The Slow Evolution of Stoners on TV

TV Features Marijuana
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The Slow Evolution of Stoners on TV

Brooding men like Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) take contemplative sips from their whiskey tumblers; stylish, middle-aged yummy mummies like Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) twirl their cocktail glasses; and teen crowds go wild on cheap beer and shots. And, for the most part, TV drunk doesn’t immediately equate to staggeringly stupid—in fact, it’s probably safe to say a fair percentage of TV characters could be classified as functioning alcoholics. Most TV characters who opt to smoke a joint on occasion aren’t granted the same type of dignity, though. In most cases, you can count on them losing more credibility, likability—oh, and intellect—with every toke. Gone is your favorite character, and out comes the inarticulate, cerebrally stunted buffoon.

Until recently, the broadcast networks have opted to keep the stigma that has followed joint smokers around since before hippie culture was born, reinforcing tired old stereotypes. Moderately boozing characters’ personalities don’t suddenly, drastically change just because they’ve had a couple of Cosmopolitans, but if broadcasting TV is anything to go by, a few hits from a joint often result in a complete loss of one’s identity. Inhale through the “green chimney,” and exhale all your brain cells—as seems to be the motto of New Girl’s cute, funny, but entirely over-the-top weed-themed episode, “A Chill Day In.”

When psychologist Joan (Dianne Wiest), on CBS’s Life in Pieces, discovers dispensary edibles, to use another example, she channels her inner Woodstock moves, grooves and fashion sense before the wrath of ganja-induced paranoia prompts her to swear off weed forever. It’s been more than fifty years since the flower power generation became the face of marijuana culture, and you’re seriously telling me that smokers haven’t found music to identify with other than the type that caters to hookah-smoking caterpillars and those fighting against, or waiting for, The Man? I mean, I’ll be the first to agree that many of today’s tunes don’t hold up against the sounds of the Sixties, but by making these associations, networks such as CBS keep the marijuana narrative stuck in the past instead of embracing the present.

In Big Bang Theory’s “Adhesive Duck Deficiency,” Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Raj (Kunal Nayyar) and Howard (Simon Helberg) unknowingly accept a bag of weed cookies from two grannies wearing Grateful Dead T-shirts, because, obviously, that’s what all marijuana enthusiasts look like. Seth (Adam Brody) turns into the clichéd high-school burn-out who finds great entertainment in a blue screen in The O.C.’s “The Pot Stirrer.” Two gummies have some pretty traumatizing effects on Modern Family’s Phil (Ty Burrell) and Mitchell (Jesse Taylor Ferguson) at “The Party.”

I moved to Holland when I was a teen and, like most teens, I found myself smitten by the coffee shop concept. The stoners I knew, knew how to party; they didn’t just spend their days slouching out in comfortable booths munching, red-eyed and smiling. One of my favorite haunts actually doubled as one of the places for live acts and serious dance-floor action. It was a haven—a place where people got their buzz and their dance on without acting like horny teenagers with underdeveloped social skills.

Out of a room full of ganja-enthusiasts, there was maybe one guy wearing a tie-dye shirt, and I doubt he knew who the Grateful Dead were. Most of them knew how to string together entire sentences without the overuse of “like” and “dude” and, believe it or not, you could have actual conversations with them. They were nothing like the potheads I’d seen on TV, and I was starting to realize that a lot of U.S. TV series mirrored the German attitudes I had happily escaped.

Alcohol has never had to hide behind a stereotype because it’s been, for the most part, socially accepted since the invention of TV. If there were such a stereotype, we would all fit it. But a wealthy business man in a tailored suit or a hard-working single mother with a love for classical music couldn’t possibly enjoy a hit from the bong every now and then. That would depict marijuana consumption as frighteningly ordinary, so instead we are exposed to lazy comedy performed in clown costumes (i.e. army jackets and poorly-executed dreadlocks hidden under long beanie hats): Weed will make you dumb and lazy, until you lose interest in fashion, education, life.

And while the army jacket-and-Dr. Marten’s look was one many Nineties kids rocked, it all formed part of a bigger picture: a search for identity and a form of rebellion. Alcohol was as much a part of it as experimentations with home-made bongs or space cake. But it’s the latter that broadcast television tends to focus its D.A.R.E tactics on—even though, statistically speaking, that’s the drug networks should be more concerned about when it comes to young adult viewers, who may take a shine to the likes of The Middle’s Axl Heck (Charlie McDermott), no stranger to late-night booze-cruises, or The Mick’s Mickey (Kaitlin Olson), notorious for her insanely high alcohol tolerance.

If CBS is the Germany of TV networks, cable, premium and streaming outlets are the Holland. On shows like Broad City and High Maintenance, marijuana is treated like alcohol is on most TV shows—barring after-school specials, of course. In other words, it is merely an accepted form of relaxation and, for some, social lubrication, and it’s hardly worth mentioning because, as in reality, pot-smoking has been a norm in very diverse households the world over for a long time. The only difference is that, until now, it was a recreational use of your time best kept secret.

On MTV’s Mary & Jane, which follows two pot-dealing L.A. ladies, series creators Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont featured only one stereotypical customer in the entire first season, in order to emphasize that we are long past the point where marijuana is consumed only by specific subcultures, and that in this day and age, a “pothead” can be anything from your local banker to your own grandma. With new legislation seeking to legalize—or at least de-criminalize—medical and recreational marijuana, TV stoners are slowly evolving from blurry-eyed, goofy sloths into regular Joes in suits and pencil skirts on shows like High Maintenance, and there are now exceptions to the usual marijuana formula on the broadcast networks: NBC built a normalized medical-marijuana storyline into its hit drama This Is Us, in the episode “The Best Washing Machine in the World.”

HBO’s Girls has always been good at keeping its stoner moments low-key and credible, in episodes like “Love Stories” and in this season’s “All I Ever Wanted; though it never really explored marijuana and the social perceptions thereof in depth. Comedy Central’s Broad City, on the other hand, plays into the hypocrisy of weed being judged as an “outcast” drug by upper-class housewives chasing down Mother’s Little Helper with a glass of wine (“P*$$y Weed”). It emphasizes the fact that by society’s standards, marijuana consumption is tobe limited to a specific phase of life (college, mostly), whereas alcoholic shenanigans are accepted as part of “conventional” lifestyles at any age. Smoking weed is considered juvenile; polishing off a bottle of wine each night whilst cooing your baby to sleep is regarded as the adult thing to do. And while the episode may exaggerate Ilana (Glazer) and Abbi’s (Jacobson) respective highs, it’s not as over-baked as most marijuana-related comedy on TV.

“P*$$y Weed” also highlights the caution, secrecy and discomfort required for even responsible pot smokers to enjoy a natural substance, in a world where some children are prescribed Ritalin before they reach kindergarten. Minuscule amounts of weed are forced to hide in “nature’s pocket” (a.k.a the “vah-yine-ya”), while potent prescription drugs and hard liquor are readily available at every street corner. The same is true for Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, which has been quick to point out the injustice of minor drug charges ending in five-year jail sentences, as in the case of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley).

Cable networks are playing their part in transforming the image of marijuana users, and we should be thankful for that—because as long as the broadcast networks insist on drawing parallels between marijuana and criminality, stupidity and slackerdom, misinformed attitudes will prevail. Those celebrating 4/20 today deserve narratives that go beyond the “hippie,” so if you decide to spark up (please do so responsibly!), put on your Sunday best: It’s time to inspire a new smokin’ image for the future of TV to emulate.



Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.

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