In "Weeds," debuting Sunday on Showtime, Mary-Louise Parker plays Nancy Botwin, a newly widowed mother of two who has become, in those weightless, whirlwind first stages of the grieving process, a pot supplier to her upscale planned community of Agrestic, Calif.
Nancy buys her weed by the ounce from a black family of drug dealers in L.A.; they're presented as a wisecracking, world-weary sewing circle whom Nancy visits regularly, both to pick up more product and to get her white-girl soul scratched just where it itches.
Those scenes, particularly, can make you cringe a little. The creator of "Weeds" is Jenji Kohan, a mid-30s comedy writer with an impressive list of network credits. Here, she's attempting a more ambitious kind of TV storytelling and ends up with a higher class of cliches. "Weeds" is populated with characters from other movies, characters from network TV shows (if network TV show characters could talk to us the way network TV writers really wanted them to) and, as further wish fulfillment, quick-to-satire thematics (e.g. rich, white bedroom communities as soulless cocoons for the depraved, the damaged and the merely running late for an appointment).
The result is another finely acted cable drama with great production values and the germ of an interesting idea behind it but no coherent tone or character development or story, even -- just a series of attempts to pass off creatively exaggerated behavior, the more desperate the better, as some kind of social commentary. In trying to be both playfully cartoonish and "real," it bounces among its potential subjects without giving the viewer that reassuring sense of a controlling vision.
"This was really the chance," Kohan told the New York Times last Sunday, "to write sophisticated, dirty, fun stuff about the kinds of characters I like to watch: really flawed, complicated people."
What has Alan Ball done to his industry? "Weeds" is already being characterized as a "Desperate Housewives" follow-up statement (women, suburbs, desperate -- trend!), but the show feels more like the spawn of Ball's Academy Award-winning "American Beauty" and his soon-to-conclude HBO series, "Six Feet Under," where the answer to the question "How much more implied and expressed pain and suffering can we be witness to?" is always the same: "More."
"Six Feet Under," for all this, can be kind of a cathartic blast. Last week, one of the show's main characters, Nate Fisher (Peter Krause), was killed off, and in a dream sequence that led up to the reveal, he and brother David (Michael C. Hall) get stoned in the back of a van being driven by their late father Nate Sr. (Richard Jenkins).
In "Six Feet Under" (and in "American Beauty," for that matter), Ball uses pot to symbolize transcendent liberation, reclaiming one's youth (and, possibly, the final magic carpet ride to the hereafter, where you smoke a fatty in the back of a van while your father drives you to the ocean).
In "Weeds," by contrast, the pot users are hapless escapists, and Nancy, as dealers go, is a bit of a buzz kill. One of the problems with "Weeds" is how little joy the show actually seems to derive from its comedy hook, that of a hot, bemusedly grieving mom dealing dime bags from her fake designer purse on another sunny day on the soccer fields of Agrestic.
Well, it's a more realistic approach, but then the show wants also to say something broader and more hackneyed: that dealing pot in Agrestic is empowering, an ongoing comment on the lies propping up Nancy's life and those of all the adults around her -- you know, those "flawed and complicated people" lurking behind the facades. She doesn't touch the stuff herself (preferring, in a nice detail, to take hits of iced lattes through a straw), and she has certain rules -- she'll deal to the local pothead councilman/CPA Doug Wilson (Kevin Nealon) but not to kids, and when her teenage competition, Josh (Justin Chatwin), runs afoul of this policy, she slams him up against a minivan.
" 'Keep kids off drugs,' cries the pot-dealing mom," he baits her, "but, hey, you know what? If it gets you through the night, good for you, Nance."
She has no response.