Maybe it was the Jimson-weed smoothie I was drinking while I watched it, but Netflix’s Disjointed has me really hung up on whether the plural of “conundrum” is “conundrums” or “conundra” or perhaps “Cannabinundrus maximus,” because it’s a serious headscratcher. It seems to oscillate repeatedly between genius and idiocy. It has old-timey sitcom conventions (canned laugh-tracks, production attentiveness I’d characterize as “sparse,” exceedingly predictable characters) that… well, if they’re being used ironically, it’s pretty funny, and if they’re not, it’s epically lame. It seems self-aware, but also lazy. Maybe the show itself is a personification of a really, really stoned person! Possible? Mmmm. I gotta get this batch of horny-goat-weed brownies out of the oven because they don’t work if they scorch: Hang on, I’m going to contemplate this in the kitchen.
So, is Disjointed a meta-meditation on the nature of situational comedy and mind-altering substances? I freakin’ hope it is, because otherwise, it’s a phoned-in, pandering cliché-fest you’d mostly only find funny if you have extreme and ignorant prejudices against people who use medical Devil’s Lettuce and need those prejudices reinforced. And, more importantly, it’s a criminal underutilization of the ridiculously talented Kathy Bates.
I have no such prejudices, and look, it might have been all the kratom I snorted partway through the pilot, but I totally laughed several times, so I have my hopes pinned on it being the former.
Bates plays Ruth Whitefeather Feldman, a wicky-wacky grandmotherly activist-hippie type who runs a cannabis dispensary in L.A., through which she seeks to “healp” people. (Get it? It’s a combination of “heal” and “help.” Ruth quips: “I’m trying to make it a thing.”) The ensemble includes her son, Travis (Aaron Moten), who has returned from “the dark side” (business school) to help her run the place and is chronically (get it?) annoyed at his mother’s disdain for actually running her business. The rest of the Usual Suspects are grower Pete (Dougie Baldwin), who dresses like a lumberjack, randomly busts into an Aussie accent (I know, Baldwin’s Australian), and has a seriously enmeshed relationship with his plants; Jenny (Elizabeth Ho), the self-styled “tokin’ Asian!” who might have put her mom under the impression that she had become a doctor, and Olivia (Elizabeth Alderfer), the token good-looking white chick. Tone Bell plays a security guard named Carter, and we’re going to talk about him separately, because reasons.
Here’s the deal: This show is a non-stop, relentless, over-the-top minestrone soup of every worn out cliché and dingbat pot-pun under the big Scareball in the sky. Most of the characters are not all that complex. Some of them, most notably Superstoner YouTube “personalities” Dank and Dabby, are effing intolerable. I mean holy Alice B. Tokeless, man, you don’t even have to have had the home-brewed laudanum tincture from the poppies in my backyard to feel carsick and exhausted the minute those guys come on screen. It’s like a reflex. Most of the comic territory here has been mined. In some cases, fracked.
Yet there are places where the cumulus of derpy doobage-humor smashes right through the wall and becomes suddenly guffaw-grade funny. There are moments where characters rise from their nest of spliff-tastic clichés and take a brief, speculative little flight. There are these fake commercials and some of them are yeah-yeah-meh, but a few of them are kind of hilarious. And let’s be real here: Kathy Bates clearly majored in alchemy, because whatever bullshit you give her, she can turn it into gold. Even poo jokes and the complete recordings of Joni Mitchell. Joni Mitchell! Couldn’t you writers have made the jewel of Ruth’s music collection, I dunno, like, Public Enemy or The English Beat or something? Can you have a complete walking embodiment of every hippie-leftie-activist trope be a Joni Mitchell specialist and claim it’s comedy? As Alice B. Toklas’s girlfriend Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, Calif.: “There is no there there.” Please tell me the writers were stoned when they came up with this, as a way of inhabiting stoned-ness to make a televised entity that turns hackneyed stoner-dom into a meta-realm of whoa-dude self-referentiality? That’s not really the deal, is it? I’m being abnormally expansive, maybe because of the Yage-and-Kale green-drink I had as an afternoon snack, maybe just because hell, I’m an optimist.
You know where there’s a there, though? Tone Bell. Yes, Kathy Bates is an actress I’ll watch and pretty much love in anything, and she has plenty of great little moments in Disjointed, but the secret soul of this show isn’t Ruth, it’s Carter, an Iraq war veteran (and teetotaler) with big-time PTSD. Stoic, wry and seemingly imperturbable, Carter’s occasional freeze-ups and thousand yard stares are genuinely intriguing and poignant, and when the show dives into his “inner cinema,” the abstract hallucinatory animated sequences are fantastic. Carter has something the rest of the characters don’t appear to have, and I don’t mean PTSD or sobriety. He has serious character development potential. The existence of this character proves that the show understands there’s a need for character arc, which makes its general refusal to provide it… conundrumous? Conundriacal? Conundrish?
Disjointed leaves you (well, me) with the odd sense that a lot of really quite smart people momentarily forgot they were smart, or fell under the delusion that a comedy about a Wacky Tobacky apothecary would only go over if they forced it to full-bore, extra-large, super-size ridicule itself, which would be either silly cowardice or something they were vaping because honestly, this is not that scary of a subject. Taking cheap shots at stoners is about as fish-in-a-barrel as you can get, comedy-wise. Um, unless you want to look to the White House. Chuck Lorre had Netflix behind him. You get to have audacity and inventiveness when you’re not in thrall to the yesteryear networks, so why did he regurgitate the utterly bland, not to say blunt (get it?) formulaic pabulum of Two and a Half Men? Doof, uptight wingman, assorted bland supporting players, badda bing.
Squandered potential. The air is thick with it. Hanging there like someone just lit up an Alaskan Thunderfuck fattie. But instead of a contact high, I think I’m, like, Disjointed-disappointed. Bummer, dude. There was just enough imagination here that I thought maybe it was about to reveal itself as—well, poets call it an ars poetica, which is a poem about the craft of poetry writing. This seemed like it might be an ars-sitcomica, if you will. But in the end it seems glassy-eyed and under-motivated.
God, that was exhausting. Does anyone have some recreational Ritalin?
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.