Netflix’s Pot Comedy ‘Disjointed’ Opts for Easy Stoner Humor
The new Netflix series Disjointed, which premiered its first ten episodes (of 20 ordered so far) this past Friday, is an appropriately titled mishmash of two distinct styles that never completely coalesce. Created by David Javerbaum and Chuck Lorre, it is an achingly dull CBS-style sitcom “about” weed the same way The Big Bang Theory is “about” quantum mechanics. However, somewhere in post-production, it feels as though it was seized by real stoners, adding trippy non sequitur scene transitions like shots of a potter’s wheel. These moments hint at insider understanding of the show’s subject matter unfortunately absent elsewhere.
Set in San Bernardino, Disjointed follows the misadventures of Ruth Whitefeather Feldman, played by Kathy Bates, who runs a pot dispensary now with the help of her MBA graduate son, Travis, played by Aaron Moten. She’s something of a hippie burnout who balks at his attempts to turn their dispensary into “the Walmart of cannabis.” The premise is certainly timely, and occasionally the show successfully explores this curious moment of pot entrepreneurship – the dispensary posts a “Strain O’ The Day” video to YouTube (each episode of Disjointed is named after that strain); two big-time stoner customers (played by Chris Redd and the always charming Betsy Sodaro) vlog about getting high and eventually pick up a sponsorship at the dispensary; and scenes are occasionally interrupted by fake TV ads for stoners, like a buttoned-up white version of the “B.A.N.” episode of Atlanta. Apart from those clever devices and dialogue between Ruth and Travis, we don’t really see what it entails to grow from a local dispensary to a major capitalist enterprise.
Though Disjointed makes a brief meta-reference to Cheech and Chong, it’s embarrassingly disconnected from more recent stoner media, making it occasionally feel like it’s trying to invent the genre from scratch. Though by the end it was hard to remember, Weeds’s first few seasons masterfully explored pot and other industries that existed along the edges of the gray market. Compared to that show’s exploration of the drugs that make suburban life bearable, Maria (Nicole Sullivan)’s storyline as a soccer mom who turns into a full-on stoner in one day feels facile and without insight. Meanwhile, a storyline about an Iraq veteran beginning to treat his PTSD with pot can’t compare to You’re the Worst’s thoughtful-then-silly treatment of the same issue and its resulting legal ramifications, and the show lacks the punchy stoner-centric writing of Broad City, or even MTV’s late Mary + Jane. There’s plenty of room for more explorations of these kinds of stories – indeed, much more is needed in a world where marijuana use is hugely common but facing increased legal crackdowns – but they need to be more clever than what Disjointed offers up.
The best TV analogue to Disjointed isn’t another sitcom, really – it’s a cooking show. Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party’s first season on VH1 combined Snoop Dogg’s iconic stoner style with Martha Stewart’s unstoppable enterprising hosting acumen. It speaks to the confusing space marijuana use finds itself in today – mostly or completely legal in some places, strictly illegal in others, and also by federal law. In those places where it’s legal, prospectors are making money joint over blunt, while people who dealt the year before legalization may still be behind bars. Martha & Snoop pits Martha Stewart against Snoop Dogg cooking their own recipes of the same meal, then eating alongside celebrity guests like Kathy Griffin or Rick Ross. This kind of mainstreaming of giggly weed innuendo is simultaneously a function of Snoop’s enduring presence on the pop culture landscape and an increasing understanding that weed use is mainstream, even among productive capitalists.
These themes, explored on a VH1 cooking show, are only occasionally present on Netflix’s sitcom set in a marijuana dispensary. The workplace has three regular customers (the soccer mom and the two stoners); more would allow for a Newhart-style setting that oddballs could pass through, which in turn could demonstrate the diverse types of people who smoke pot. Storylines are often meandering and lacking any discernable arc, which would feel appropriate to a pot comedy if it weren’t more emblematic of Chuck Lorre’s other series (one of which, Mom, is a genuinely clever show that expands on how the world outside its stage can actually affect its characters). It’s tremendously satisfying to watch Kathy Bates tell a DEA agent “You miserable fuckin’ prick. How do you live with yourself?” but her activism before this moment is something more discussed by other characters than actually demonstrated.
The show is unsurprisingly at its very worst on the subject of race. One of the shop’s employees, Jenny (Elizabeth Ho), is Chinese American (she introduces herself as a “tokin’ Asian”); she grew up with the stereotypical academic pressures any sitcom viewer can imagine, and she hasn’t told her mother that she dropped out of med school to be a stoner. The emotional weight of this decision is never explored, nor is the relatable and common use of marijuana by overachievers to force themselves to enjoy relaxation. Instead, she accidentally uses an herbal tea her mother sends her to enhance the shop’s proprietary weed strains. Where Disjointed relies on stereotypes for its one Asian American character, it goes for cheap jokes about Ruth being white and her son Travis being black. At one point Ruth compares him to his father (a Black Panther-turned-corporate-lawyer who never appears on the show): “ambitious, determined, thirsty for young white women.” When noting their different races would be appropriate — for example, regarding the different risks they face as drug users and dealers — the show is completely silent. Though race is a huge factor in marijuana arrests, race is largely invisible from the show unless there’s a racist joke to be made.
Disjointed is at its most enjoyable is when it free-associates – characters break into song, one has sex with “Mary Jane…the spiritual embodiment of the marijuana plant” while his plants beg him not to harvest them, and PTSD flashbacks are animated sequences harkening back to Fritz the Cat. That these beats are often so disconnected from the multi-cam format demonstrate that the show’s producers are still struggling with a question that should feel obvious: How do you make a TV comedy that people can get high and laugh at?
Netflix must have found enough success with The Ranch to feel that uncensored multi-cam sitcoms are worth investing in. Unlike its earlier ancestor, Lucky Louie, Disjointed takes risks only with its language and drug content, not with its subject matter, themes, or realism. It even pays lip service to an ill-informed D.A.R.E.-style canard, featuring a character from Iowa who believes that pot is a gateway to the meth and crack abuse that destroyed her hometown. Its workplace is a found family where everyone smokes and gets along, ignoring completely the long hours and poverty wages found in many dispensaries. Ruth’s pot activism is a blanket “Legalize it” ignoring any of the nuance of modern calls for amnesty and reparations. It’s ultimately any sitcom about any store, plus some cheesy stoner gags about the munchies.
Disjointed has a lot of potential. Multi-cam sitcoms benefit from a season or so of tweaking, which is limited by Netflix’s release model. Fuller House’s second season was much more confident show, mostly devoid of the winking metagags that ruined its first season. Disjointed’s cast is very strong, and its setting suggests much more than its first ten episodes accomplish. One can only hope that its next ten episodes will lean into its smaller moments, interstitial animated sequences and musical numbers that suggest a show even stoners can enjoy.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.