN contributor and columnist for The Wall Street Journal online.

Jeff, welcome back to you as well.

JEFF YANG: Always welcome to be back here.

MARTIN: And we're going to start with you because the critics had very different reactions. Some people thought it was very well done. Some people thought it avoided some of the kind of tough social commentary that made "Roseanne" "Roseanne." How did you see it?

YANG: You know, it's really interesting because anytime a sitcom has to actually address issues that are, frankly, black and dark and looming in a lot of ways in our society, there's a tension between the comedy aspect of it and the harshness of the real-world circumstances that provide the insight, right?

And, in this particular case, one of the things that was really strange to me is that one of the excuses Roseanne gave when she did that sort of racist tweet that got her fired was that she was on Ambien at the time - that, you know, medication had essentially led to this behavioral change. So there's a weird tension in some ways in terms of what on the screen and the reality of her behavior, medicated or not, in the real world.

MARTIN: So, as our culture guy, though, what did you think of the episode - just as briefly as you can?

YANG: Yeah. I - you know, it was actually, I thought, really fascinating. I thought they did a really good job of touching on the ways that people use humor sometimes to push back against the darkness. And the presence of the absence of Roseanne was powerful. So I thought they did a pretty good job, actually, of addressing a very difficult topic.

MARTIN: Now, Sam, I know you're not a critic, but you're deeply immersed in covering this crisis, OK? And I just wondered...


MARTIN: ...If - how you felt about it as a person who knows a lot about the realities of the situation.

QUINONES: I thought it - you know, I didn't see the show. As a matter of fact, I was speaking in rural Ohio when the show was running about this very topic in various places in rural Ohio. But I thought - you know, the use of this as a vehicle for a dramatic or comic show sounds important, sounds very timely. I'm amazed that actually, I have to say, more shows don't. But I think that's kind of part and parcel of this epidemic. This epidemic has always been quiet and hidden. And so it's only now that you're seeing it being used in a few ways as a dramatic vehicle.

MARTIN: Tell me a little bit about...

QUINONES: So I think that's what...

MARTIN: ...The quiet...

QUINONES: I'm sorry, go ahead.

MARTIN: ...And hidden part of it because, you know, a recent NPR poll reveals that a quarter of rural Americans feel that opioid and other drug abuse is the biggest problem in their...


MARTIN: ...Local communities. And I take it, Sam, that you feel that this is a story that's been overlooked and kind of hiding in plain sight. Tell me why you feel that way.

QUINONES: I would - that poll does not surprise me at all. And I do believe, as you say, that this has been the quiet one. I mean, it's the deadliest epidemic in our country's history, and it's been percolating for 20 years, and yet it's only - you can really say only in the last three years. When I was writing my book, "Dreamland," I found very little echo out there, a very difficult time getting people interested in this who didn't have anything directly to do with it. It was very much - reminded me very much of the early days of that AIDS epidemic. Everyone wanted to hide it, didn't want to confront it, you know.

And I think what's happened is that this has been left to fester and percolate all across this country now, and a critical mass was reached at a certain point, so now it's become - come out of the shadows. But it's definitely a problem that has not been recognized to the extent that it ought to considering how widespread, how deadly it's been.

MARTIN: And, Jeff, I know that you feel that there's a conversation about race that needs to happen when it comes to the way we view both the epidemic itself and the way drug abuse, drug use, the drug crisis is treated, both in the - I guess, what - the news media and also in entertainment. You know, talk to me about what you think about that.

YANG: Yeah. You know, it's fascinating to me that this is a, quote-unquote, "silent epidemic" - that this is something which could have touched one of four people, and yet nevertheless not be blaring across the headlines with the kind of urgency that we have historically associated with drug issues in, say, the inner city, right - the crack epidemic of the '80s and so on, so forth. And I think it actually - it informs the tonality of how popular culture looks at drugs. I think, even in this episode, we see a very strong empathy with Roseanne, the absent Roseanne and her family. This is really about talking about victims, about people who've suffered an illness and vanished because of that or been harmed because of that.

But when we've seen other kinds of depictions of addiction and of drug use and abuse and dealership among black communities and Hispanic communities, it's invariably about the predatory influence of the drug trade. It's about the empowerment of drug dealers and how it - you know, that sort of invasive force harms not just black and Hispanic communities but, of course, adjacent white ones as well. And that - I think that's a little bit of a problem in how this is talked about in society.

MARTIN: But, Sam, you know, I wanted to ask you - like, I know you feel that this is the quiet crisis, as you have described it.


MARTIN: And part of me wonders whether it's because it's in part - it started out as a rural crisis, and that rural communities - particularly like the rural media, for example - has been hollowed out in the way that, say, local newspapers have been hollowed out. Is that part of it?

QUINONES: I would say that's probably part of it. I would say too that the people involved - you know, I'm a member of the media. I'm a working reporter for many years. And if you - and if the people who are most affected actively don't want to talk about it, if the obituaries that they write are purposely obfuscating or actual fabrications, if you can't find those people willing to talk, it is very difficult to bring it to light. And that is really what has happened all across this country.

It starts in, yeah, Appalachia, the Rust Belt areas, spreads - now, of course, I think really the biggest place you find it really is in the suburbs, mostly among white people - I'd say 95 - 90-plus percent involving white people. But I would say that, a lot of those folks, this is some horror that they never imagined happening to their families, and so they are very, very unwilling - have been, I would say, until the last three years - unwilling to talk about it.

When you don't have people who are most affected - I know as a media, a member of the media, if you don't have those people most able to tell the poignant story, you - it's very hard to get traction on it. And also, if you don't have the kind of - I covered the crack epidemic. That was my first job as a reporter in journalism many years ago in the town of Stockton, Calif. And I could tell you that you could not avoid the crack epidemic - not because so much of the drug, but because of the gang involvement, the drive-by shootings, the bullets crippling young children. I mean, that was - it was impossible to avoid the crack epidemic.

In this one, you've seen overdoses skyrocket, really, as crime rates all across the country have really dropped precipitously. And that's a - that's also a new thing about this epidemic.

MARTIN: But your point about obituaries - it's one of the other interesting stories this week was an obituary about a young woman.


MARTIN: You know, it's such a cliche - went viral - but it did, in part because her...


MARTIN: ...Family was so explicit about what happened to her. And it was very much a cry of the heart, you know, to people saying, you know, educate yourself about this. Jeff, before we let you go, we have about a minute left. I'd like to ask you, as our culture guy, what would you like to see? What would you like to see as - in terms of how we address this issue from a standpoint of our art? Because anytime, you know, Hollywood or the artistic community takes something on, people always accuse them of glamorizing it or not really telling it. On the other hand - you know. So what would you like to see in the minute we have left?

YANG: I mean, I think it's really interesting that the two shows that we perhaps most associate with depictions of the drug trade over our - say, our generation - "Breaking Bad" is one, and "The Wire" is the other, right? And they're both shows that are incredible shows - you know, really great storytelling. But "Breaking Bad" almost has this sort of - it has this blackly comic sort of satiric lens to it that brings a different energy to the thought about, you know, what that crisis represents about the human beings within it and not about an infrastructure, a system, a phenomenon or something, right?

I feel like, a lot of times, we don't see that that more human, individual perspective when you talk about, you know, drug issues in non-white communities. I guess I'd like to see more of that - more texture and more humanity.

MARTIN: That's Jeff Yang. He's a CNN contributor and Wall Street Journal Online columnist joining us from NPR West in Los Angeles - or in Culver City. Sam Quinones is the author of "Dreamland: The True Tale Of America's Opiate Epidemic," and he's joined us - he joined us via Skype.

Thank you both so much for talking to us.

YANG: Thank you, Michel.

QUINONES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.