Nancy Botwin's husband dropped dead jogging. He left her with two boys to raise and more debt than she had any idea they had, including the mortgage on a big, white-stucco house in a cookie-cutter California development like the one E.T. was staying in when he phoned home.
What's a desperate housewife to do? Sell the SUV? Find a less pricey neighborhood? See if Wal-Mart needs a greeter? All of the above?
No, Botwin - as played by Mary-Louise Parker - turns to drugs. Not as a user but as a dealer. And thus we have "Weeds," the buzz show of the summer in more ways than one.
"Weeds" begins with a sneak preview Sunday night at 11 on Showtime. Thereafter, each episode will be shown Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 p.m.
Created by Jenji Kohan, whose writing credits range from "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" to "Sex and the City," "Weeds" is the latest embodiment of the hottest trend in cable entertainment and, increasingly, in broadcast TV as well: moral ambiguity.
Pushing the Envelope
In TV series about such nontraditional "heroes" as an alcoholic, philandering firefighter (FX's "Rescue Me"), a ruthless federal agent (Fox's "24"), drug-addicted surgeons (FX's "Nip/Tuck") and mobsters who rub out rivals but can't get respect from their own spoiled kids (HBO's "The Sopranos"), a grumpy disposition, a la "Lou Grant," is not enough. The protagonists have serious flaws, criminal behaviors even, that can make it difficult for viewers to know where to invest their sympathy. Showtime actually has a series coming in the fall that will put viewers in the thick of a group of Islamic jihadists hiding and plotting in Los Angeles.
At least until "Sleeper Cell" is ready, "Weeds" is likely to be the new lightning rod attracting the ire of viewers who think television is pushing the envelope too far. And that's somewhat ironic, considering the focal character of "Weeds," unlike Tony Soprano or rampaging Det. Vic Mackey of "The Shield," couldn't kill a mouse. She just sells marijuana to her suburban neighbors, among them a city councilman.
"I think what strikes a chord is, this is a mother," Kohan said in a recent telephone interview. "She has children and she's doing something illegal. We have a history of the father doing what he needs to do to support his family. Mommy is not supposed to take these kinds of risks. She's supposed to be at home nurturing. But I guess you weigh your options and do what you think is gonna work."
Kohan said FX's high-voltage cop show, "The Shield," was a "huge inspiration" to her. "No one was black and white," she said. "Your main characters were deeply, deeply flawed, which I loved. It's so rarely allowed on [broadcast] network. You have to have your good guy and your bad guy, and the bad guy has to have a comeuppance. I watched 'The Shield," and these people are so complicated and so human, and they did such wonderful things and they did such horrendous things. It was all about the gray areas.
"It was also about the notion of creating your own moral code when you're operating outside the confines of society's moral codes," she continued.
She believes "Weeds" presents similar moral quandaries, though Botwin's motivations may appear shallow.
"She's trying to maintain the trappings of what a happy family and happy lifestyle looks like and taking big risks for it," Kohan said. "But we're living in the most material time ever. Things tend to take on a lot greater importance these days. Can't be happy without your stuff."
Certainly not in Agrestic, a perfectly manicured community where the houses don't so much seem constructed as cloned. In the series' opening credits sequence, set to Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes" (the folk classic about all those houses "made of ticky-tacky"), mornings in Agrestic are a ballet of identical SUVs and joggers in the same shorts and caps. Gossip is the cottage industry. Mothers of Nancy's kids' classmates tsk-tsk about the mess her husband left her in and speculate on whether her designer purse is original or a knockoff.
Nancy's illegal livelihood notwithstanding, she appears to be a good person whose head seems to be screwed on pretty straight. No one would call her a permissive parent. She's doing her best, for instance, to forestall her 15-year-old son, Silas (Hunter Parrish), from becoming sexually active.
Parker ("Angels in America," "The West Wing") is a marvelous actress who combines an adorable "That Girl" quality with a hint of wildness. You believe her earnestness when she gets up at the PTA meeting to campaign for the removal of sugary soft drinks from the school, but you also believe she'd drive into a vastly poorer neighborhood to buy pot from Heylia James (Tonye Patano), a black wholesaler whose kitchenette is a dope depot.
The family-business scenes in Heylia's kitchen are some of the show's best, crackling with tension between black and white, between lower-middle class and upper-middle, between experience and naivete, and between people who have no illusions about what they're doing and someone whose idea of "street" is Wisteria Lane.
Parker said she took the role because she liked the world Kohan created. "It was unapologetically dark, and the morality of it was skewed from the beginning, so you can't necessarily make judgments on the characters," she said. "To me, it was just all these - these really standard archetypes that, over the course of the show, they kind of dismantle themselves. Suddenly, the person isn't who you thought she was in the beginning. And that's really interesting to me, because a lot of times on TV, the person is the same at the end of the show as they are at the beginning. It doesn't really ask you anything, you know what I mean?"
Light, Dark, Shades of Gray
What Parker was saying, or trying to say, is explained more clearly by the first couple of episodes. Sunday's opener is fairly lighthearted. Nancy has poignant moments with her young son, Shane (Alexander Gould), who's having difficulty accepting his dad's premature death, and there's a fierce exchange when she catches one of her high-school customers reselling marijuana to a younger kid. But generally speaking, the episode is a lark, poking fun at the hypocrisy of upright suburbanites who have plenty of secret vices, getting high being just one of them.
But the second episode, though still humorous, suggests that Kohan isn't going to make things any easier for Nancy than for the audience. Her "heroine" finds herself needing more product to sell to meet unexpected bills. Her supplier doesn't extend credit. Heylia James expects collateral. First it's Nancy's car, then her wedding ring.
The initial season will have 10 episodes. Without giving the plot away, Kohan said "Weeds" watchers can expect Nancy to change. "She gets bigger," Kohan said. "She gets deeper. And it complicates her life. She begins to wonder why she's gotten into this in the first place."
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