Don’t think of it as a Desperate Housewives copycat. Weeds is more like an antidote to that show’s lurid soap opera conservatism. Showtime surely hopes to take advantage of surface similarities to the blockbuster—like the fact that Weeds is set in a small, prosperous town rife with gossip, secrets, and a fair share of unhappy homemakers.
But Weeds is both more organic and more radical. Every episode tosses amusing little pipe bombs at red-state puritanism, finding comedy and drama (or dramedy, in TV slang) in the cracks of upper-middle-class American life.
Like Desperate Housewives, it has a death at its center, but a much less histrionic one. Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) has recently been widowed, a tragedy that has left her emotionally dazed and financially strapped. In order to support her two sons and maintain their lush lifestyle (which includes the requisite live-in housekeeper), Nancy has tumbled into an unlikely occupation: dealing weed to suburban parents in the town of Agrestic, California. Just to emphasize how much Nancy is not our stereotypical idea of a pot-pusher, the first episode opens with her standing before a PTA meeting. As head of the community’s Healthy Children’s Committee, she’s petitioning the school to empty its vending machines of soda. Not that anyone’s paying much attention—the other moms are too busy whispering about whether Nancy has resorted to Botox to snag herself a new man, and how she can afford to buy herself new designer handbags.
They don’t know that Nancy has a double life in which dime bags are as important as handbags. She commutes between her gated community and the kitchen of her drug supplier Heylia (Tonye Patano), where she tries hard to prove to Heylia’s extended family that she is not just another peachy-skinned “dumbass white bitch” slumming it in the ghetto. They’re not convinced. A hint of tension hovers over their jovial kitchen table conversations, as Heylia subtly makes it clear that all this friendly banter is just part of a cold hard transaction. When Nancy hands over money tied prettily in a ribbon like some crafting project, Heylia snipes, “Nuh-uh, take that crap off that money! You’re not giving me a present—you’re paying me for weed.”
Weeds has fun subverting the idea of a soccer mom: While watching her son Shane play a match, she slips city councilman stoner Doug (ex–SNL star Kevin Nealon, in a role he was born for) a magazine containing his stash. And when her sons see her slaving away in the kitchen, it never occurs to them that she’s churning out hash brownies rather than goodies for the school bake sale. Nancy is employing the kind of housewifely pluck that once led women to become Avon ladies—except that she’s peddling a whole other brand of escapism. The series dumps her into an ethical quagmire, then lets us watch her think her way out of it (or not). She has created her own set of guidelines, the most important of which is not to sell to kids; their parents are fair game, though, even if it leaves them too hazy to pay attention to their offspring.
This isn’t a cartoon take on suburbia or a David Lynchian vision of surreal mundanity but an entertaining approximation of someplace real and contemporary. The scripts are as tight as an expertly rolled spliff, and the humor plays to blue-state biases by deliciously kicking against conservative pricks and hypocritical “Christian bitch moms,” as Nancy charmingly dubs them. In one episode, her teenage neighbor (who fills a gap in the market by selling drugs in the schoolyard) complains to Nancy that he’s low on supply. “They’ve been playing Winged Migration for the midnight show all week, wiped me out. Shit hasn’t gone this fast since
Passion of the Christ.” Nancy’s face twitches with disbelief. “People got stoned for The Passion of the Christ? That’s . . . disturbing,” she utters. “It’s not as disturbing as it is if you’re not stoned,” the kid replies. “It’s a straight up snuff film!”
In an odd bit of casting, Elizabeth Perkins (who looks and sounds a lot like Parker) plays Nancy’s neighbor Celia, a trophy wife wannabe seething with resentment at her claustrophobic life. She takes her disappointment out on her daughters, spying on one with a nanny cam and taunting the other (nicknamed Isabelly) about her weight. But unlike the horny hotties of
Desperate Housewives, Celia is too exhausted by life to mess around. As she confides to Nancy, “I really want to fuck around on Dean, but the thought of having to put one more cock into my mouth is just too depressing.”
On the other hand, Nancy buries her sadness deep inside—you can practically see it pulsing beneath her cool exterior. She tries her best to be a good, stable parent, even when she’s working. After slipping a bag of pot to her son Shane’s karate teacher, Nancy snaps back into mommy mode, reminding Shane to hold up the belt on his karate robe when he pees so it doesn’t get wet. But her effort to keep the kids disconnected from her drug-dealing business means that she ends up a bit disconnected from their lives.
I’d watch Mary-Louise Parker in almost anything, though I know that her
performances (most recently, the disintegrating Mormon housewife in Angels in America and Josh’s feminist foil on The West Wing) tend to wring extreme love-hate reactions from audiences. Parker has a crumbly quality that suggests she’s mustering all of her energy to maintain her deadpan composure—something that works perfectly for the character of Nancy. She joins Lorelai Gilmore, the wisecracking mom of the Gilmore Girls, as one of the most flawed, fascinating women on TV, a giant fuck-you to the retro conservatism of Wisteria Lane.