With HBOs High Maintenance proving to be a breakout hit and Netflix planning their own pot-com, whats behind the surge in small screen stoners?
Television loves a good zeitgeist to latch onto but, as trends go, marijuana is hardly new, with the first recorded use of it dating way back into the BC era. So why are small screen execs suddenly obsessed with it? Breakout hit High Maintenance has just been commissioned for a second season on HBO, while at least four other major shows are in development. The legalisation of the drug in Alaska, Colorado, Washington and Oregon is clearly having an influence, but is that all it is? Or have attitudes to cannabis on TV been changing for longer than that?
For years, marijuana was portrayed as either an evil gateway drug or as a prop to signify that the character using it was a hopeless, lazy slacker. While drug use on TV is not regulated by FCC rules, there are certain moral guidelines that networks were obliged to uphold, at least before 10pm (if only to fend off the inevitable viewer complaints). When the counter culture movement was thoroughly under way, the small screen dealt with it in one of three ways: ignoring it altogether, actively preaching against it (the sole reason Dragnet returned in the 60s was to preach against the drug-using youths of the era) or portraying it slyly, as exemplified by Scooby Doos perma-stoned heroes, Shaggy and Scooby, who made their TV debut long before Cheech and Chong showed up in the 70s.
By the 1980s Miami Vice was tackling drugs and Nancy Reagan was making a bizarre cameo in Diffrent Strokes to promote the Just Say No campaign. In the 1990s, we had cringeworthy special Cartoon All-Stars To The Rescue!, which saw Alf and the Muppet Babies teach a pot-smoking teenager how to say no to drugs. But by the early 90s, cannabis was no longer shocking, and the obligatory drugs episodes of Roseanne, Home Improvement, Blossom and even Dinosaurs were less effective at fear-mongering (although even as late as 1997, family drama 7th Heaven was telling people that weed ruins your life).
For a long time any show that wanted to be positive about the issue had to side-step it, like That 70s Show, where the characters got stoned without a single spliff being seen on screen. Weeds marked a change in attitudes when it debuted in 2005, but that focused heavily on the illegality of Nancy Botwins actions, painting her as an anti-hero.
As attitudes towards weed soften and with it being decriminalized if not quite legalized in many more US states, the depiction of marijuana on TV is changing. Now we see characters using it in the same way that youd previously show characters having a drink; its a recreational activity that doesnt have any moralizing attached to it. Characters in Girls, Broad City, Mr Robot and more smoke, without it leading to a worthy storyline about addiction or a descent into crime.
HBO has set the bar high by turning web series High Maintenance into a hit show this month. Each episode tells a different story, featuring different characters, all linked by the unnamed man who delivers their weed (played by Ben Sinclair, the co-creator of the show along with Katja Blichfeld). The characters all smoke, but thats not the main focus. The series tells stories that are by turn sweet, funny, dark and a bit gross, but all of them dig deep into the core of humanity. The show is brilliantly unexpected the first episode provides a wonderful subversion of the friendship between a gay man and a straight woman but the weed is simply a device to explore these disparate characters. And no one is ever judged for wanting to get high.
Amazon has just greenlit the pilot episode of Budding Prospects, a comedy about weed farmers in 1983 from the director of Bad Santa, and they had also previously announced that they had Highland in development, a series starring Margaret Cho as an addict who leaves rehab and moves in with her family who run a pot dispensary.
Netflix has also gotten in on the trend, ordering 20 episodes of Chuck Lorres Disjointed, a comedy starring Kathy Bates as the owner of an LA-based cannabis dispensary, and Kevin Smith, a man who knows a thing or two about writing stoner characters, has filmed a spec pilot about a weed dispensary in LA. Even NBC has been considering a weed show, with Parks and Recreation star Adam Scotts Buds, a comedy set in a marijuana shop in Denver.
These light-hearted comedies are a long way from the drugs are bad, mkay? special episodes of 90s sitcoms. Not all drugs are getting the comedy treatment heroin and meth are still the reserve of heavy-going dramas (Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia has a running joke about the characters being crack addicts, but its just about the darkest sitcom on TV right now, so probably doesnt count) but TV producers have clearly loosened up when it comes to cannabis. Perhaps its down to changes in law and public opinion (a recent survey shows that 50% of Americans support the legalization of recreational marijuana), or perhaps the slacker stoner character type was just so damn likable that it won us all over. Either way, for the next few years at least, the futures looking pretty darn green.