I'm sorry, but you just can't get away with making it up as you go on television anymore. If you want to have a serious serial drama, you have to have a plan. With shows being put together for finite runs and designed to be endlessly rewatched on DVD, your audience is now trained to expect you to know what you're doing. Even a show riddled with comedy needs a direction.
Weeds is in its fifth season, and you'd have a hard time convincing me anyone on this show has had any clue where the scripts are going. If creator Jenji Kohan has an outline for the Botwin family, it must be a pretty haphazard one. This tale of a widow who turned to dealing drugs to support her two kids started out strong when it debuted in 2005. With the wonderful Mary-Louise Parker leading the cast and some fairly funny writing, the first two seasons made for some good television as Nancy Botwin strayed into moral relativism, seeking justification for selling pot to bored suburbanites in a secluded community while also trying to teach her boys how to make the right decisions. Contrasting the gated, white town of Agrestic with the open-range, multi-cultural neighborhoods of Los Angeles gave the series writers a lot of room to play, and it worked.
Then something sinister crept in during Season 3. After stacking the deck for a big cliffhanger at the end of Season 2, the writers decided the only way to get Nancy out of her predicament was to push her down under it. So began their addiction to humiliating and degrading their main character, making her an indentured servant to a gangster and sending her into a cruel sexual relationship. Stacking the deck too high yet again, they hit reset and burned the entire show down. Literally. Nancy's new allies in the Mexican drug cartels set Agrestic ablaze. The weed-packing mother and her crew picked up and moved on, heading to the beaches of Del Mar, California. New life, new start.
Except the cruelty persisted, and Season 4 squandered the new opportunity. The show became unbearable to watch as Nancy moved deeper into the drug world and let her sons slip away. By season's end, she was the lover of a violent drug lord who had used her as a smuggler. Just so happens that Esteban Reyes (Demián Bichir) is also a prominent politician in Mexico, and so untouchable. Characters rapidly lost their charm, particularly Kevin Nealon's drug fiend Doug, who we saw happily singing about the death of everyone he didn't like, a tribute to the worst liberal hypocrisies when it comes to tolerance, at the end of Season 3. His verbal diarrhea had gone off the charts, and with Nancy's brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk) also operating a similar motor-mouthed purpose (and having taken that beyond the levels of patience in his subplot with Zooey Deschanel that bridged Seasons 2 and 3), it's one overgrown manchild too many. Seriously, Weeds has a serious case of needing to shut up.
Season 4 ended with Nancy trying to do the right thing, but immediately turning around and doing the bad thing. After betraying her Mexican allies and sending her local boss Guillermo (Guillermo Díaz) to jail, she throws back in with Esteban, begging for her life by revealing that she is pregnant with his baby. A new cliffhanger, a new low.
I swore off Weeds then and there, but had heard some vague chatter about Weeds: Season Five being a return to form. Could it be that one of my favorite shows was back on track? (And if you don't believe I ever really liked Weeds, you can read my glowing review of Season 2 here.)
Kind of, I guess. Now having watched Weeds: Season Five on disc, I am not back entirely, but I am back. It joins Rescue Me as a show I can't make myself love again but that I can't entirely quit. It's too imperfect to like completely, but imperfection is different than being out-and-out bad. It means there is something good there that doesn't quite work.
The things that don't work are easy to spot, because they are almost exclusively subplots that don't involve Nancy Botwin. In Season 5, that includes a whole storyline where Doug and Nancy's eldest, Silas (Hunter Parrish), open up a shady medical marijuana store together. This ends up being way too much Doug. I don't know if I just haven't forgiven Kevin Nealon for his painfully unfunny run as the anchor on SNL's "Weekend Update," but I find his smug, overbearing performances to be off-putting. No surprise then, that a character I had little love for continues to annoy me.
Counter to this, Celia Hodes is a character I always kind of liked. She was the bitch I had a good time hating, and the producers have been having about as much fun tearing her apart as they have Nancy. It's somewhat more acceptable here as Celia is kind of a villain, but even so, enough is enough. Season 5 opens with everyone in the cast refusing to pay her ransom when she is kidnapped by Mexican revolutionaries. Her climb back from this and her move into being a cosmetic salesman with a little something extra is too broadly drawn. You're on cable, people, leave the soap opera nonsense to Desperate Housewives. Weeds regularly sacrifices believability for cheap jokes. Take for instance when the pot store is flooded with Comic Con attendees looking for a score. Every single one of them is dressed in a costume because that's apparently what everyone at Comic Con does. We all dress up as random fake characters and leave the show in the middle of the day to go to another town to get high. Are you people even trying?
It's Nancy's story where Weeds rebounds, and surprisingly, part of the upswing is an improvement in Andy. Despite Justin Kirk having to wear an awful fake beard through many of the episodes, the actor begins to turn his character around. A lot of this comes from toning him down. His gift of gab is put to better use. There are fewer odes to masturbating, and more tough love for Nancy. Andy gets serious about life, and an interesting turn begins to happen in two episodes early on that guest star Jennifer Jason Leigh as Nancy's sister Jill. Big Sis begins to plant the seeds for a change in perception when it comes to the series star. As she sees it, Nancy is a selfish individual who only takes and never gives back. She is short-sighted and reckless. The chaos bringer.
Well, we knew that, we were just waiting for the rest of you to say it. Nancy is alive thanks to the boy growing in her womb, but for how long remains to be seen. Esteban is controlling and mercurial, and the violence his lifestyle fosters has its own contradiction in that it also ends up being the most suited to protecting the Botwins. It's like in James Cameron's The Abyss where we are told the best way to breathe underwater is by breathing water itself; the best way to stay alive around Esteban is by being around Esteban. Yet, as the due date grows nearer, Nancy has more of a reason to survive on her own and thus more reason to convince Andy that she is worth another shot.
The strength of these stories is in how the characters try to embrace normalcy. The focus is on family, on love, and on life choices. The schemes take a backseat for a while, and when Nancy goes back to the dark side, we have something to compare it to. Her switch back to Avenging Mother is an easy one, and I actually prefer to see the confident Mary-Louise Parker rather than the one who is constantly on the verge of tears. The actress is exceptional at crying, I can see why the show's makers would want to exploit that, but Weeds needs the stronger Nancy to lead the charge. Just as the skewed life of the criminal mother is all the more interesting because of the regular existence it is part of, so too does Parker's fragility seem all the more impressive when we also see her considerable strength. The writers still let her down occasionally--a scene where Andy helps her with an overabundance of breast milk is one of the most contrived and revolting OMG moments I've seen in a long time--but they are at least putting some effort toward making it up to their heroine.
It's life rebuilding, a long overdue and much needed repair in the Botwin household, and at the same time, it provides the same kind of maintenance for the show. Weeds: Season Five's cliffhanger is even a surprise, and a shocking one at that. Yet, it's also one that makes total sense for the changes that had been happening in Shane's role in everything. That's the right kind of cliffhanger, one that you should have seen coming but didn't because it's so perfectly installed, so natural, you miss it.
Weeds: Season Five isn't up there with the show's first two years, and knowing the way this program goes, next season could blow the whole shebang all over again, but at least for this collection of episodes, the production was getting more right than it was getting wrong. I gobbled up the whole thing like candy, and I'm ready to see what happens next.
Like most cable television shows, Weeds: Season Five was broadcast on Showtime in widescreen, and it is now on DVD as a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. These discs look top-notch, with good colors and decent blacks. The resolution is sharp, and there are no glitches or pixilation.
I am not sure what Dolby Digital EX is, but the soundtrack is mixed in that for 5.1, as well as a non-EX Dolby Digital 2.0. It sounds good, with the dialogue getting the most juice. There aren't a lot of surround effects, but the show is mostly a talkie, so there isn't really much demanded. I find the music choices on Weeds to be achingly twee and seemingly designed to ferret out my last nerve and flick it until it breaks, but if you disagree, then you'll likely be happy with how the songs on the closing credits come through loud and clear.
Subtitles are available in Spanish as well as English, including Closed Captioning.
Thirteen episodes of Weeds make up Season Five, and they are spread over three discs. They are in a nice cardboard booklet with two plastic trays, which then fit in an outer slipcase, all made from recyclable material. The inside of the booklet has episode titles and credits, and there is a paper insert advertising Showtime programs. When my Weeds: Season 5 arrived, each disc was secured in its tray by a small, clear sticker. This is the first time I've seen this, and it's nice that a studio has finally addressed the problem of discs coming loose in shipping.
For spoilers, beware the menus slightly. The main title menu has scenes from the episodes on the disc, and though lacking any great revelation, it is kind of dumb to show us stuff we may not have seen yet. (DVD 2, in particular, a conflict is telegraphed that, sure, we can see coming, but once the moment is in your head, you keep waiting for it.)
Of the thirteen episodes, seven have audio commentaries featuring a variety of cast and crew. They are fairly standard, with some decent insight given, but I was not too impressed with the tracks featuring series creator Jenji Kohan. You'd almost think she was seeing the show for the first time. The actor tracks are usually more jovial and friendly, and it's interesting to hear a newcomer like Alanis Morissette get involved. Here is a full list of commentary tracks:
* Episode 1: Jenji Kohan
* Episode 3: Roberto Benabib & Matthew Salsberg
* Episode 5: Hunter Parrish & Kevin Nealon
* Episode 7: Roberto Benabib, Kevin Nelon, & Matthew Salsberg
* Episode 11: Justin Kirk & Alanis Morissette
* Episode 12: Elizabeth Perkins, Allie Grant, & Andy Milder
* Episode 13: Jenji Kohan
It's a shame there is no track from Mary-Louise Parker.
DVD 1 also features an 11-minute blooper reel that may strike you funny if you haven't had enough of actors who can't stop laughing, as well as a trailer for Showtime's original programming. (This also plays as the disc loads.)
DVD 2 has considerably more extras. Kevin Nealon takes center stage for two. "Really Backstage with Kevin Nealon" is 11 minutes of the actor giving us a tour of the set and rehearsing a scene with Perkins. Not nearly as raw and revealing as the warning at the start promises. Nealon is also in a 1-minute promo called "Yes We Cannabis," a parody of an Obama-like political speech. It's a lot of pot clichés strung together and about as funny as listening to someone's stories about how stoned they get. (In other words, not very.) By the way, "Backstage" is shot on the last day of the season, and so the rehearsed scene is kind of revealing. Beware spoilers!
Justin Kirk takes over for "University of Andy," twelve segments, each between 2 and 3 minutes, with the character giving life advice on topics as diverse as protecting yourself from bears and internet dating. You can play them one at a time or all at once.
"Little Titles by Jenji Kohan" is 3 minutes, 15 seconds collecting all the unique title cards from Season 5, with Kohan providing commentary for them.
DVD 3 has two extras. "History of Weed" is a 2-minute animation taking us through, well, the History of Weed, while the 12-minute "Crazy Love: A Guide to the Dysfunctional Relationships of Weeds" features the cast chatting about how their characters all fit together.
Weeds: Season Five at long last starts to take advantage of the Season Three reset that the producers seemed to have no idea what to do with. The story of Nancy Botwin, the pot-dealing mom played by the excellent Mary-Louise Parker, has covered a lot of ground in five short years, and a lot of it has been bad--not just from a personal standpoint for the characters, but writing-wise. This fifth season takes Nancy through some twisted narrative developments, but for once it doesn't feel like the producers are just tossing out ideas as they go. By the end of the season, which involves a new baby and other changes to the status quo, the characters have started growing again and there is at least a semblance of a story plan. And on that, Weeds: Season Five is Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joëlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.