Marijuana is reaching a point of no return.
Election Day is nearly upon us, and with it comes what might be the much-needed antidote to the five ring circus that has been 2016: the possible legalization of recreational marijuana in five states. Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada all have initiatives on the ballot in favor of legalizing and regulating cannabis—and recent polls indicate that they may come to pass. Should the “yes” vote win out in each state, that would allow more than a quarter of the country to legally sit back, relax, and light one up.
This, in addition to four other states hoping to pass medical marijuana legislation, comes at a time when cannabis has reached similar heights in media representation, particularly on television. Where Showtime’s Weeds might have once been cable TV’s token “weed show,” 2016 has already offered HBO’s High Maintenance and MTV’s Mary + Jane—with a handful of other weed-centric series on the horizon.
Mary + Jane co-creator Harry Elfont credits national sentiment with opening the floodgates. “When I was growing up, it was the stoners in army jackets that would go up on the hill behind the school and get high,” he says. “Now attitudes in this country about weed are changing. And we want to just tell stories about that change in culture.”
The humane portrayal of weed on Mary + Jane and High Maintenance perhaps best reflects that change, with both shows arguably more about the minutiae of their characters’ lives and not the drug itself. If they represent a turning point in media representation of marijuana, then it’s important to remember they didn’t plant that flag single-handedly. To that end, we’re going to take a look at some of the key marijuana moments throughout television history–from panicky PSAs to casual set dressing.
While Hollywood and marijuana have enjoyed a long love story together (just look at Cheech and Chong’s 1978 film Up in Smoke, which essentially jump-started the stoner comedy genre), television has had to play catch up. When the ’80s and peak Very Special Episode TV rolled around, marijuana was still considered one in a long list of debilitating illegal drugs. Hence Nancy Reagan’s 1983 guest appearance on Diff’rent Strokes, which doubled as another platform for the First Lady’s youth-targeted “Just Say No” campaign. Her cameo, which involved warning schoolchildren about the dangers of drugs, heralded the start of other special-message episodes—particularly on Full House and Growing Pains—and established the country’s mood toward marijuana for much of that decade.
The groundwork laid by First Lady Nancy Reagan set the stage for this 1990 animated special, which served as a flashy and surreal denouement to the “Just Say No” movement. The television special saw Bugs Bunny, Winnie the Pooh, ALF, the Muppet Babies, and other cartoon favorites join forces to steer a pot-smoking teenager away from a path of drug abuse. Unabashed in its self-righteousness and cross-corporate propaganda, Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue marked the first and last time childhood characters would be such buzzkills on-screen. Perhaps the special’s biggest accomplishment—other than failing in its mission to stave off marijuana usage—was going so over the top in its messaging that it effectively brought an end to the preachy TV episodes of its time. That, and ironically producing the perfect piece of entertainment to watch while stoned.
By 1992, ABC’s sitcom Dinosaurs—in and of itself resembling something out of a stoner’s fever dream—ended its marijuana-themed episode with a different type of PSA, asking viewers to not do drugs to “help put a stop to preachy sitcom endings like this one.” Fast-forward a year later and an episode of Roseanne was subverting tropes of its own, flipping the parents-find-kid’s-weed cliché on its head by revealing that the stash in question actually belonged to the adults. The episode still found time to push an anti-marijuana message by its end, but much like similar episodes of Home Improvement at the time, it presented its message with candor that had been absent from more cloying representations before it.
Before directing stoner comedies Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, Judd Apatow tried a more nuanced take on marijuana with Freaks and Geeks in 1999. Though the one-season series approached the subject cautiously, it did so without glorifying or demonizing the drug. The episode “Chokin’ and Tokin’,” which sees erstwhile geek Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) getting high for the first time after an argument with perpetually stoned Nick (Jason Segel), comes with an earned amount of skepticism—but never judgment—for its characters. With Lindsay, the show mines the comic potential of an unpleasant first experience, while using Nick to acknowledge that getting high all the time can, frankly, be boring. It’s not the anti-marijuana episode of earlier decades, and yet anyone who might view it as such can appreciate it for its empathy.
For a show that technically depicted marijuana use on-screen, That ‘70s Show took the safest approach possible by hearkening back to a far-removed decade known for its drug usage and never actually showing the characters smoking; the word “marijuana” is only ever used once in the entire series. But to its credit, the sitcom approached weed benignly, and its frank portrayal of teenagers hanging out in a basement and lighting up was remarkable for 1999, only two years after a particularly demonizing episode of 7th Heaven (then again, it was 7th Heaven). For once, kids could smoke just to smoke—no judgment allowed.
When one thinks of How I Met Your Mother, “stoner comedy” doesn’t quite come to mind; in fact, the 2005 sitcom hardly touches upon cannabis at all. But one of the series’s longest-running gags involves referring to lighting up as “eating a sandwich,” swapping out joints and bongs for half-eaten subs and hoagies. It’s innocent as far as weed on TV goes, and way more reticent than That ‘70s Show’s unwillingness to use the M-word. But its lighthearted wink-and-nudge approach, especially over the course of nine seasons, did plenty to undermine the fire and brimstone messaging of the ’80s.
Weeds premiered in 2005 when only 10 states had legalized medical marijuana. Over the course of its eight-season run, seven other states (plus Washington, D.C.) voted in favor of medical marijuana. The statistical margin between pro- and anti-marijuana camps dwindled more and more, and by the series finale in 2012, Colorado and Washington had already legalized marijuana for recreational use. And Weeds—despite its frequently unrealistic portrayal of weed and its creative exhaustion after its second season—played an integral role in reshaping public opinion of marijuana legalization. In the same way that creator Jenji Kohan’s other show Orange Is the New Black widened its scope beyond a white protagonist to examine prison injustices, Weeds used its housewife-turned-drug-dealer conceit to explore the seedier aspects of marijuana commerce. At its very best, Weeds used its platform to fairly present the highs and lows of weed culture in a manner that hadn’t been seen before. At the very least, it blazed a path for other pot-centric shows to tell more honest and complex stories.
If there was ever a sign that marijuana legalization had finally saturated national discourse, it was its (likely inevitable) jump from sitcom fodder to reality television. With the dual premieres of Weed Wars and American Weed in late 2011/early 2012, television proved it had come a long way from its Very Special Episodes and “Just Say No” agenda. By presenting the ups and downs of dispensaries with the same frankness as any other budding businesses, Weed Wars and American Weed helped legitimize the cannabis industry in viewers’ minds, doing more to normalize marijuana than many of their fictional counterparts before them.
For a show that actually has very little to do with weed on paper, Broad City is more closely associated with the drug than, say, Weeds. Much of that has to do with how integrated weed is in its characters’ lives, so much so that the pilot revolves entirely around Abbi and Ilana hustling around N.Y.C. to score an eighth. It’s a show that’s unabashedly pro-pot, and though it never shies away from the (usually very funny) consequences of getting too high, it’s done in a way that is both honest and empowering to its leads. That stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer have been candid about how often they get baked in real life goes a long way toward making Broad City’s heightened antics all the more relatable.
When High Maintenance’s first iteration as a web series premiered in 2012, it was praised not for its portrayal of weed, but for its humanistic approach to New York City against the more stylized offerings of Girls and Broad City. That a show ostensibly about marijuana could be lauded for having little to do with marijuana at all isn’t a step backward; it’s postmodern. Assembled as a series of vignettes connected by the same drug dealer, High Maintenance uses weed more as a starting point to tell the more interesting stories of a cross-dressing father, a Helen Hunt-obsessed agoraphobe, or a woman coping with cancer—oftentimes in under 10 minutes. It can be a comedy, sure, but it’s a far cry from stoner comedies that still populate movie theaters. High Maintenance’s strongest asset is its compassion, and its use of marijuana as a source of empathy might best underscore how far television representation has come.
[Photos: courtesy of IFC (“That ’70s Show”); Randy Tepper, courtesy of Showtime (“Weeds”); Eric McCandless, courtesy of FOX (“How I Met Your Mother”); courtesy of Comedy Central (“Broad City”); NBCU Photo Bank (“Diff’rent Strokes”); David Russell, courtesy of HBO (“High Maintenance”); courtesy of Disney-ABC Domestic Television (“Freaks And Geeks”)]