When the New York Times refers to a new show as “transgressive,” it’s a bad, bad omen, and when the theme song of that new show, Showtime’s new series Weeds, a satire of suburban life, is Malvina Reynolds’s antique, condescending and trite “Little Boxes,” the signs are even worse.
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same,
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
Oh good grief, not another attack on the suburbs, not again. The supposed horrors, concealments, conformity, and emptiness of suburban life have been the targets of scriptwriters with a grudge but no clue since about the time that the first construction truck rolled into Levittown. And they still are. Beneath the Botox, the wildly over-praised Desperate Housewives is a show about suburban ennui. In the even more wildly over-praised American Beauty, life in the ‘burbs was portrayed as being so awful that the movie’s whiny hero was still grumbling on about it after his suicide.
Weeds begins in very much the same vein. There’s that theme song (Malvina Reynolds was seemingly unaware of the irony implicit in a leftist writing lyrics that attacked conformity), and a clever, if predictable, title sequence of identical SUVs, identical commuters, and shots of the sort of upscale suburban community that you can find across this nation from Nashville’s Green Hills to Updike’s Connecticut to Fox’s OC.
And truth to tell, there’s much about Weeds, which is set in the affluent suburb of Agrestic, California, that continues in this all-too-predictable vein. We have the alcohol, we have the Ambien, we have the bored, bitchy, and–let’s admit it–desperate housewives, the usual villains of such pieces, and we have their bored, desperate, and hapless husbands, one of whom, needless to say, is enjoying an understandable affair with Helen, his foxy tennis pro. The only family in the show that appears, at least initially, to have any warmth or, even, any honesty is the Jameses, a family of African-American drug dealers.
Drug dealers? In a show set in an upscale suburb? Ah yes, the central conceit of Weeds is that the only way that the recently widowed Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) can support her big house, SUV, two kids, and insatiable craving for iced latte is by selling pot to her neighbors. The Jameses are her wholesalers. And if you think that the economics of Nancy’s plan are ludicrous, you’d be right. Gas is at $2, iced latte is at $3. Selling a few baggies of grass to the feckless dads of Agrestic is not really going to sort out the financial mess in which Nancy finds herself. And then there are those pesky legal risks…
But all this is to miss the point. The idea of a pillar-of-society pot-selling mom (which owes more than a little, incidentally, to the delightful British movie, Saving Grace) may contribute to what the New York Times’s Alessandra Stanley described, rather sternly, as Weeds’s “amoral underpinnings,” but, in reality, that naughty plant is little more than a handy plot device, of no more real significance than the moonshine in Hazzard County. Not so coincidentally, however, it’s a plot device that comes with other advantages. It has attracted plenty of publicity and has also semaphored Showtime’s supposed sophistication, edginess, and, most potentially lucrative of all, freedom from the restrictions imposed on luckless broadcast media by the Comstocks at the FCC.
And if the drugs are not too much worry about, nor is the show’s somewhat stale critique of suburban life, bourgeois hypocrisy, WASP repression, and all the rest of the routine liberal blah, blah, and liberal blah. Yes, Agrestic (the word “agrestic” actually means rustic, rural, or uncouth, but its suggestion of aggression, majesty, and witless pomposity makes it a believably bogus name for a place such as this) looks pretty nice to me, and characters saying that there is “not enough pot in the world to get these people stoned enough to forget where they live” are both irritating and ungrateful, but these flaws don’t really do very much to detract from Weeds’s agreeably dark and splendidly dyspeptic comedy. It’s not necessary to agree with a satire to enjoy it.
Besides, although the foibles of designer suburbia take a drubbing in Weeds, so does the behavior of that family of drug dealers (not as loveable as it first seems). The scriptwriters enjoy poking fun not just at McMansions and those who live in them, but at just about everyone else as well. This refreshing cynicism paves the way for some nastily entertaining jokes, not all of them in the best of taste (one of the funniest, I fear, indirectly involves Anne Frank) and the wholesale mockery of, well, just about everyone–from over-censorious evangelicals to those who take unseemly advantage of California’s medical marijuana laws to treat their “arthritis”–or is it “anxiety”?
When the laughs dry up (as they do from time to time: The scriptwriters are not quite as witty as they clearly imagine themselves to be), there’s always the skillful soap operatics of the plot to keep viewers engrossed. Weeds is Soap, and it’s Knots Landing too. But any successful drama needs a strong cast, and in this respect Weeds does not disappoint. The delicately pretty Mary-Louise Parker is compelling as a Nancy Botwin who is never too far from the edge, and may, indeed have already crossed over it, but the real scene stealer is Elizabeth Perkins as Celia Hodes, the best friend that Nancy only likes “mostly.”
Celia is an uptight controlling bitch, Mrs. Robinson rather than Stifler’s mom, who appears to delight in making life miserable for all those around her. One daughter is exiled to boarding school, the other, Isabelle (“Isabelly”), is repeatedly taunted by her mother for being overweight. At the same time, this Mommie Dearest never descends into caricature–Weeds, and Perkins, are too smart for that. There’s a sadness–and an intelligence–about Celia that we sense early on and then see fully revealed in the course of later episodes, not least when she dons her old roller-girl duds and wistfully remembers the cheerful hedonism of her life way back when.
Weeds also benefits from its strong supporting cast, notably Saturday Night Live’s Kevin Nealon (who knew?) as Nancy’s dryly amusing, but hopelessly lost, stoner accountant and Tonye Patano as Heylia, the Jameses’ tough matriarch, but above all there’s Justin Kirk as the late Mr. Botwin’s errant brother Andy. Andy, a handsome Harry Connick Jr. look-alike, at first appears to be a free-spirited charmer of a type generally used in TV drama to show up the emptiness and hypocrisy of the more staid members of his conventional bourgeois family, but that’s not how it turns out in this show. Andy is the snake in Agrestic’s neatly manicured grass, a louche grifter who shows up to mooch off his widowed sister-in-law, and then distinguishes himself with a bout of cyber-sex with his young nephew’s 15-year old girlfriend. Oh yes, the poor girl is deaf as well as underage. Later this paragon tries to muscle in on Nancy’s business.
And you thought that your in-laws were bad guests?
It’s too much of a stretch to see the worthless Andy as some sort of backhanded endorsement of the proprieties that the upper middle class try so hard (if not always successfully) to sustain, but his appearance in Weeds is yet another reminder that, despite its slips into stereotype, the show’s writers understand that there’s rather more to suburbanites than the usual clichés would suggest and that, no, Malvina, the inhabitants of those little boxes are “not all the same.”
Time for a new theme song, I reckon.