Always a dark comedy with the emphasis on "comedy," Showtime's "Weeds" made an unusual decision in the last third of its fourth season: The show decided to stop being funny. As the stakes surrounding Nancy Botwin's latest drug escapades continued to increase, Jenji Kohan and company decided that "Weeds" had earned the right to drop the facade of humor entirely and leave nearly everybody in discomfort and misery.

[Review, with minor Season Five spoilers, but major Season Four spoilers, after the break...]

That meant that Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker) was on the verge of assassination by a Mexican cartel until she revealed that she was pregnant with The Mayor's (Demian Bichir) baby. That meant that Celia (Elizabeth Perkins) had been kidnapped and was being threatened with death by her long-absence and newly sadistic daughter Quinn (Haley Hudson). The other major characters were perhaps less miserable -- with the clear exception of Jack Stehlin's Captain Roy Till -- but nobody ended the season with any sort of uplift.

And that isn't necessarily a qualitative judgement on the end of the fourth season of "Weeds." Yes, I enjoy the laughter, but Nancy's increasing self-destruction gave Parker some of her meatiest work to date, while the rest of the cast, particularly the ever-impressive Justin Kirk, rose to the challenges. But even if there was a way to view "Weeds" last season as "good," it was no longer pleasurable to watch.

"Weeds" returns to Showtime for its fifth season on Monday (June 8) and it remains a series in transition. It seemed like burning Agrestic to the ground and moving the entire show to RenMar might be a big deal last season, but it barely impacted the show at all, other than providing new proximity to The Border. Nancy's simultaneous pregnancy and pending death sentence? Those are obstacles that can't just be laughed away.

So the season premiere is all about the aftermath. How will Esteban react to Nancy's news? Will Andy and her kids learn about her plight as well? Has Nancy finally managed to completely isolate herself from her friends and family and put herself in a position where she's entirely alone?

Salvaging the first episode, from a comedic standpoint, are the scenes with Celia, Quinn and Mexican rebel Rudolpho (Kevin Alejandro), because attempts to secure a ransom for Celia's safe return go every bit as hilariously wrong as you'd imagine. It's an obvious joke, but one that the writers escalate flawlessly, bringing in many of the show's characters to illustrate just how deservedly despised Celia has become over the years. Celia's arc, at least for the three episodes sent to critics, feels the most like the "Weeds" of old, mixing irony and absurdism with fine character work, plus a great guest turn by Alejandro as the wannabe Che.

In these early episodes, Nancy is still working through her masochistic streak as she faces the dueling prospects of bringing a new life into the world, while also staring down her own death. Nancy's uncertainty here is exactly what Parker does best though, again, there's little to laugh about.  The character gets some well-deserved fleshing out (as in expanded back story, not additional nudity, you pervs), courtesy of the perfectly cast Jennifer Jason Leigh, who appears in the second and third episodes as Nancy's sister Jill. Parker and Leigh don't share scenes until Episode Three, but the clash of pinched features and clipped deliveries is a marvel. Leigh is such a natural in the "Weeds" milieu that I'm already worried that her eventually departure will have the same deflating effect that occurred last season when Albert Brooks came and went.

"Tension" and "Comedy" aren't two great tastes that necessarily go great together (at least not when handled without confidence) and they continue to be an awkward partnership for the first two new "Weeds" episodes of the season. It's hard to laugh when Nancy is going from one threatening environment to the next -- Mexican gynecologists and prison, for example -- and when people are getting killed all around her. The risk of violence, particularly sexual violence, is too great and too pervasive. In the early seasons, darkness was the unexpected intruder to the world of the comedy. Now, when Nancy witnesses a flash mob street dance toward the end of the premiere, the unexpected levity is a relief for both the character and the audience. 

By the third episode, though, "Weeds" seems to be finding its footing. Part of the appeal of that episode comes from the Parker-Leigh interplay and part comes from a particularly dirty hitman named Sucio and part comes from   an amusing story-turn for Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Doug (Kevin Nealon), but really it's from something less concrete and more ephemeral. The third episode just feels properly blended and tonally right. It gives me hope for the episodes to come.

 

"Weeds" returns on Monday (June 8) night at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

 

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