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Pot plays big on TV in 'Glee,' 'Parenthood' and 'Mad Men'

Published December 23, 2013 5:04 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The abundance of marijuana on television suggests that a long-subterranean appreciation for the plant is growing, even thriving, above ground.

Whereas 2005's "Weeds" famously featured Mary-Louise Parker as a suburban mom dealing pot to maintain her upscale lifestyle, and Dave Chappelle's "Half-Baked" celebrated the subculture with comedy, pot is steadily making its way into more polite (even prime-time) company.

Recently:

• "Parenthood," "Parks and Recreation," "Glee" and other big network favorites have featured pot stories.

• Whoopi Goldberg demonstrated how to roll a joint (oregano, they called it) on a recent edition of Bravo's "Watch What Happens Live."

• A number of nonfiction efforts have documented Colorado's pot culture, notably CNBC's "Marijuana Inc.," CNN's "Weed" and National Geographic Channel's "Drugs Inc."

When socially conservative groups like the Parents Television Council protest, Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of NORML, has an easy answer. He wrote on his blog, "An evaluation of the story plot lines on these shows in question will often find it is the prohibition of the herb that creates the narrative friction, plot-line tensions or character conflicts—not the cannabis use per se."

The days of marijuana being walled off in a discrete corner of the entertainment universe, the province of Cheech and Chong or "Adult Swim," are long gone. Increasingly, pot consumption is shown on TV without judgment.

There was a time, in the '60s, say, when a pot reference by the Smothers Brothers was cryptic, intended to be missed by most of the audience. By the '70s, "Laugh-In" was more daring, even venturing into psychedelic allusions. In the '80s, "Roseanne" cleverly showed the high times and potentially negative repercussions of smoking weed. Even "Diff'rent Strokes" ventured into the topic, careful to include warnings alongside jokes.

More recently, dramas from "Mad Men" to "Homeland" and comedies from "The Office" to "Hot in Cleveland" have indulged. But the "very special episode" approach has been abandoned, the hazard warnings dropped.

As usual, television articulated the nation's relationship with the subject long before it emerged as a ballot issue. Weed is a well-understood reference point, a casual sideline, a recreational outlet for fully functional characters.

Pot still has a different role from alcohol. It continues to translate to something vaguely countercultural. Marijuana is not slipped into scripts like glasses of scotch on "The Good Wife" or bourbon on "Nashville," a cue to characters confronting one another or sorting out their feelings. (There is not yet product-placement opportunity.)

But rather than serve as a sign of radical rebellion, pot on TV these days often acts as a sign of an artistic nature or the pursuit of personal freedom.

"I smell creativity," says "Mad Men's" Don Draper as the drug's aroma wafts through the halls of his advertising agency.

On TV as in life, a change in pot's status is in the air.

Colorado's pot news • Meanwhile, the national media have a bad case of the giggles lately whenever the words "Colorado" and "marijuana" combine in a sentence.

So far, interviews on cable TV have devolved into juvenile jokes — the kind Colorado residents were making a year or two ago when the prospect of legalized weed first arose.

CNN missed an opportunity when Don Lemon hosted The Denver Post's pot editor, Ricardo Baca, on his "11th Hour" show this month. Rather than look into the range of tricky subjects now on the horizon for a mainstream newspaper covering a once-illegal drug, Lemon treated the idea as a giant goof, inviting bad stoner puns and generalizations.

On Fox News, Bill O'Reilly expressed outrage at the idea that the Post would hire a pot editor. "This is promoting the use of an intoxicant by the Denver Post!" (His panelists disagreed.)

"Saturday Night Live" weighed in with a throwaway ("The Denver Post this week announced that they're looking for a marijuana editor for their website. They have one. They're just looking for him."). Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central used Baca as a straight man while the onscreen graphic identified his location variously as "Bongistan," "Stanksylvania" and "Spleef Meadows." Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon and others have taken shots at Colorado's new experiment with the drug.

Granted, they're not serious news shows. On CBS News' "60 Minutes," Steve Kroft did a serious report on the "fascinating green rush going on in Colorado," with a look at infused snacks, tinctures, elixirs and such.

Upcoming television interviews may get over the initial snickers and, as The Denver Post intends to do, delve into the many social, economic, cultural and legal issues presented by the new status of pot.