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TV's Best of the Decade: No. 27 -- 'Weeds'
Mary-Louise Parker and company started off in little boxes and kept getting darker
TV fans. We're a fickle lot.
Sure, we say we want our shows to change and evolve and grow, to reflect the lives the characters actually might be living. But when we say that, which we really mean is that we want them to get occasional haircuts, to keep up with reasonably priced fashions and sometimes to have cute sitcom babies we rarely see.
We want a simulacrum of change, not actual CHANGE. Because actual CHANGE is messy. It reflects that when a group of five high school chums go to college, they don't all decide, at the last minute, to attend the fictionalized state school that was just build down the street. It reflects that when five or six friends in New York City age, get married and have children, they sometimes move to apartments farther away than across the hall or across the street. It reflects that sometimes once-happy couples get divorced, sometimes people get fired and change their professions and sometimes life goes from comedy to tragedy in the blink of an eye and merely adding David Spade isn't enough to bring the laughter back.
At the very least, taking quality out of the equation for just a second, Showtime's "Weeds" deserves credit for bucking industry creative convention. In its five seasons, "Weeds" had gotten darker and darker and darker, to the point at which calling it a comedy today seems like a misnomer. As a result, more than a few fans have turned on "Weeds," accusing it of no longer being the show they fell in love with in 2005. I'm sure if you look back at things I've written in the past two years, I'm probably one of those fans. I may not have been completely fair.
As I step back and look at the arc of the series, I can see the logic to the journey that "Weeds" has taken and that's why it stands at No. 27 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade. Well, that at Mary-Louise Parker, giving one of the decade's great and under-recognized (one Golden Globe win, no Emmys to date) performances.
[More on "Weeds" after the break...]
Take a step back. "Weeds" began as the story of a widowed suburban mom (Parker) who somehow decided that the best way to keep her two sons (Hunter Parrish and Alexander Gould) living in the manner they'd become accustomed was to deal pot.
This was not an entirely evergreen premise that Jenji Kohan devised, building an entire central irony around the use of Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes" as the title track.
If we have to accept that Nancy Botwin began the series just trying to do right by her family, the consensus after five seasons can be simply summed up with one word: Oops.
Dealing a little pot turned into dealing a little more pot, which turned into becoming a volume dealer and wholesale supplier. This led to problems with the DEA and with various ethnic mobs and gangs. This lead to the demolition of their suburban way of life (in literal fashion, burnt to the ground). From there, it's a hop, skip and a jump to border issues, to moving guns and human trafficking, to involvement in the even more bloodthirsty world of Mexican politics. Along the way, Nancy buried husbands, friends and her own blithely innocent view of her lifestyle. Also along the way, both of her sons saw their moral compasses get compromised and obliterated, with one becoming a questionably motivated marijuana grower himself and the other becoming an increasingly disturbed sociopath.
Like I said... Oops.
There's no doubting that "Weeds" has asked viewers to stomach a lot of pretty giant transitions, a few of which have stretched credulity and more than a few of which have strained the will of the fans. But to my mind, the slippery slope nature of Nancy Botwin's descent makes sense, following a woman willing to do anything to keep her family together, whose definition of "anything" kept straying further and further from her comfort zone. The shift from snarky, broad comedy to miserable, dark, occasional absurdist comedy hasn't been as smooth as one might have liked, but it has been more realistic than if Kohan had just attempted to keep Nancy selling dime bags at the community college for 100 episodes.
In the process, we lost "Little Boxes," which was sad, because I looked forward to seeing how minimally each week's hipster artist-of-the-week was going to interpret the track. We also lost Tonye Patano's Heylia and Romany Malco's Conrad, which was sad on one hand because they were two reliable sources of comedy, but not-so-sad on another hand, because Kohan and company have always struggled with stereotypical racial portrayals. And in the process we gained (or maybe just "got") a darker tone and and a chance to progress the show's satire beyond the tiny box of "suburban superficiality" to including manufactured religion, immigration issues and, eventually, international politics. "Weeds" became a show with greater aspirations, but in its thematic scope and its emotional range. It ceased to be just "That show about the mother who pushes dope."
Kohan and company never could have taken "Weeds" where they did if not for the limitless range of Parker, in the role of her career (not that she's lacked for great roles between her Broadway work and stuff like "Angels in America," for which she received a well-deserved Emmy). Even if "Weeds" is no longer the show it was in Season One, you can go back to those earliest episodes and see that because of Parker, Nancy is the same woman she was back then, just with years of pain to go along with the years of bad decision-making. It's not every actress who can begin with a purely comedic creation, grieving aside, and turn her into a source of drama, but Parker's inherent deadpan is as good at conveying "hurt" as it is with "ironic detachment." There isn't a line of dialogue on the show that isn't enhanced by Parker's just-slightly-off deliver. As much as I appreciate the work being done by Tina Fey and America Ferrera and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Parker should probably have two or three Emmys by now. It's just an added bonus that as Parker gets more and more comfortable with Nancy's rough edges she and the character both keep getting sexier.
Parker is the anchor of the show, but she's far from the only standout.
Justin Kirk came in partway through the first season and was an instant jolt of hilarious quirk. It's amazing how many of my favorite arcs from recent seasons have revolved around Andy Botwin, from his wacky Alaskan girlfriend Kat to his rabbinical training to his difficulties in the army to his time as a Moses-like coyote. That he's also transitioned into a superior romantic-comic lead has been an added surprise for the writers. Kirk hasn't picked up a single Emmy nomination. That's ridiculous.
The character may have gone through cancer, prison, drug addiction and all manner of humiliation, but Elizabeth Perkins has never stooped to making us feel sorry for bitch-on-heels Celia Hodes, nor has she tried to force us to love the character. She's just been a campy queen from Day One and the performance has never stopped being a pleasure. She's also remained funny, however dark her circumstances. And unlike Kevin Nealon's Doug, the writers have given her room to grow and change plausibly.
Parrish was fine and the writers briefly flirted with turning him into a topline heartthrob in the fourth season. His somewhat restricted range put an end to that. The writers then realized that Alexander Gould, originally best known as the title voice from Pixar's "Finding Nemo," was the cast's stealth weapon in the fifth season. We're probably due to get even more of Gould's Shane in the sixth season and I'd be fine with that.
I'd also want to at least acknowledge the fine work by Maulik Pancholy, Jack Stehlin, Page Kennedy, Fatso-Fasano, Albert Brooks, Meital Dohan, Renee Victor and Enrique Castillo over the years.
"Weeds" could have played it safe and been complacent, never leaving Agrestic, never turning the Botwin children into little monsters, never pushing Nancy into her current pit of self-loathing. I don't think that would have been worthy of commendation. I'd love to believe that Kohan has had this mapped out from the beginning, but I don't. She's flying on the seat of her pants, just like Nancy Botwin. It's a particularly American tragic-comedy that Kohan is unfolding and I'm curious to see how it plays out.
So that's why "Weeds" stands at No. 27 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade.
Up tomorrow? Blood, guts and dysfunction in the Garden State.