High Maintenance is critically acclaimed while Disjointed was just canceled. Why? It may all come down to their portrayal of cannabis users.
With cannabis getting more mainstream attention, it’s not surprising shows about weed are popping up in this era of “peak TV”. But how are series like Netflix’s Disjointed and HBO’s High Maintenance portraying the cannabis community?
High Maintenance does an exceptional job representing cannabis users because the show, using its anthology style, depicts people of all walks of life who buy and smoke weed. The HBO series loosely follows a weed-delivery guy in Brooklyn’s hippest neighborhoods, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick, and gives viewers snippets into the lives of “the guy’s” customers, which pot is only a small part of. Sure, they all smoke, but they’re from different backgrounds, socio-economic classes, races, religions, genders, and sexualities – it’s as diverse as New York itself, or at least as diverse as those neighborhoods of Brooklyn can be.
Disjointed, on the other hand, is hard to watch. The sitcom, starring Kathy Bates and tapped in front of a live studio audience, is just a series of stoner stereotypes that perpetuate the “lazy stoner” stigma. The show is set in a California dispensary that’s run by Kathy Bates’ character, who is a stereotypical stoner as well as a Jewish mother and aging hippie. Her staff includes tropes like the wounded veteran with PTSD and the “token” Asian with a “Tiger Mom” she’s terrified to disappoint. Even the customers are bogged down in cringe-worthy clichés, like the stoner soccer mom and airhead YouTube stars– it’s tacky and dated, right down to the laugh track.
“The writers of Disjointed seem to think all cannabis users fit some version of the lazy stoner stereotype,” says veteran who served nearly 15 years in the U.S. Army, Adrian Danczyk.
When I tweeted about Disjointed to crowdsource opinions from the cannabis community, Danczyk reached out to me with this tweet: “Combat-wounded veteran. I was deeply disappointed they went w/ the culturally new but well-worn trope we’re all broken from our service. And only good for security jobs. Weak.”
I reached out to Danczyk, who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afganistan, and who was wounded by being shot in head in a small village south of Fallujah, Iraq, to ask him to elaborate.
“Vets are as diverse a group of people as Americans, so we should be portrayed as such,” says Danczyk. “We’re not all broken by PTSD, moments or days away from some panic attack or break from reality that leaves us locked in our dispensary manager’s office (or worse). While it’s true many of us suffer from PTSD, we continue to lead happy, productive lives in which we positively contribute to our workplace teams, families, and friends.”
“Like any sitcom, Disjointed relies on humorous stereotypes except with one important flaw: these lazy stoner caricatures perpetuate a myth that is part and parcel of the failed war on drugs,” adds Danczuk.
Some argue that Disjointed starts off with stoner stereotypes in the first few episodes, only to break them later on.
“In the first few episodes I felt we were playing into stereotypes too heavily and the writers explained to me that this was part of their plan to break the stereotypes in the coming episodes, which I happily did see happen,” explains dispensary-owner and cannabis consultant on the show, Dr. Dina Browner. “When I first met with the Disjointed team, I expressed my concern about working on a project that made our community look bad. They assured me that was not the angle they were taking, but it was a comedy and they did want it to be very silly.”
Yet, much of the cannabis community told Herb they couldn’t watch more than the first episode, no matter how hard they tried. The cannabis community isn’t the only group who disliked the show, it has a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 23%. High Maintenance, on the other hand, has a score of 97%.
Disjointed doesn’t just parody dated tropes with puns I swear my dad wrote (no offense, Dad!) It parodies real cannabis activists and business owners, like Steve Deangelo and the late and great, Jack Herer.
Deangelo, longtime activist and Executive Director of the Oakland, California dispensary, Harborside Health Center, has been active on Twitter about his distaste for the show. Disjointed parodies him in season two as a money-grubbing corporate jerk who tries to convince one character to “sell out” her friend for weed. Deangelo, who felt slandered by the show, was more upset about its depiction of Jack Herer and his wife Jeanine.
High Maintenance also uses parody to poke fun at groups, especially the white upper-middle class “hipsters” of North Brooklyn. But it does so in a more artful and thought-provoking way – using stereotypes to make viewers think about their behavior and society from a new point of view.
The HBO series also gives a voice to marginalized communities, like immigrants and people of color. For example, in the end of the season two premiere, “Globo,” the camera follows a young Latino service industry worker who picks up his son at five in the morning after working two jobs. The episode ends with the young man and his son playing with a balloon, or globo in Spanish, on the subway – warming the cold hearts of tired New Yorkers on the same subway car, in a touching scene that is so NY it made me tear up.
Maybe the shows’ differences boil down to the disparity between the East and West coast.
“The thing about Disjointed is that it portrays ‘LA cannabis users’ and the weird culture of the legal marijuana movement. LA is filled with lots of, unique people – so yes this show attempts to show many different ‘types’ of users/energies in the emerging industry,” says Founder of Some Girls Get High, Margaret Partyka.
Dr. Dina argues the same point, “I have worked in the industry for 16 years, I’ve had a dispensary for 15 of those years and I can honestly say that people like that do exist. Every dispensary has their ‘characters.’”
Yet, for me and much of the cannabis community, the writing in Disjointed is disconnected from real people – especially concerning real cannabis users. On the other hand, High Maintenance can be so real that it also makes you cringe – but in a way that makes you want to reevaluate your priorities. Plus, High Maintenance, with all of its dysfunctional characters, never blames weed for their dilemmas – it often blames privilege.
Disjointed consistently blames weed for people’s problems and shows pot smokers in a one-dimensional light: they’re not very intelligent and they can’t even complete full thoughts because they’re so high all the time.
“Disjointed could show more people who may use cannabis once in a while and is not a driving force in their life,” says Paul Dhillon, Co-Founder of Cultivated Solutions. “Creating a world where every cannabis user is a “stoner” reinforces misconceptions. It keeps cannabis use on the fringes, as a wacky subculture or lifestyle, rather than a leisure activity. They fail to show that there are plenty of people that are not troubled and occasionally use cannabis, like having a beer or a glass of wine. There are plenty of people in high stress, high-performance industries like medicine, legal, or finance that use cannabis in responsible ways to unwind.”
But don’t just take my word for it. While I was researching this story, Disjointed was canceled by Netflix. It may be because Netflix is moving away from this outdated sitcom-style approach – or maybe, because even Netflix knows cannabis consumers aren’t like the tropes the show highlights. Let’s hope the future of pot consumption on TV keeps pushing the envelope like High Maintenance and stops using stigma and stereotypes like Disjointed.