Stoners, Tokers, and Stereotypes: A Decade of Weed on Screen

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Back in March 2018, The Big Lebowski turned 20 years old. Written, produced, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the film stars Jeff Bridges as “The Dude,” an unemployed loser who spends his spare time drinking White Russians, bowling, smoking weed, and doing a lot of nothing. The plot follows our spiritual hero embarking on a journey to replace his rug, which was damaged after a dangerous case of mistaken identity.

It’s a cult classic, melding humor with crime noir, charming characters, and a semi-aimless hero. The Big Lebowski is often regarded as the best stoner comedy of all time, and 20 years of cinema has yet to a nominate a challenger. Now, however, in 2018, the cult classic poses an interesting question: Was Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski a slacker because he was a stoner, or a stoner because he was a slacker?

Outdated propaganda will have you believe the former, as will bad filmmaking. Great filmmaking, on the other hand, will nominate an intellectual solution to the question above: slacking and weed are yin and yang for The Dude, and he would not be The Dude without a balance of either.

From ‘Lazy Stoner’ to Casual Consumer

The Dude is not a product of marijuana usage, but a prime example of what can be birthed out of the product. The stoner trope—ironically, a lazy one in the 2010s—is fading fast in 2018. As more production companies attempt to exploit and/or profit off of America’s love for legal cannabis, television and film is being flooded with on-screen smoking, for better or for worse.

One recent swing and a miss was Netflix’s Disjointed, a show starring Kathy Bates as Ruth Whitefeather Feldman, a woman who runs a cannabis dispensary in Los Angeles. Created by Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men) and David Javerbaum (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), Disjointed seemed like an obvious cash grab birthed out of the cannabis boom, and yet, aside from its setting and props, the show had little to do with cannabis.

In Disjointed, laugh tracks were cued alongside jokes while cannabis acted as a catalyst for characters stuck in laughing fits, and trippy animations unexpectedly appeared on screen to serve as expired propaganda that marijuana induces hallucinations akin to ayahuasca. Marijuana was simply a background prop that served no substance to Disjointed’s core. The show was canceled at the top of the year after its debut season.

While it’s admirable that Netflix isn’t afraid to take creative risks with its original programming and strives to bring cannabis culture to the forefront, Disjointed was an unfortunate missed opportunity to educate the masses using humor as a conduit. Hopefully the streaming service’s initial foray into cannabis storytelling gleaned some takeaways that will lead to a small screen win in the near future.

A thoughtful counter to Disjointed that actually does have a hand in portraying cannabis and its users positively is HBO’s High Maintenance. Written and directed by Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, the series is a character study of New York cannabis smokers. It’s a loosely connected show where a nameless deliveryman drops off products to various citizens of the city. Every episode is a voyeuristic look into a new batch of characters, and weed is served as a fly on the wall over a cannon loaded for the purpose of sparking dialogue—situational conflicts never revolve around cannabis, though the herb is present during nearly every scene. High Maintenance also showcases the actual city of New York as a melting pot of culture, giving every identity a fair share of platform.

Another example of New York City smoker’s club is Comedy Central’s 2014 show Broad City. The program stars two millennial women, Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Illana (Illana Glazer), and their various New York adventures. The two are seen casually smoking weed throughout their days, running errands, and embarking on New York hijinks without giving pause to the fact that they’re high. Realistically, life goes on. As fellow Comedy Central show Workaholics before it, Broad City never stalls to puff—there’s never a laugh track, characters are not demonized for smoking, and attention is never on the act of smoking itself, but rather the continuation of life after sipping a cup of coffee.

And to top it all off, their weed dealer, Jaimé Castro (played by Arturo Castro), is a gay immigrant—a placement far from the usual white, long-haired, lazy drug dealer who waits around all day for a knock at the door.

MTV’s take on Broad City came with 2016’s Snoop Dogg produced Mary + Jane, a show following two best friends, Paige (Jessica Rothe) and Jordan (Scout Durwood), as they attempt a start-up marijuana delivery service in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the show’s two main stars lacked the chemistry Abbi and Illana share, while the series’ jokes leaned heavily on millennial-bashing humor.

Cannabis Positivity on the Small Screen

The familiarity television has with cannabis has much to do with its acceptance in the general public and legality in much of the United States. At the top of the year, the Pew Research Center found that 61% of American adults believe marijuana should be legal. Just a decade ago, that number was 35%.

Aiding in the reshaping our idea of weed came from television and film, no doubt. Early marijuana-related shows were educational and proved the plant to be beneficial and helpful, a far cry from the infamous 7th Heaven era of anti-weed sitcom propaganda.

Shows like Discovery Channel’s 2011 Weed Wars, Vice’s 2016 docuseries Weediquette, and CNN’s special Weed documentary, have all had a hand in normalizing cannabis and reconstructing its image for a curious American audience. Furthermore, Vice’s fantastic Bong Appetit cooking show aided in showcasing the herb as a culinary ingredient, and to a lesser extent, so has Netflix’s latest Cooking On High.

Film, on the other hand, has yet to prove as beneficial for marijuana’s identity as modern-day television. 2008 alone saw the release of five stoner comedy films: Pineapple ExpressHarold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo BaySmiley Face, soul-searching surfer flick Surfer, Dude and the dramatic, unassuming Humboldt County. None of these films had a part in venturing away from weed tropes, but they did take part in reintroducing the plant to an eager millennial generation of smokers.

However, a decade later, cannabis in films hasn’t been much to talk about.

The buddy picture trope still exists heavily in the stoner “genre” of film, as does “the stoner” character. The trope of two people, typically men, serving as a duo to defeat one common enemy together isn’t new or inherently exciting, nor is the sole loser who spends his time getting high and ignoring life’s responsibilities.

2015’s American Ultraintroduced Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) as a loser stoner with little ambition finally doing something exciting in his life after realizing he’s a secret government agent. The idea of an uncontrollable force being the main drive in getting a smoker’s life together is stale, and frankly, insulting. Films like 2011’s Paul, 2012’s Ted, 2013’s This Is the End, 2014’s Neighbors, and 2015’s The Night Before don’t elevate cannabis much beyond giving off “chill bro” vibes and acting as a catalyst for wild parties and shenanigans.

Ryan Reynold’s latest announcement of Stoned Alone, a parody of Home Alone in which a loser stoner misses a flight and may have to fight off make-believe burglars as a result of paranoia, doesn’t show much potential for coloring outside the lines. And while there’s nothing wrong with a fun, lighthearted stoner comedy that hits all the familiar notes, it remains the sole representation of cannabis in cinema, perpetuating a singular stereotype that obscures the true diversity of cannabis consumes and their varied lifestyles.

But if a positive cannabis-infused future exists in America, it certainly lives on television. As society’s attitude on cannabis continues toward a pro-legalization hive mind, our media will continue to reflect its social standing. Anti-drug campaigns have become less dominant than in the past, and in 2018, we can expect less of our television shows adhering to propaganda by way of Office of National Drug Control Policy checks. And even if a poorly-written weed trope makes its way into a new blockbuster film, we still have a pool of positives to watch and learn from— a continuum of interdependent entertainment.

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