Over at Showtime, there is good news and bad: "Weeds" is back, but it has brought "Californication" with it.
Let us lead with the positive: "Weeds" is odder, darker and more suspenseful than ever.
When we last saw suburban, pot-dealing and personal responsibility-challenged Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), she had several automatic weapons pointed at her head and a big box full of empty where the drugs should have been. Older son Silas (Hunter Parrish) had swiped the weed and shoved it into the trunk of his car, only to get pulled over for his previous theft of a bunch of Drug Free Zone signs. Younger son Shane (Alexander Gould) was being happily abducted by Uncle Andy's loopy girlfriend Kat (Zooey Deschanel), and Uncle Andy (Justin Kirk) had joined forces with an Alaskan bounty hunter to track them down.
But that's what happens when mommies multitask. Season 3 picks up right where we left off, so comforting in a premiere, and things take a dangerous turn for Nancy as her dreams of becoming the Agnes B. of drug dealers come crashing down.
"Weeds" creator Jenji Kohan apparently got a memo about all the drug dealers and users on the show being too nice, so Nancy is up to her fair and slender shoulders in really mean gangsta types who are not at all charmed by her sideways smile or her habit of chewing on an iced coffee straw. While this makes for fewer hilarious one-liners, it keeps the show's original premise -- nice suburban mom becomes a dealer -- from growing stale or self-satisfied.
Debts are paid all around in early episodes as Celia (Elizabeth Perkins) enters life as a divorcee, Andy discovers that even the eight-toed are expected to serve in the military, and Conrad (Romany Malco) faces the vengeance of Heylia (Tonye Patano) and over-confident deal-making. Meanwhile, Agrestic itself must battle for its life and property values against the neighboring Majestic, an even tonier community embodied by the smiling snake oil salesman Sullivan Groff (Matthew Modine). Apparently, only Doug Wilson (Kevin Nealon) can save them now.
"Weeds" has perhaps the best comedic cast assembled on television, and it is mystifying why Parker and Perkins are its only Emmy nominees this year. Kirk has the most expressive posture since Walter Matthau, and both he and Nealon are marvels of timing and conniving-slacker delivery, taking lines that were no doubt funny enough on the page and turning them into comic opera. "I like chocolate milk," Andy says when confronted by some angry citizens who have mistaken him for the child abductor. "I'm a re-juvenile."
Just as the title song has become a showcase for all manner of musical groups -- this year includes performances by Randy Newman and Linkin Park -- the "Weeds" guest star list is growing ever more stellar too. Mary-Kate Olsen is promised to appear as a new, and even more slender, love interest for Silas; Carrie Fisher makes a brief, almost unrecognizable appearance; and in exchange for killing off Martin Donovan's character last season, Modine is added as Sullivan, a fine and slippery role.
"I bet you look good rolling right out of bed," Sullivan leers at Nancy during a job interview. "Or right into it. If I hire you," he adds genially, "I'll be paying for the right to make comments like that. You OK with that?"
But the show lives and breathes with Parker, who, like Robert Frost's silken tent, remains only loosely attached to this earth. All startled eyes and defiantly vulnerable mouth, Nancy looks as if she lives on a diet of iced lattes, the occasional tortilla chip and the frozen yogurt swirl of her own half-formed thoughts. Parker captures perfectly the strange, almost bureaucratic sense of entitlement that radiates from certain members of the upper middle class and the injured bafflement when things don't go as Palm Pilot planned.
"There's no need to yell," she snaps at her gun-wielding captors at one point while telling the scary dealer U-Turn to whom she owes $150,000: "I am not a gangsta. There is only so much you can reasonably expect from me in these situations. So let's sit down like rational people and start dialing down my debt."
While the show takes smart and accurate stabs at the plastic hypocrisy of upper middle class suburbia -- Majestic wants to dump its sewage in Agrestic and offers country club privileges as recompense -- it is strongest in its portrayal of damaged people constructing a small, unsteady raft out of their own broken parts.
If only the same, or anything nice, could be said of "Californication," the new David Duchovny vehicle that follows "Weeds" tonight.