As coffee is such a staple in our daily lives, and has been for hundreds of years, so too is it a staple in the lives of some of our favourite characters in film and TV. We laugh as the lead characters in a romantic comedy bump into each other while ordering, we sit in suspense as the villain slowly stirs his cup, contemplating his next move. Some scenes revolve entirely around sitting at a diner and revealing things about the characters or plot - over a cup of coffee (like the pivotal diner scene between Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in 1995’s “Heat”, or the many charming and hilarious vignettes in Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 film “Coffee & Cigarettes”... all of which I suggest checking out on YouTube!).
In many cases, coffee appears in film and TV as just another part of someone’s routine, an easy way of bringing life and believability to their character. Think of shows like “CSI” or “Law & Order” -- the detectives are often seen sipping from paper cups as they walk-and-talk through the streets of New York or Miami. Sometimes, coffee plays a bigger role - even a plot point - like when Jim pranks Dwight on “The Office”, sending him a fax (that appears to come from the future), which claims that the coffee that morning has been poisoned… setting him up for all kinds of embarrassing hijinx. Interestingly, however, when a coffee scene appears in film and TV, whether or not it is driving the plot or embellishing a character, it can speak to the climate or culture around coffee in the real world, at the time the movie or episode was produced.
In the hilarious and bizarre 1991 Steve Martin film, “L.A. Story”, there’s a scene set around the table at an upscale restaurant, where all the “yuppies” (remember that word??) at the table put in their coffee orders one after another:
“I’ll have a decaf coffee”
“I’ll have a decaf espresso”
“I’ll have a double decaf cappuccino”
“I’ll have a half double decaffeinated half-caf with a twist of lemon.”
Alright, let’s face it. This is an obnoxious comedy, and in many ways a satirical look at a glorified version of the “it scene” in Los Angeles in the early 90s - so let’s cut Steve some slack when he orders something that’s literally impossible to make. But what interests me about this scene, is the subtext of what they’re saying. Specialty coffee as we know it today, wasn’t really around in North America as far back as 1990. In fact, that would have been right around the time when lattes, cappuccinos, and espresso were becoming more “hip” along the West Coast. This may be one of the earliest accounts of poking fun at order customization at cafes -- something I think we all still do to this day.
There’s a scene in 2008’s “Role Models”, directed by David Wain, and starring Paul Rudd, where Paul makes fun of the absurdity of coffee ordering, only this time in a heated argument with a pretentious barista (at a clear parody of an, ahem, very well-known coffee chain). So, between 1991 and 2008, and of course still today, we still hadn’t ironed out some of society’s coffee quirks which have led to so much farce and parody. Order customization (sizes, syrups, whipped cream, etc, etc) has become a big part of the industry, and remains so, even as more and more people gravitate toward small batch coffee, crafted to be enjoyed more traditionally.
Like Quentin Tarantino, for example, in his scene from 1994’s “Pulp Fiction”. Our two protagonists come to Tarantino’s “fixer” character named Jimmie, for help in resolving some… illegal activity, which of course has gone very, very wrong. In a moment of levity, Samuel L. Jackson’s protagonist, Jules, sips on a cup of coffee at Jimmie’s house, and mentionsjust how good the coffee is… to which Jimmie, frustrated but quietly proud, responds:
“I don’t need you to tell me how *bleeping* good my coffee is, okay? I’m the one who buys it, I know how good it is. When Bonnie goes shopping, she buys [bad coffee]. Me, I buy the gourmet expensive stuff... because when I drink it, I want to taste it.”
I’m right there with you, Quentin. I buy the “gourmet expensive stuff” too. Because when I drink it, I want to taste it. For 1994, that’s a pretty good summation of where specialty coffee was headed, since that farcical scene in “L.A. Story”. The insurgence of small batch roasters, starting out on the West Coast, and now all over North America, has led to people enjoying their coffee in a purer form - like traditional cappuccinos, macchiatos, and espresso. As consumers, we now seek out coffees which are sourced ethically, and are roasted expertly. We appreciate transparency in sourcing models, and we love to learn about the farms which produced them.
We don’t mind footing a slightly higher bill for the experience of coffee grown in a particular region, at a certain elevation, and roasted to a specific profile, because we enjoy all of the wonderful complexities which these things add to the flavour of what Detective Dale Cooper (“Twin Peaks”, 1990) would classify as a “damn fine cup of coffee”. Sure, Cooper was mostly sipping diner coffee in 1990, but “Twin Peaks” takes place in the Pacific Northwest - the birthplace of many of the best “third wave” or specialty roasters. I’m guessing Cooper’s coffee was “damn fine”, indeed!
It’s fun to consider what coffee means to our favourite characters. For some, like the cast of “Friends”, the cafe is a meeting spot where they can come together and hang out. In 2015’s “The Hateful Eight”, a pot of coffee (and what may or may not be in it) becomes a turning point for the entire film (no spoilers!). No matter how significant coffee is in a movie or TV show, it’s quite commonly used as one of the most basic human staples. Next time a cup of coffee turns up in your favourite TV show, think about what kind of coffee the character might be into. Is it a simple, yet “damn fine” cup of diner coffee, like with Detective Dale Cooper? Or is it that “gourmet expensive stuff” like with Tarantino’s Jimmie? And what does the way they order it - or drink it - say about coffee culture at the time?
As long as the crew on set don’t accidentally leave their to-go cups in the foreground of a scene, like the one that’s actually visible in a Game of Thrones episode (google it!), coffee in film and TV always comes as a welcome, interesting, and flat-out human addition.
Author John Ohrn