When I heard that Netflix was coming out with a pot dispensary comedy created by Chuck Lorre of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men,” I winced. That’s just what we need, an endless series of one-liners about baked couch potatoes and one-hit wonders. You know, something something HIGH school, or maybe “The Big BONG Theory.”
My dread grew when I learned that the show, which Lorre co-created with writer David Javerbaum of “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report,” would feature a laugh track. It seems so unnecessary when an original Netflix comedy arrives with sweetened chuckles; the “One Day at a Time” reboot and “The Ranch” also feature that network-style sound of cackling goats. What are these guys dragging show star Kathy Bates into?
But I did enjoy the four episodes of “Disjointed” that Netflix made available for review, and not solely because they weren’t as bad as I’d feared. The show is broad, for sure, but it has some distinctions. It’s best strength is the warm ensemble, led by Bates as dispensary owner and pot activist Ruth Whitefeather Feldman, who is “spreading the gospel of marijuana,” as she puts it. The actors bring out some lovely new sides to the old stoner stereotypes. “Disjointed” also has the advantage of an unusual and timely setting, away from the workplaces and city apartments where most of TV’s sitcom characters deploy their wisecrackery. And the issues underneath the humor — the threat of corporate takeover, the medicinal applications of pot, the cultural shift from defiance to compliance — pull the show in interesting directions.
Ruth happily runs Ruth’s Alternative Caring in Los Angeles as a small business, and she loves to preach to customers about weed’s potential to calm. One lonely housewife, played by Nicole Sullivan, comes into the shop seeking to lift her depression; Ruth takes her under her wing and into her stash. “You’re not alone,” Ruth tells her. “You’ll be happy to know you’re a stereotype.” Ruth also wonders if she can help the shop’s security guard, Carter (Tone Bell), who has PTSD from his military service in Iraq, by giving him a few hits of indica and a session with Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.”
Meanwhile, Ruth’s son, business school grad Travis (Aaron Moten), has bigger plans for the shop, and he pushes her to develop an online presence. “Recreational is now legal in California,” Travis says to Ruth. “The gold rush is on, and someday somebody is going to be the Walmart of cannabis. Why not us?” Ruth’s response: “Because Walmart is evil.” There’s a romantic chemistry between Travis and store budtender Olivia (Elizabeth Alderfer), which will probably provide the conventional will-they-or-won’t-they narrative.
There is plenty of pot humor afoot, as expected, with stoner grower Peter (Dougie Baldwin) fantasizing about breeding paranoia out of pot plants and budtender Jenny (Elizabeth Ho) referring to herself as a “Tokin’ Asian.” This is a fast-paced network-style comedy, and you have to accept that. But instead of real commercials, Lorre and Javerbaum punctuate the show with fake pot-related commercials — one for Young & High LLP, for example, a law firm that will sue for damages for the late delivery of junk food. They also lace the dialogue with network-unfriendly obscenities, and they pick on all generations, not just stoner boomers. (Warning sensitive millennials, there is this joke: “You millennials . . . everybody gets a quidditch trophy!”) And occasionally Lorre and Javerbaum turn away from the action to entertain us with weird little videos, including trippy animated pieces.
The PTSD story line is a bit heavy-handed for such a flighty show, but let’s see if the writers can pull it off. Carter has trigger moments that are meant to be dramatic, and he tells Ruth he felt safer in Iraq than as a black man in America. The comedies “You’re the Worst” and “One Day at a Time” have both dealt with PTSD with varying results, so let’s see. I’m willing to watch to find out.
Starring: Kathy Bates, Tone Bell, Aaron Moten, Elizabeth Alderfer, Elizabeth Ho, Nicole Sullivan, Dougie Baldwin, Michael Trucco
On Netflix. Season one is available Friday.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.