We Need to Talk about Hollywood’s Representation of Weed Culture

We Need to Talk about Hollywood's Representation of Weed Culture
Photo Courtesy of Snopes

About the nicest thing you can say about Disjointed, the old-school-sitcom-in-a-21st-century-medical-marijuana-dispensary that premiered on Netflix last month, is that it is diverse.

Yes, the vital elements—the series’ star (the legendary Kathy Bates) and its creator (sitcom veteran Chuck Lorre, responsible for Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory)—are both white, just like most of the real-life cannabis industry’s owners and investors. And yet, Disjointed is a few significant shades of Benetton darker than the real-life lily-white marijuana world.

The show has white, black and Asian actors all playing out some of the lamest and laziest stoner stereotypes imaginable.

The embarrassing pun with which actress Elizabeth Ho’s character is introduced to the viewers—“I’m your token Asian,” she lilts in a THC-soaked vocal fuzz from behind the requisite THC-narrowed eyelids, hitting a trifecta of stereotype, pun and nightclub-act-level race-based humor—is not only the most cringe-inducing, but it’s also wholly representative of how Disjointed presents marijuana use and its users.

Critics have almost universally panned the show, and so we don’t need to dive too deeply into this pit of despair.

Suffice to say this dispensary crew is stoned all the time, and they act like it, even when delivering the snappy manufactured one-liners from which prime-time sitcoms were once made. There are puns. They forget stuff, they eat snacks. They meditate. They say something cringe-worthy, and then they eat lots and lots and lots of snacks.

This is what cannabis users do, according to the writers on Disjointed.

“The sensibility of Disjointed is basically: When we get high, we also go low,” is how New York magazine aptly described the show’s ethos.

You can see the problem here.

On the surface, such barrel-bottom scrapings are predictable and unoriginal and make for bad TV. Done in a fresh way or drenched in enough irony, it might have worked—and, the too-familiar way in which Lorre makes television (multi-camera angles, a studio laugh-track, swift transitions punctuated by sound) presents a golden opportunity.

Instead, you are presented with jokes you’ve heard before, time and again, delivered in a format and fashion you’ve seen before. Stale, predictable and ham-fisted is no way to go through a sitcom, son.

But the issues run deeper than that.

Disjointed appears at a time when marijuana legalization has more momentum than ever before, yes, but it is also running serious existential risk.

The federal Justice Department poses more of a threat than at any time since George W. Bush’s DEA was raiding six-plant gardens. In real life, running a dispensary is still a dicey proposition, full of reminders (banking troubles, taxation troubles) that the government treats cannabis like second-class citizens.

There are serious issues at play.

These absurdities create an opportunity, if not for Swift-level satire, real weaponized comedy, the best the genre can offer. Instead, we get a comedy that punches way, way down on its very material—and, one would think, its intended audience.

Entertainment of the kind seen on big-budget movie screens and on slickly-produced sitcoms like Lorre’s—which, in the not-too-distant past, would be the fodder for prime-time network slots, and not Netflix (the main advantage of which for Disjointed, as other reviewers have pointed out, is the ability to spice up these exhausted tropes with the occasional deployment of the word “fuck”)—aren’t so much a reflection of our society and its values ,as they are a reflection of what rich people conceive of our society and its values.

To hire actresses like Bates, you need producers. Producers are money. And this is the kind of stoner humor that big-time producers in Los Angeles—a place where there are ample examples of nuanced marijuana use to tap, including (we are sure of it) within Disjointed’s own writing room—are choosing to bankroll. That’s bad. It’s a blown opportunity and it’s also a troubling display that’s been repeated elsewhere.

“Hollywood has a drug problem,” wrote Andy Williams, CEO of Denver-based dispensary chain Medicine Man, in a guest column in the Hollywood Reporter.

It’s not just Disjointed that’s using marijuana as a convenient and trendy veneer cover for tired, obvious humor.

On the current season of Ballers, the surprisingly good pro-football business drama on HBO, starring Dwayne Johnson, there’s a medical marijuana subplot.

Maybe the show would confront the NFL’s brain-damage scandal or the league’s ongoing insistence to refuse its players the right to openly consume cannabis? No.

Instead, we see a football player handing out branded marijuana apparel to an underage fan and walking through a marijuana business gobbling free samples. As Williams noted, “everything” in these “TV shows is a far cry from legal marijuana’s current reality.”

Marijuana is becoming mainstream for real Americans, but there are still few instances in which cannabis culture is given a place in mainstream cultural offerings.

Thus, for there to not only be misrepresentation, but the presentation—to an audience at large, consisting of people in places where marijuana is not yet legal, who are therefore impressionable, at a crucial time—of marijuana in some of the worst possible light is doubly damaging.

It’s hard to think of something other than marijuana that would receive such treatment. It’s like bad propaganda—it’s like something cooked up by the Donald Trump campaign, half-truths inflated to windmill-sized monsters. It’s like bad propaganda. Who would approve such a thing—and why?

What value there is in Disjointed comes from the inclusion of Carter (played by Tone Bell), an African-American Iraq War veteran with PTSD, who works as the dispensary’s security guard.

PTSD is real. It affects many more of the two million men and women who returned from America’s endless wars than we will likely ever know or admit. We will be confronting this for a generation at least—likely much longer than that. We need to talk about it much more than we do—and we should talk about how cannabis can help.

If only Carter didn’t cancel out much of this value by also being made to say, “Stoned I am getting” in a Yoda voice after hitting some Skywalker OG. If this is how mainstream entertainment treats marijuana during the good times, something is seriously wrong.

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