The Bong Show
Weed Wars reveals the mundane concerns of a marijuana dispensary.
Photograph © 2011 Discovery Channel.
Although reality television may seem like a roiling mess of a million shows, the entire genre divides neatly into two categories. The first type is the reality of idleness, which includes series like The Real World, Jersey Shore, and the Real Housewives franchise. Some of these realistas have jobs—most shows feature a group enterprise or individual entrepreneurs sweating to convert TV exposure into bankable dough—but the work is mere fodder for interpersonal conflict. We watch to see strangers being rude to one another. They remind us that awesome real estate and banging bods do not bring happiness.
At the other end of the spectrum is the reality of the workplace. This second group includes competitions like Project Runway and The Apprentice—they’re season-long job interviews, after all. There are also the more literal workplace dramas, like The Millionaire Matchmaker and Deadliest Catch. These we watch for reassurance; they remind us that even the coolest-sounding jobs are just as frustrating and stressful as our own.
The Discovery Channel’s motorcycle-and-firearm-filled reality lineup constitutes solid proof of that proposition. Apart from their titular patriotism, American Chopper (life at a family motorcycle business), American Guns (life at a family gun business), and American Loggers (life at a family tree-harvesting business) all proffer the exact same message: “Outlaws—they’re just like us!”
The latest additions to Discovery’s roster of renegade workplaces deliver the same takeaway. Weed Wars, which debuts Thursday at 10 p.m. ET, and Moonshiners, which launches next Tuesday, Dec. 6, at 10 p.m. ET, both focus on strange people working hard in dubious professions. Weed Wars tells the story of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif., the world’s largest medical cannabis dispensary, which boasts an executive named Dave Wedding Dress. Moonshiners follows a Virginian named Tim, who, with the help of his good friend Tickle, works to preserve the family tradition of brewing illegal hooch.
Dave Wedding Dress, Tickle, and their cohort are just like your co-workers, only more distinctively attired. Steve DeAngelo, Harborside’s founder and executive director, knows the importance of establishing a signature look, and his standard attire could be described as Bolivian Indian (long braids and a hat) meets English gentleman (regimental tie and windowpane-checked vest). Wedding Dress—who in the first episode, at least, is mostly used to represent the species oddballis canabidense—likes to set off his Santa beard with a knee-length tie-dye jumper. And down in moonshine country, Tim maintains a bib-overalls and no-shirt ensemble and speaks in a subtitles-requiring drawl.
But don’t let their wardrobes fool you—these people run into the same troubles you do. The first episode of Weed Wars centers on an argument over taxes. The city of Oakland is demanding that a new 5 percent cannabis levy must be paid in advance; the pot people say the council promised the bill would be due retroactively. Since Harborside takes in more than $21 million in sales each year, we’re talking about a significant chunk of change. Even so, this is the least promising plot point since The Phantom Menace tried to get us worked up about the taxation of trade routes.
Harborside’s battle with the Oakland Business Tax Board of Review is oddly fascinating, though. It’s not that the clinic comes up with an innovative strategy to fight city hall, nor that CFO Luigi Zamarra brings the city fathers to tears with his soaring rhetoric (his argument is basically that Harborside can’t come up with so much money on short notice). Rather, it’s simply a joy to watch other people deal with their horrible bosses. Steve DeAngelo isn’t a phone-throwing crazy—his tranquil demeanor is a living advertisement for the calming properties of cannabis—but his demands are completely unreasonable. Steve and his brother Andrew, Harborside’s general manager, expect Zamarra to sweet talk the council out of $1 million. Are they high?
Some of the time, they’re definitely high. Everyone who works at Harborside is a legal medical marijuana patient, so, as Steve tells an unseen interviewer, “they’re all quite familiar with the medicine.” Most of the staffers do seem to enjoy their jobs as much as they love the product they’re peddling. While examining a new batch, the clinic’s head buyer—a round, nerdy dude—yells, “I love looking at cannabis,” and you just know he’s telling the truth. As on all the Discovery job shows, there’s an astonishing amount of expertise on display, and it’s a pleasure to watch people take such pride in their work.
Expertise can be a trap, though. Terryn, a Harborside sales associate, wants out. He’s great with customers, and, as he says, “I know a lot about cannabis, for better or for worse.” But he’s also a 35-year-old guy who earns his living working a cash register, and his career choice is a disappointment to his mom. Terryn has just started growing cannabis—to buy time to write, he says—but his plants are sick, and the work is more time-consuming than he would like. He is a stand-in for every frustrated worker in this stagnant economy—afraid to give up even a dead-end job, overwhelmed by the demands of starting something new.
Those of us longing for a more collegial work environment at least get to see Terryn receive help from Jon, an experienced grower. Jon once worked for a subprime mortgage lender—“It kind of hurt my soul to be part of that,” he says—but now has what amounts to a full-time farming job. His “mad hours of tedious work” seem to pay off when he receives $4,000 for a pound of his Sage & Sour Kush, which sells out the same day it hits Harborside’s shelves, but his electricity bill is $1,900 per month. And while Weed Wars doesn’t linger over the risks of the quasi-legal world of medicinal marijuana, Jon worries about thieves and federal agents.
The model moonshiner, I learned from the Discovery Channel, must possess the outdoor skills of a backwoodsman, the recipe-wrangling talents of a master chef, and the logistical expertise of a Fortune 500 supply-chain specialist. Tim and his team have to scout out the perfect location for their still—near a source of clean, cool water but far from the prying eyes of law-enforcement officials and rival brewmasters—and then schlep the hardware and ingredients, including heavy sacks of sugar and corn meal, out to the isolated spot. “Good moonshine—it’s a lot of work,” Tim declares. Preventing the production of all this illegal liquor is even harder work, and the scenes in which Special Agent Jesse Tate of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control dons camouflage gear and heads into the woods in search of unlawful activity are downright depressing, because his job seems completely impossible. In this case at least, the guys with the badges are vastly outnumbered and outgunned.
The surprising thing about these shows is that, although they’re about perilous professions, the most pressing dangers the workers face aren’t from law enforcement. They’re ones we’re all familiar with: killing ourselves for a puny paycheck, holding onto a job we hate because we’re afraid there’s no better alternative, and not being able to pay our taxes. The lesson of Discovery’s reality lineup: There’s a dress-wearing weed salesman in all of us.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.