Sunday, January 23, 2011

New Place, Same Plots, Same Characters – Weeds Season Four Disappoints.

The Good: Moments of audacious plot or character elements, One or two memorable lines
The Bad: Little character development, Almost nothing new on the plot front, Largely not funny.
The Basics: Weeds becomes more about sex, less about drugs and hopes viewers will not notice they’re basically doing the same things they’ve already done in a new place with Season 4.

Last week, as I drove home from my job training for my new legitimate government work, I found myself listening to NPR and to a television critic being featured on Fresh Air. The critic made a point about how HBO has had a few slow years and how Showtime was gaining on HBO - if not in subscriptions, then in critical praise – as a prestigious alternative network. As he cited shows that made Showtime so great, I could not help but notice that he did not cite Weeds. As I had just finished watching season four of Weeds, but had not yet written my review of it, I was amused. I would not risk my professional standing calling Weeds a great show worthy of critical praise, either. With the fourth season of the Showtime serialized “comedy,” Weeds opens up to a broader social agenda with a new setting . . . and the same unlikable characters as before.

To be fair, Weeds is shaken up in its fourth season. There is a new setting and some of the characters from prior years do not return. But the mix is hardly inspiring and the plots are tragically dull. Weeds continues to push the envelope to try to shock viewers, but because they have pulled out so many stops prior to this, the results feel more inevitable than actually surprising. The show, in its fourth season, illustrates a pretty grim view on youth culture and the struggle of its lead protagonist is so far from being empathetic that the show suffers drastically as a result. Lacking a protagonist whose goals are laudable enough to justify her criminal actions, Weeds becomes simply a scripted show about irresponsible people acting badly. According to that same critic I was listening to that night, that was pretty much what Jersey Shore was (minus a script) and he considered that the worst thing on television. I’m not sure what’s worse; real people acting like irresponsible morons or people writing characters who do the same and expect viewers to tune in under the misguided notion that those characters are somehow compelling.

It is impossible to discuss the fourth season of Weeds without revealing how the third season of the show ended, so if you haven’t started the series (I’d recommend against it anyway) and don’t want the third season climax ruined, do not read on. That said . . .

Following the burning of Agrestic, Nancy Botwin and her family flee to Ren Mar, a town near the Mexico border. There, they connect with Andy’s deadbeat uncle and plan their next moves. In the federal disaster zone that is Agrestic, all of Nancy’s former partners in her weed business implicate Celia Hodes as the ringleader of their operation. With Celia imprisoned and under DEA investigation, Nancy reconnects with Guillermo and begins working for him. But after she fails a test as a border crossing drug runner, Guillermo retasks Nancy for seemingly legitimate work. Condemned to working in a maternity clothes store as the legitimate face of Guillermo’s operation, Nancy (soon joined by Celia) quickly becomes listless and depressed.

That leads her to explore the hole in the floor of the back room of the store she works in. There, she discovers a tunnel which takes her to Mexico and the mayor of Tijuana. Bypassing Guillermo, Nancy begins a relationship with Esteban Reyes and discovers the stakes for international trafficking are even higher than dealing in the suburbs.

And if I cared about any of the characters, I might actually have used an exclamation mark there. The fundamental problem with Weeds is that in its fourth season, none of the characters are particularly easy to empathize with. So, the viewer is simply watching to see how far the show will go. In this case, it plunges into subplots which have a thirteen year-old having sex with two girls at once and selling pot and a seventeen year-old taunting the local cheese shop owner before having sex with her. On the far less interesting Andy and Doug front, the two men begin smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States from Mexico and they have a falling out over a woman Doug has a crush on, but responds more favorably to Andy’s kindness and attention. Similarly, Celia seems to simply have become a punching bag as her imprisonment costs her a tooth and any dignity she might have been clinging to with implied prison rape and a drug problem of her own popping up.

But while this might sound remotely interesting in the abstract – indeed, even as I write it, I think “Those sound like actual character arcs” – the execution is sloppy and listless. Celia follows a very formulaic descent and because of how brutally she is treated, it is hard to think there is justification for it. So those who might look at Season One Socialite Celia and think “that woman could use some come-uppance!” the fourth season Celia is so far from deserving what is bestowed upon her that the viewer is made more uncomfortable than anything else.

As well, Weeds in its fourth season is hardly a comedy. While there are some amusing lines, almost exclusively delivered by Andy, the show takes a turn for the edgy and dark that steps over into outright gross at points. It’s hard to consider anything funny when it includes a man having his face sanded off as torture to get information.

Still, for those unfamiliar with the show, the significant players in this season include:

Nancy Botwin – Having burned down Agrestic to get out of her troubles there, she rebuilds with Guillermo and Reyes. But soon, tensions over her activities cause her to become much closer with Esteban while neglecting her children. All empathy for her attempts to provide for her family is gone at this point as she no longer looks out for Silas or Shane,

Silas Botwin - Nancy's oldest son, he is weeks away from turning eighteen when he meets the mother of a local boy. Attracted to the owner of the cheese shop, he seduces her first with sex and then with his superior marijuana and he works to get ahead without getting caught,

Shane Botwin – Nancy’s youngest son, he begins dealing on his own and is pushed into sex by two classmates who bring out his worst instincts,

Andy Botwin - Nancy's brother-in-law, he continues to get Nancy out of scrapes for no apparent reason (until he has a revelation in the season finale). When Silas and Shane are set up, he begins working with Doug to ferry Mexicans into the U.S., learning quickly that he has to get the money up front,

Doug Wilson – Kicked out by his wife, he hunts down Nancy after his FEMA living allowance dries up. He mooches until he falls for a woman Immigration recaptures and he becomes obsessed with finding her in Mexico,

Celia Hodes – Imprisoned by the DEA after all her friends and family turn on her, she still becomes Isabella’s savior when the girl wants to not move with her father to the Midwest. She is brutalized from the outset of the season and ends up with a cocaine problem before returning to her mean ways,

And Esteban Reyes – the Mayor of Tijuana, he is a political idealist who funds the social changes (like a blood bank) with drug and gun smuggling operations. He is smart, charismatic and soon puts Nancy into more danger than she has ever been in.

On DVD, Weeds Season Four features commentary tracks which, frankly, I could not bother to sit through. For virtually all television I review, I eagerly review all of the bonus features because even with works I am not thrilled about, I can at least take interest in the process stories, what was going through the heads of those working on the project. In the case of the fourth season of Weeds, none of the episodes were enjoyable enough for me to want to subject myself to watching it all again. There were featurettes on both the series and the fourth season’s development. None of the bonus features make up for the lackluster primary content.

Ultimately, the fourth season left a lot to be desired and fans of the show are likely to miss Conrad more than enjoy anything that comes up in this season. What comes up is not so much new as it is pushing further down into the realms of controversy that does not so much explore or challenge the changing social paradigms, but simply glorifies it in a way that is hardly entertaining.

For prior seasons of Weeds, please check out my reviews of:
Weeds Season 1
Weeds Season 2
Weeds Season 3


For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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