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Friday, September 11, 2009


Ah, suburbia. It's been the target of sharp-eyed social commentators, whether comic or tragic or both, almost since the first house was slapped together in Levittown. From Richard Yates to John Cheever to Picket Fences to Desperate Housewives, we seem endlessly fascinated with exposing the dark side of the American dream.

In 2005 Showtime debuted Weeds, which is ostensibly about a young widow who sustains her upper-middle-class lifestyle by becoming a marijuana dealer, but really it's another show about how twisted the suburbs are. We get the point immediately by the opening theme song, "Little Boxes," about the insidious conformity of suburban living.

Being oblivious to most cable-TV series (I don't get Showtime, I don't believe I ever have), and bearing a serious crush on the lead, Mary-Louise Parker, it's somewhat amazing it took me this long to get around to seeing it. I rented the first season--ten half-hour episodes, and found it to be a mixed bag. Frankly, I wonder if there's anything left to say about suburbia, but at least series creator Jenji Kohan (her name sounds like a strain of pot) came up with a novel approach, giving us non-indulgers about as much information about cannabis as we could possibly want.

As the series begins, we are thrust right into it and it took me a few episodes to catch up. Parker is a forty-ish mother of two living in an upscale California suburb who is reeling from the untimely death of her husband. Through a connection of her ne'er-do-well brother-in-law, she buys pot from a family of urban blacks, who are run by a sassy, iron-willed woman (Tonye Patano) and distributes to her social circle, including her accountant, Kevin Nealon. Meanwhile she tries to raise her two sons, the younger one (Alexander Gould) bearing a lot of issues after his father's death. The specter of arrest constantly hovers, especially since Parker is so naive to the ways of the business, learning things as she goes from Patano and her nephew, Romany Malco, who has a crush on her.

Most of this is engaging, funny and a bit heartbreaking, but I do have some problems. Here is yet another series that has African-Americans in their new guise as sage, world-experienced givers of advice or counsel, with the requisite amount of snappy dialogue. When Parker visits their home she is frequently the butt of racist humor (she is called "Snowflake") that is a bit rankling. I mean, white people certainly deserve their share of racial denigration, but in the show it's winked at as some sort of cutesy behavior. I was once in a McDonald's in Inkster, Michigan and called "white lox" by a black guy--I didn't think it was so cute.

Then there's the character played by Elizabeth Perkins, who steals the show in many of the episodes. She is Parker's friend, the president of the PTA and a first-class bitch, and she seems to have wandered in from Desperate Housewives. But over the course of the first season I had to admit that the writers of the show, in concert with Perkins, made the character develop. In one episode we meet her mother, briefly but memorably played by Concetta Tomei, and we learn all we need to know about why Perkins is the way she is. Then the character is given breast cancer, a soap-opera-ish plot development, but it does allow the role to grow even further.

The strength of the show is Parker. She is one of those actors who is always good in no matter what she does that it's hard to understand why she isn't a bigger star. She is also, if you will excuse me, hot stuff, and one of the few actresses in my age range that I actively pant over. Another great performer on the show is Justin Kirk, who was Parker's co-star in Angels in America, but in that show he was gay, and on Weeds he is decidedly not. As Parker's man-child brother-in-law, Kirk is a live wire, disrupting the household (he has cyber-sex with his nephew's fifteen-year-old deaf girlfriend, he gets chased off of elementary school property selling t-shirts that read "Chris Died For My Sins", and bangs the mother of Gould's friend) like a human tornado.

I can count the amount of times I've smoked dope on two fingers, and neither time it did much for me, but this show certainly could make the mouths water of those who do. I don't like pot humor--one of the few movies I ever walked out of was a Cheech and Chong movie--believing in what Woody Allen said in Annie Hall about laughs garnered from the stoned not counting. But Kevin Nealon's performance as the perpetually baked accountant is endearing, and if you watch enough of this show you'll probably feel even more strongly about legalization.

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