The Hulu sitcom “Deadbeat,” debuting April 8, brings a new kind of spirit-summoning medium to the small screen.
Less refined than Patricia Arquette, Jennifer Love Hewitt or the Long Island medium, and the only one of them to sport neck scruff, Kevin (Tyler Labine) sees dead people. But he sees even more of his pot dealer, Roofie (Brandon T. Jackson), who also is his best friend.
Displaying a cuddly charm, Labine (“Reaper”) finds different beats within Kevin’s mild, perpetual surprise – at ghosts who reveal themselves to him, seeking help getting to the other side, and at the predicaments Kevin’s lack of responsibility puts him in. (Financially strapped because he never charges enough to rid homes of ghosts, he relies on Roofie for free drugs to keep his surprise mild).
The writing can be inspired. Would-be throwaway lines, like one about the race horse Seabiscuit, are sharper than the show’s stoner trappings would suggest. And Kevin, despite his preference for inertia, rouses himself enough to solve a ghost case each week.
In these ways, “Deadbeat” further elevates the subgenre of stoner comedy, already lifted by “Workaholics” and “Broad City,” high-energy Comedy Central shows about iridescently inappropriate young people. (You even could include “Wilfred,” the FXX show in which Jason Gann plays a talking, pot-smoking dog – and for which the creators of “Deadbeat” once wrote – but I won’t because men in dog costumes freak me out).
Elevation in this instance does not equal sophistication. “Deadbeat,” “Workaholics” and “Broad City” are too fond of gross-out humor to lead TV’s current golden age. Elevation in stoner comedy simply means making it accessible to viewers beside bros with bongs.
These shows offer more than their characters’ pot use, and thus reflect changing times. With medicinal marijuana legal in many states and recreational pot for sale in Colorado and on the way in Washington state, the drug has lost much of its air of exoticism and thus its power as a source of taboo humor. Writers have to work harder than just having a character proclaim, “Man, I am so baked.”
Shows “are plugging into a modern idea of a pothead,” Labine said. “Stoner humor gets a little smarter when they don’t make it the central idea.”
For years, stoner comedy explicit (“Half Baked,” “Dude Where’s My Car?” “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”) and implied (“Beavis & Butthead”) hung its hat on glassy-eyed, slacked-jawed sight gags. Writers chose a chuckling knowingness above smart punch lines that might pierce the haze.
Sometimes pot-friendly writers were also everybody-friendly writers, with magical results. The 1993 film “Dazed and Confused” is a lovely slice of 1970s small-town high school life that incorporates pot because period and setting demand it. “The Big Lebowski” (1998) really ties pot smoking, farce and profundity together.
Today, such inclusiveness, like most breakthroughs in filmed entertainment, happens via cable and streaming services. These outlets also encourage binge-watching, an activity as natural to stoners as gobbling Funyuns and so mesmerizing to nonsmokers that it approaches being stoned.
Though no longer naughty enough to be a film’s or series’ lone premise, pot remains provocative enough subject matter to add color or “edge” to shows built on larger ideas. Including pot in story lines works well for cable channels and streaming services that distinguish themselves by pushing content boundaries.
Also at play is the inestimable Apatow Factor. In 2005, Judd Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” merged pot humor and universal humor in let-it-all-hang-out fashion. That film’s success changed the comedy landscape and still dictates much of today’s screen humor.
Credit or blame Apatow for the robust careers of Seth Rogen and James Franco, stars of the Apatow-produced 2008 pothead action film “Pineapple Express.”
Hilarious to stoners and medium funny to the sober, that movie made Franco a star.
Heavily improvised, “Workaholics” comes across as the gnarly son of Apatow in spirit if not reality. Its three main characters (Anders Holm, Adam DeVine, Blake Anderson) (barely) work together in telemarketing.
They share a weekly brick of marijuana and a ranch-style house, the chimney of which they once used as a giant bong.
The trio hatches schemes to heighten their daily fun factor. One involves breaking into a brewery and transporting beer from a tank via hose to the bed of a waiting pickup truck.
Absurdist, anarchic and often injurious to its heroes, “Workaholics” is hit and miss. When it hits, it touches brilliance.
The 3-year-old show, airing at 10 p.m. Wednesday, found a game companion in rookie series “Broad City,” which aired just after it and wrapped up its first season last week.
Executive-produced by Amy Poehler and created by and starring young sketch comedians Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, the show – about two friends in the big city – doles out its drug humor judiciously and well.
In one episode, Abbi wants to behave more like a grown-up. So she decides to buy her own weed instead of bumming off Ilana. It’s a logical step for these New York City gal pals, who make Lena Dunham and the gang from “Girls” seem modest and motivated.
“Broad City’s” humor rests less on drugs than on revealing the pretensions of young would-be hipsters, specifically Abbi and Ilana. A bit in which the dorky yet judgmental young women grudgingly enter the Upper East Side, whose wealthy matrons and small dogs are anathema to their own cool worldview, plays on about eight levels.
If you’re wondering what all this means for the kids, none of these shows actually promotes pot use or furthers the push for its legalization. “Deadbeat,” “Broad City” and “Workaholics” strongly suggest marijuana keeps its protagonists from reaching their full potential.
But I am not here to judge how responsibly these shows depict pot use – just how funny that depiction is. It’s getting funnier.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.