"Mark Wahlberg’s Marijuana Legalization Comedy ‘The Happy Tree’ And How To Make Political Procedurals"
Stoner comedies are a venerable staple of cinema, and have been for a long time, but marijuana enthusiasts have tended to hover around the edge of television, particularly on the networks, where they’re more a fodder for jokes than serious contenders for main characters. But as marijuana legalization has become a political reality at the ballot box, pot may move to the center stage on television, too. Entourage producers Rob Weiss, Mark Wahlberg and Steve Levinson, whose tenure on the HBO sitcom gave them some sense of how to make lighting up a bong, or the possession of marijuana, or a dearth of marijuana, funny, just sold a show to Fox , The Happy Tree, about a burned-out lawyer who becomes a spokesman for a marijuana legalization movement. Whether the show ends up making it to the air or not, and if it does, being any good or not, it raises an interesting question: why haven’t we cracked how to make political procedurals?
In recent memory, we’ve had two effective shows that would meet that description, West Wing and Parks and Recreation. Both of those shows illustrate what makes it harder to do a political procedural than a crime show: the fight isn’t the same every week, and the episodes can’t hit the same satisfying rhythm of discover a body, fix on the wrong suspect, find the right suspect, trial, and verdict. On the national level, the dilemmas on West Wing ranged from bringing a recalcitrant Congress to heel, shutting down an advocate who could make trouble for the administration, deciding whether to go to war, or dealing with an assassination attempt. But the throughline was the power of the presidency and how it could be deployed. On Parks and Recreation, the episodes frequently revolve around event planning and execution, a flexible structure that’s carried the show through everything from sister city visits, to weddings, to reunions of Parks Department directors, to campaign stops.
It’s trickier to come up with that kind of structure for a story about a movement, because the tasks are different when you’re outside of government and seeking power rather than wielding it. That doesn’t mean that episodes can’t be organized around the kinds of events Leslie Knope takes on: movements need rallies, and meetings, and election days, which make for terrific climaxes. But rather than a straight episode-by-episode procedural with little continuity across the course of a season, it probably makes more sense to structure a story about a movement like a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, setting up an elected official, a judge, a ballot initiative, or a commission as a Big Bad, and devoting much of the season to a meeting, a change of heart, a defeat, or a victory. Not all the episodes have to deal exclusively with whatever the drive towards victory is, but that fight will give a spine to each season of the show, without which it would be easy for a program like this to become a baggy, bleary collection of jokes about sparking up. It’s not that I don’t like those. But if you want momentum and stakes for something like The Happy Tree, you have to understand that marijuana isn’t just a matter of fancy Hollywood dealers and Harold and Kumar’s business hippies, and figure out how to make questions of enforcement, cultivation, taxation, and distribution interesting beyond Johnny Drama’s desperation for a dispensary hat.