Networks just say yes to drugs

Primetime shows depict increasingly lax attitute

Remember the drug war, when TV collectively enlisted in Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and assembled “Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue” as foot soldiers in that cause? Well, peruse some of the more prestigious offerings on cable, and it looks like the forces of abstinence are in retreat.

Moreover, broadcast television — which lags behind cable in this regard even more than it has in sex and certainly violence — has taken furtive steps toward a more permissive attitude.

Drug kingpins, of course, remain popular TV bad guys. The end users, though — the average folks that create a fertile market for all that illicit contraband flowing across the Mexican border — are privy to plenty of images of themselves casually partaking in primetime.

Pay cable raced ahead in depictions of drug use long ago, with series like “Weeds” (about a suburban pot-selling mom) and “Entourage” exhibiting scant judgment about characters getting high. Yet surveying the latest cycle in TV, the floodgates appear to have burst.

On Showtime’s “Californication,” the featured dad played by David Duchovny is slightly agitated upon realizing that his teenage daughter is stoned — but discovers it’s because she and her friend found and sampled his personal stash. The protagonist in HBO’s new comedy “Bored to Death” and his boss regularly smoke together, while “Nurse Jackie’s” title character numbs herself popping prescription pills.

In a different sphere, Bill Maher’s studio audience howls approval every time he mentions gutting drug laws on his HBO show “Real Time.”

Ad-supported cable has gotten into the act as well, and not just on Comedy Central shows like “The Sarah Silverman Program.” AMC’s “Breaking Bad” takes a nuanced look at a cancer-stricken teacher who cooks crystal meth to provide for his family, and in sister drama “Mad Men,” several ad-agency creatives recently unlocked their imagination with a pot-smoking session in the office.

Pipes aren’t being raised quite so freely on broadcast television, but the finger-wagging tone appears to have subsided — giving way, partially, to the inherent comedy in lighting up.

The CBS pilot “Accidentally on Purpose” features a twentysomething slacker sneakily blowing out smoke as a laugh line. During this season’s second episode of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” officials become concerned when they realize someone has planted marijuana in a community garden.

Should this come as a surprise? Not really. Beyond the public push to decriminalize pot, it’s a not particularly well-kept secret that while sitcom writers might struggle to find work these days, locating sources of weed is less problematic. Moreover, neighborhoods that many frequent now seem to have medical marijuana facilities on alternating corners, just in case somebody feels a headache coming on.

“There are certain moments where everything comes together,” says Ethan Nadelmann, exec director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group committed to decriminalizing drugs and seeking alternatives to the drug war.

Nadelmann cited broad public support for legalized marijuana, along with the economic recession, among factors that have “helped transform the larger dialogue … (and) the imagery of who is a marijuana user.”

In a feeble sign of shifting attitudes, the New York Times cited a paid program that has played on an obscure Los Angeles TV station, “Cannabis Planet,” which is essentially a how-to guide for potheads. The half-hour has run without complaint, though to be fair, the channel doubtless has about six viewers, and most of them probably forgot to watch.

A personal anecdote might be more illustrative: At the Hollywood Bowl recently on a night of light classical music, nearby concertgoers shared a joint as they waited for the crowd to thin out, as matter-of-factly as if they were enjoying a nice cabernet. And nobody gave them a second look.

Broadcasters, in fact, are likely well behind significant parts of the public, still sensitive to allegations of exalting drug use. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that Fox caused controversy because the teenage characters smoked dope on “That ’70s Show” — without ever depicting anyone raising a pipe to his lips.

Still, thanks to the emphasis on reaching younger demographics and a baby boom population that just said “Yes,” cracks are appearing in that armor. For TV writers, this more permissive approach simply amounts to writing what they know — or perhaps, what they can remember.

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