Chronic Condition

Showtime’s Weeds offers a fresh toke—I mean take—on suburban satire.

Now that the 21st century is well under way, can we declare a temporary moratorium on suburban satires—narratives that shatter the brittle surface of American middle-class conformity to reveal the seething cauldron of lies beneath? I mean, how long has American pop culture been working that angle—since Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Douglas Sirk movies? Peyton Place? Before the last nail was driven into the first prefab ranch house in Levittown, there was probably already a suburban satire in development. By the late 1990s, the genre was a growth industry: Blue Velvet, Picket Fences, American Beauty, Donnie Darko—all explored, with varying degrees of artistry, the dark side of the American fantasy of paradise. And now, of course, the (to me, at least) surprising success of ABC’s Desperate Housewives has proven once again that we never get sick of turning over the rocks in our well-mowed front lawns to see what’s crawling around down there.

Watch this show? Yes indeedy weedy

Showtime’s new drama series Weeds (which premieres this Sunday at 11 p.m. ET, with replays next Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10 p.m. ET) unashamedly returns to sup once again at the trough of suburban satire. Yet I happily watched five hours of Weeds in a row last night—and will continue to follow the series on Showtime—if only because of its two offbeat female leads and writing that’s just sharp enough to stay one step ahead of the audience’s expectations.

There’s something about Mary-Louise Parker I’ve always found appealing—she makes it seem sexy to be slovenly and slightly unhinged, and she specializes in playing dirty-mouthed nice girls whose lives are quietly falling apart. Last year, she played variants on that character in Angels in America and the too-little-seen independent film The Best Thief in the World; in Weeds, she takes nice-girl dysfunction to a new level as Nancy Botwin, a recently widowed suburban housewife who’s taken up pot dealing to support herself in the manner to which she’s accustomed.

Nancy’s brilliantly cast foil in the fictional town of Agrestic, Calif., is Celia Hodes, the tightly wound PTA mom and general bitch-about-town, played to perfection by Elizabeth Perkins. If you remember Perkins at all, it’s probably as the love interest who stripped down to her bra before the wondering eyes of the overgrown 13-year-old played by Tom Hanks in Big (1988). But Perkins has always been a terrific character actress in sarcastic-best-friend roles, able to toss off the most withering lines imaginable with the tart snap of a Stockard Channing (whom she resembles slightly). Here, she plays Celia as the Grinch Who Stole Suburbia—a lost soul dedicated to making everyone around her as miserable as possible, but only as a way to keep from being alone in her own misery. It’s a role that’s got “Emmy” written on it in 24-point type.

A recent New York Times piece on the production of Weeds revealed that Perkins complained to the series creator and writer, Jenji Kohan, about one of her character’s more unmaternal lines. After suffering a humiliation at the hands of her teenage daughter, Celia mumbles (unheard by anyone but herself), “I knew I should’ve had an abortion.” Perkins wondered whether the crack would make her character seem “too mean,” but in the end, the abortion line was left in. To be sure, it’s a harsh bit of dialogue, but Perkins manages to invest it with just the right inflection of almost affectionate irony. But there is something else Celia does in an early episode—a nasty trick of replacing her overweight daughter’s chocolate stash with laxatives—that’s so disturbing it almost made me give up on the character entirely. At that moment, I felt Kohan’s writing was reaching for shock value at its own expense—I wanted to say, “Jenji, honey? It’s OK. You can rein it in.”

Another ongoing thread of Weeds follows Nancy’s increasingly close relationship with the black ghetto family that keeps her supplied with pot for her upper-class clients. I honestly couldn’t decide whether this subplot was racist or not—one minute the black characters, led by a sassy matriarch named Heylia (Tonye Patano), seemed to embody the most egregious of African-American stereotypes (buying fancy tire rims for their broken-down hoopties, arguing over recipes for cornbread), and the next minute they’d suddenly transform into well-rounded, distinct individuals. (Romany Malco is particularly fine as Conrad, a ne’er-do-well son of the family who’s engaged in a prickly flirtation with Nancy.) The general message about racial relations conveyed by the scenes between Nancy and her dealers seems to be that this overprivileged and still-grieving white woman needs the grounding and humor that her alternative black family provides; that’s fine as far as it goes, but in future episodes, I’d like to see what they get out of their friendship with her.

As befits a late-night, premium-cable drama, Weeds’ language is really raunchy—there’s liberal use not only of the F-word, but of the C-word, the Tw-word and other, more seldom-used synonyms for the nether regions of the human body. Even the kids get in on the action—Nancy’s two sons, 10-year-old Shane (Alexander Gould, the voice of Nemo from Finding Nemo) and 16-year-old Silas (heartthrob-in-the-making Hunter Parrish) call each other f***wads and casually discuss when the older boy will finally go to bed with his girlfriend.

As of the first five episodes, Weeds is still trying a little too hard—trying, by turns, to be edgy and HBO-ish or campy and ABC-ish. But if it hasn’t yet quite achieved the self-confident swagger of HBO flagships like The Wire or The Sopranos, it’s certainly a lot more fun to watch than Desperate Housewives, which has always struck me as neither kitschy enough to be funny nor dramatic enough to compelling. If I could be forgiven just one more Cheech-and-Chong-style pun (a brand of marijuana humor this show, commendably, avoids): Weeds stands the chance of being really dope, if it’s just given the time to grow organically.