Smoke Your Television

The saying used to go that the revolution will not be televised, but in fact there is a quiet revolution unfolding on television screens everywhere, as the commonplace use of marijuana comes to inform more and more plot lines and situational settings of programming that reaches the vast majority of the viewing public.

This revolution has not announced itself in a grand way, but some of the most successful revolutions ever survive and thrive by building steam while still under the radar, and such is the case with the two programs we examine here that explore the vagaries of marijuana use (in addition to a fascinating blend of other powerful themes) without passing judgment and with a clear-eyed view of the comic, the tragic, and all the dramatic modalities in between a chronicle of the high life.

The first, Showtime’s “Weeds” is by far the most visible. Beginning with its first season in 2005, “Weeds” introduced us to Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), a recently widowed mother of two with no marketable job skills who turns to dealing pot as a way to support herself and her two sons. “Weeds” can be seen as many things: a suburban morality play (though with some interesting twists as, by season six, Nancy and her family are living a peripatetic life, making hash in the back of their RV as they criss-cross the nation on the run from both sides of the law.

In its first incarnation, though, “Weeds” did a brilliant job of evoking how much marijuana is a part of daily life even for those doctors and lawyers and business executives who “all live in ticky-tacky houses and all look just the same”. “Weeds” is such a landmark show because in spite of its announcing its theme right there with its title, it manages to weave in all sorts of plot lines involving intrigue, betrayal, filial piety, and the undercurrent of corruption and amorality that manages to infest even the cleanest looking corners of suburbia.

The face of “Weeds” is Mary-Louise Parker, though its creator is the relatively little-known Jenji Kohan, admitted pothead and veteran television writer who has worked on dozens of other series before giving birth to her brainchild. Kohan has made clear in interviews and press releases that she is not preaching the gospel of pot – she just wants to show how it can be a part of all sorts of lives, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and that vilification and criminalization of the plant itself and those that use it are sinister byproducts of a hypocritical society in which the rules only apply to some.

Rules go right out the window in HBO’s “Bored to Death”, the Brooklyn-set tale of a frustrated novelist and pot enthusiast, Jonathan Ames (played by Jason Schwartzman) who decides on a whim to moonlight as a private detective after his girlfriend leaves him. Ames joins forces with his slacker-doofus buddy Ray (brilliant pot comic Zach Galifianakis) and his erudite, cosmopolitan Manhattan editor friend George (Ted Danson) on a series of madcap, ill-advised adventures that leave them trailing a cloud of smoke, or at least invisible vapor, ever in their wake.

As Ray remarked to George on a recent episode, “You are the greatest pot smoker I have ever known.” All three of the protagonists indulge with near-reckless abandon, but it is George who is constantly craving the stuff, inducing Jonathan to schlep from outer Brooklyn to inner Manhattan just so he can get a few tokes off his one-hitter. As George quips with a raised eyebrow, “They should really call it a three-hitter.”

One of the greatest elements of this show is that it counters the notion that a pot head’s dream is to sit on the couch and bliss out to the almighty television. Quite to the contrary, “Bored to Death” commands its audience to acknowledge that pot can be as much fuel as it needs to be depending on the user and the situation. It also manages to produce one riotously funny segment after another.

While neither of these series are grabbing big-time headlines or causing a major uproar, they are both consistently and intelligently delivering the message that pot isn’t some demon weed, but rather a part of the daily life of plenty of productive, hard-working, generally upright citizens. May this trend continue, as more and more entertainment reveals to an all-too-ignorant public that the danger isn’t in marijuana, the danger is in fearing it needlessly.

Jacob Barnes writes about cannabis culture and marijuana culture.

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