Ever since Showtime started giving serious attention to original programming, they have struggled to find their identity. They have gone through stretches where it seemed they would be a major science fiction player, then a strong focus on alternative lifestyles, and even a couple of based-on-the-film series that chronicled the black experience. None of it really caught on, though, and while HBO and FX have successfully established and marketed their respective identities, Showtime continues to struggle. One area where the channel has always excelled, however, is in the difficult-to-classify area of "quirk". Shows like The Chris Isaak Show and Dead Like Me were hard to categorize, but they were uniquely "Showtime", and now the network brings us another series that follows in that offbeat tradition with Weeds, the story of a suburban housewife/pot dealer just trying to be a good mother, helping out in the community, and controlling the marijuana trade in her small corner of the upper middleclass world.
Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) is the mother of two in a small fictional Los Angeles suburb called Agrestic. Her life takes a drastic turn one day when her husband and family provider unexpectedly passes away from a heart attack, leaving her to fend for herself and raise her two sons. Without any marketable skills or experience in the workforce, she turns to an unlikely source of income: selling marijuana to various friends and neighbors. While against the law, the job itself isn't particularly dangerous work and gives her plenty of free time to spend with her children, but as her business begins to expand and her screw-up brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk) gets involved, events slowly start to spin out of her control.
Casting Mary-Louise Parker in this lead role could not be more perfect. Parker has always exuded a level of liberated confidence, sophisticated and skilled with her feminine charms, and yet able to convey a real warmth and softness when necessary. That is precisely what the character of Nancy Botwin requires, and Parker delivers, carrying the bulk of the emotional weight of the series on her back and handling the balance between the comedy and drama effortlessly. Weeds is largely played for laughs, but when they really need to hit that dramatic note, she nails it, giving the show a layer that runs deeper than its base comedic premise.
Also effectively cast is Elizabeth Perkins in the role of the tightly-wound and often scheming "Super Mom", Celia Hodes. Celia is a walking stereotype, President of the PTA, showing up at every school and neighborhood function, and always having a comment about how everyone else is living their lives. Most of the women in the town turn to her for leadership and organization, yet secretly they tend to hate her behind her back. Her friendship with Nancy, who approaches life in significantly different ways, is one of those rare relationships that can only be formed between neighbors. While they're very different people who sometimes don't even like each other, they still have the same overall goals for their family and community and end up sharing a lot of personal moments with each other.
Nancy's accountant, Doug Wilson (Kevin Nealon), brings much of the comedy to the show. He lives in the neighborhood and is a really nice guy, but he is often totally clueless and almost constantly stoned on Nancy's product. When business builds, she turns to him for more than accounting advice but suggestions for how to run her business without going to prison, but what she receives is often a mixed bag, as Doug rarely achieves clarity of thought that breaks through his laid-back persona. It's a great role for Nealon who has popped up from time to time but hasn't had much of anything to sink his teeth into since he left Saturday Night Live. Also adding to the comedy are Nancy's suppliers, Heylia James (Tonye Patano) and Conrad Shepard (Romany Malco), who frequently exchange stereotype-fighting banter with Nancy when she drops by to pick up more product. Heylia's been in business a long time and knows the game very well, so she is often trying to keep her naive friend on the right path. She is also a mother, and while business comes first, she can empathize with some of Nancy's emotional struggles.
Weeds brings together a very solid cast and makes for an entertaining series in this first season. Unfortunately, there are only 10 episodes, and at about half an hour each, it goes by incredibly quickly. Still, there is enough time to develop an interesting plot with Nancy's expanding business, give us a glimpse into her children's struggles with the death of their father, and maintain a thematic element that addresses the cookie-cutter and repressed nature of American suburbia. The tone of the series is set quite beautifully in the opening titles with Malvina Reynolds's wonderful commentary on the ticky tacky little boxes on the hillside that all look just the same, and each episode closes with a clever song that helps capture the mood of the events that took place.
What makes the show fun is that it is in-your-face about the subject matter without being preachy about it. Clearly, it is a very liberal show with ideas that certainly are not for everyone, but with the exception of one particularly annoying current events soapbox scene from the writers in a latter episode, it doesn't talk down to people or make a big statement on the legalization of marijuana. It simply accepts that these types of things happen in suburban homes all over America, and it seeks to take us into that lifestyle to entertain us for half an hour or so. It's this light-hearted approach and confidence in the subject matter, along with a sexy, fun, and endearing performance in the lead from Mary-Lousie Parker, that makes Weeds so much fun to watch. I just wish there was more of it to see.
"Weeds - Season One" is presented across 2 DVDs in thin case with a single plastic enclosure that holds one disc per side and slides into a thin cardboard sleeve. It is a very simple presentation. 6 of the episodes are on the first disc with the remaining 4 on the second disc. Special features are on both.
Weeds was originally shot in 16x9 widescreen and aired on Showtime that way, but here it has been cropped to 4:3 full screen for the release. In fact, the producers of the DVD go so far as to list "Full Screen Presentation" as a "Bonus Feature". I hope they're not fooling anyone. Not only is the series pan-and-scanned for the DVD, but the visual presentation is not particularly good. Outdoor scenes generally look OK, but inside, colors are often dull and lifeless. It's certainly not terrible, but it could be a lot better.
Audio is available in English 5.1 and 2.0. Both mixes are fine, if unremarkable. English and Spanish subtitles are also included.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
6 episodes include audio commentary, two with series creator Jenji Kohan, and one each from Craig X, Tonye Patano (Heylia), Romany Malco (Conrad), and Kevin Nealon (Doug). Some of these are entertaining enough, but I wouldn't go out of my way to listen to them. Noticeably absent are the main stars from the show, Parker and Perkins.
"Smoke & Mirrors" (13:11) is a fun little documentary hosted by Romany Malco. It features a bunch of experts talking about what hemp and marijuana really are and how they affect a person. They also discuss the reasons for the illegality, differences between tobacco and marijuana, and what medical marijuana really is. It is a lot of fun, and the production itself is very creative. It's certainly the best bonus feature on the disc.
"Agrestic Herbal Recipes" is a clever addition. Using the DVD's menu structure, you can navigate through many tasty recipes for all occasions. Each includes one key ingredient: "fresh herb of your choice". Sadly, I didn't actually prepare any of the dishes myself.
The rest of the "features" are pretty simplistic and are just Showtime promos for the show slapped together on the disc. There are 2 "Showtime Original Series Shorts" that each run a little over 2 minutes, "Showtime Original Special" (3:57), and "Suburban Shakedown" (14:02). It's basic promotional material, and there is overlap between them. "Smokey Snippets" (2:40) are a few blooperish segments from the filming of these promos.
Finally, there's a music video for All Too Much's "More Than a Friend" from the show's soundtrack. It's not very good.
Weeds takes a fresh and satirical look at the cookie-cutter nature of suburbia through the eyes of a pot-dealing soccer mom. It's very light and fun, sexy and clever, with a nice touch of real human drama thrown in as well. Mary-Louise Parker makes the most of this great role, and the supporting cast are all excellent. With only 10 episodes, this first season is really brief, but it is very entertaining and whets the appetite for future stories. Unfortunately, the DVD presentation leaves a lot to be desired, and as such, I have to stick with a rating of Recommended.