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PRIME-TIME TV

'Weeds' deals with growing pains

June 08, 2008|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer
  • FAMILY BUSINESS: Nancy Botwin and her sons Silas (Hunter Parrish), left, and Shane (Alexander Gould) leave the comforts of Agrestic this season. "It's a big TV taboo to move a show," acknowledges series creator Jenji Kohan.
FAMILY BUSINESS: Nancy Botwin and her sons Silas (Hunter Parrish), left,… (Monty Brinton / Showtime )

Maybe THE idea of a suburban mom selling pot just wasn't that subversive anymore. After all, cable TV also has suburban chemistry teachers making meth ("Breaking Bad") and suburban polygamists ("Big Love") hiding in tract homes. Even CBS is about to show suburban couples in mutual adultery ("Swingtown").

Maybe, as creator Jenji Kohan explained, the writers on "Weeds" were more excited about new projects they had in the works than the one they'd been writing for three seasons.

In any case, as writers embarked on the fourth season of Showtime's hit dramedy (returning June 16), Kohan decided to change the show's premise, moving Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) out of her natural habitat to someplace less stifling -- a California beach town near the Baja border. "It's a big TV taboo to move a show," she said. "The conventional wisdom is, you've built an audience that is tuning in to see this setting. If you move it, they'll get upset."

They still might. But Kohan, who revels in tweaking convention, said the borderlands offer an abundance of new opportunities for Nancy and her often raunchy and profane entourage to toy with sexual, political, racial and religious taboos. And to resharpen the show's original, sometimes precarious, edge.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, creative arguments between Kohan and Parker have subsided, they both said, as a new executive producer directed the transition from the towns of Agrestic to Ren Mar. Parker, who won a Golden Globe for her role as the charming, self-centered widow and mother of two, said she was impressed with the changes. "I've never seen that. It's pretty brave," she said. "I like that."

The cast couldn't go home again, anyway. In the Season 3 finale, Nancy rode off into the sunset on a Segway with Agrestic in flames behind her. At loose ends, she decides, in the Season 4 premiere, to move in with her estranged father-in-law (Albert Brooks) who lives in a scruffy house in a seaside town something like Del Mar. Establishing shots show Tijuana and the border crossing, but most outdoor locations were shot in Manhattan Beach. (Indoor scenes were filmed at the not-so-coincidently named Ren-Mar Studios.)

The geographic change precipitated many others, and soon the operating word for Season 4 became "reinvention." Malvina Reynolds' popular and much-covered theme song, "Little Boxes," had to go, along with the scene-setting titles that featured identically dressed suburbanites driving identical cars in identical neighborhoods.

The first episode will open with an empty swing set as a transition. After that, short title cards will introduce the theme of each episode and there will be no new music. "We weren't going to beat 'Little Boxes,' " Kohan said.

Some characters (business partners Heylia, Vaneeta and budding love interest Conrad) were left behind. Others, including brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk) and Nancy's partner Doug (Kevin Nealon) have their reasons for tagging along. BFF Celia (Elizabeth Perkins), who took the fall for Nancy last season after informing on her, is preoccupied with jailhouse issues of her own.

Notably, Brooks will return to television in a special guest-star role as Nancy's father-in-law, Len Botwin, who cares for his comatose mother at home. And Nancy's old supplier Guillermo (Guillermo Diaz) will have a bigger role teaching her about trafficking on the border.

In this election year, Kohan said, the writers are exploring hot-button issues in the national debate, such as immigration and the drug trade. For homework, the creative team did a ride-along with the border patrol in Tijuana on a random weekday afternoon and returned with a treasure chest of dramatic scenarios, she said.

Antiheroine's attraction

When THE show was set in what looked like the Valley, its fans -- surprisingly, a large number of teens and college students -- liked its outlaw tone, even if the outlaw was a fortysomething single mom who still had friends on the school board. The characters were outrageously outspoken in the way allowed only by pay cable. Their politics were clearly to the left: Nancy's son once won a school debate contest with a two-word argument for the popular vote: "George Bush." A cross stolen from a church was used as a grow light for marijuana plants. Heylia observed that white neighbors who greeted her with a cheery "Hello!" were really saying, "I'm not a racist."

After its first season as Showtime's top-rated original series, "Weeds" settled in as No. 2, behind "Dexter." Last year, the show became the network's most-watched by the cherished 18-to-34 demographic. Parker won the Golden Globe in 2006 for her performance, and the series has received several Emmy Award nominations.

Not all critics felt the show succeeded completely, but others raved about its offbeat sensibility, a wry, dark tone popularized by shows such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Arrested Development."

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