Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Surprisingly Average Season Makes Weeds (Season One) Wilt!

The Good: Interesting concept, Some good dialogue
The Bad: Nothing stellar on the acting front, None of the characters are particularly compelling, Dull
The Basics: With episodes that lack consequence, realism, humor or insight, Weeds - The Complete First Season is a waste to buy on DVD as the premise says it all.

Every now and then I encounter a television series or movie that when I finish it, I come to realize that the program has completely left no impression on me. This often happens with programs that have an interesting concept that is difficult to execute outside the initial one-line description. The movie Crank was a great, recent experience I had where when you hear the premise, you know the film. Weeds is like that. On television, there was the science fiction show Invasion (reviewed here!), the idea was that aliens came to Earth using a hurricane as a cover. Fine, what happens next? The writers and producers could not satisfactorily answer that and the result was the series went episode after episode with nothing substantive happening. Instead, the series plodded along until it was (blissfully) canceled. At the end of any given episode, I could not tell what happened and how the series had changed from where the episode began. Similarly, after sitting through the ten episodes of Weeds - The Complete First Season on DVD, along with their commentary, I feel somewhat cheated. This is a television show that seems to be inspired by the commercial a few years ago that pointed out that over fifty percent of drug users were located in the suburbs.

Nancy Botwin, recently a widow, has taken up dealing pot in the suburban California community of Agrestic. Nancy is determined to keep her house, her two children and her housekeeper without doing anything other than selling weed to the men of Agrestic. She's begun to build her network, selling pot to a teenager so long as he will not distribute it to children. She bounces between her safe, suburban life and trips to her drug dealers (who, of course, are black) who treat her about as respectfully as they treat one another and certainly more as an employee than a friend. Nancy slowly begins to establish her network and goes from dealing exclusively in Agrestic to franchising at a local community college and opening a sham bakery to cover her actual income.

Over the course of the ten episodes, little actually happens or changes. In the pilot, "You Can't Miss The Bear," Nancy keeps her bills paid by being a pot dealer and she extorts her accountant's son to keep him from dealing to children while her fifteen year-old son has sex for the first time. This is followed by "Free Goat," where not much happens save Nancy's younger son breaks his arm and Nancy continues to deal. In "Good Shit Lollipop," Nancy finds her business cut into by the legal medicinal marijuana industry. Nancy's delinquent brother in law moves in with a crazy scheme selling t-shirts in "Fashion Of The Christ," and in "Lude Awakening" there is much of the same, though Nancy's older son finds himself having sex with another girl, who happens to be the local, easy deaf girl. "Dead In The Nethers" does little, but advance snobby neighbor Celia's story (she now has cancer), and in "Higher Education," Nancy uses her son's tutor as a dealer at a local community college. This results in "The Punishment Light" and "The Punishment Lighter" wherein Nancy's drugs are taken by a corrupt campus security guard, she has run ins with an opposing dealer and she begins to form a relationship with a new man. The season ends with "The Godmother," where Nancy struggles to establish her legal business with a stronger networking of her illegal business and she ends up involved with the new guy and basically, the viewer doesn't care.

At the beginning of the series, Nancy is a drug dealing widow who is trying to keep her family together. At the end of the first season, she's in essentially the same place. Her children are still misbehaving, her business is no more legitimate and her personal life is not truly advanced. In short, there's virtually no character development in this entire season, which is death on wheels for a serialized television show. Serialized television - series's where actions have consequences that build episode to episode - is all about consequences, yet Nancy travels the first season virtually free of consequences.

In fact, Nancy's young son Shane is the only member of the Botwin family who has serious negative consequences. Shane deals with his father's death by very realistically acting out. He shoots a mountain lion, bites an opposing fighter at a karate match and begins filming videos where he plays that he is a terrorist. By the end of the season, he has been suspended from school for burning a prop of a burning bush. He acts out, there are consequences. None of the other characters have as hard a time of it.

So, for example, the foil to Nancy in Agrestic is Celia Hodes, a blonde socialite who learns in the first episode that her husband is having an affair with their tennis instructor. Her solution; shave his head and have drinks with the tennis professional. There are no serious consequences for her actions. Similarly, at the end of an episode, she declares that she has cancer, the next episode she gets a tattoo, has anonymous sex with Nancy's dealer friend Conrad, and returns to her husband. And there are no consequences.

I don't buy it. But moreover, the lack of consequences guts the entire series. Who cares that Nancy is dealing pot in the suburbs when there seems to be virtually no chance that she'll get caught? (You who are into the series, keep in mind this is the first season, not the second!) Who cares who Celia has sex with when she and her husband will be back together by the end of the episode and the next week things will be virtually the same?

Showtime has created some brilliant dramatic comedies, like Dead Like Me. This half-hour comedy barely gets going in an episode before it is over. As a result, episodes speed by at a pace that everything and everyone seems underdeveloped.

More than that, so many of the relationships are built on stereotypes. Celia is completely a stereotype of affluent, suburban mother who is overbearing, to the point that her biggest machinations involve keeping control of the PTA in Agrestic. The distributors who Nancy gets her drugs from are people of color and her competing drug dealer who ruins her paint job is a latino. Heylia James, the chief distributor, with Conrad working under her, is a stereotype - a parody - of a black woman in her relations with Nancy. She is over the top with the witticisms and obviousness of the "I'm in the real world, so I'm gonna be in your face about it" attitudes she universally presents. She seems like she's from cut scenes from Barbershop.

In fact, the only developed character that is fairly well-rounded is Conrad. Seen far too infrequently, Conrad is painted as a young man who feels undervalued as a part of Heylia's business enterprise and works to get ahead. He befriends Nancy and presents her with a new idea that is brought up far too late in the season to make a difference in the quality of this boxed set. There is hope for him and his basic goodness and humanity is one of the few worthwhile aspects of this series.

Sadly, that's the best I can say about this boxed set. The commentaries are fairly dull and a lot of the featurettes are about weed or simply clips of Weeds with little real insight. To better understand who the principles of the show are, the first season features:

Nancy Botwin - Widow, mother of two, pot dealer to the gated community of Agrestic. She is strapped for cash because she refuses to move and while she does her business, her housekeeper Lupita essentially runs the house,

Silas Botwin - Nancy's oldest son, who is 15 and 16 in the first season. He's begun having sex, smoking pot on his own and doing ecstasy. He's not the sharpest tool in the drawer, but the viewer doesn't much care,

Shane Botwin - The occasionally empathetic younger son, he's having trouble adapting to his dad's death and his mother's neglect, so he fails at soccer, shoots things, gets into fights and plays in socially awkward ways,

Andy Botwin - Nancy's ne'er-do-well brother-in-law who moves in for no good reason and does little but cause trouble for Nancy when he does,

Doug Wilson - One of Nancy's best customers, he helps Nancy establish a front business as a baker when she introduces him to the joys of eating pot in baked goods,

Celia Hodes - The uptight socialite mother who rules the PTA and seems to look the other way as Nancy deals drugs next to her. Her husband cheats on her and she sends her older daughter away when she has sex with Silas and is pretty unrelenting with her younger, fatter daughter,

Dean Hodes - Celia's adulterous husband whose solution to her infidelity is to want to shave her hair off the way she shaved his off after his affair,

Isabelle Hodes - Dean and Celia's young, overweight daughter who tries to lose weight, sabotages her mother and explores lesbianism,

Conrad Shepard - Nancy's only real adult friend who seems to actually care about her and one of her suppliers of weed,

Heylia James - Conrad's mother who dispenses weed and witticisms and doesn't appear on screen otherwise.

The thing is, I wanted to like this show, but there were several undeniable problems in the first season, even outside the lack of character development and genuine consequences for any of the characters. A big problem is in the concept. Certainly, exploring drug use and drug dealing in suburbia can be a great place for television to go. In order to do it, though, the characters have to pop and Nancy does not. Instead, I sat and watched the first few episodes waiting for one of the key questions to be answered: Why is Nancy doing this as opposed to something, anything, else? Honestly, the show never answers why Nancy - who seems bright, who attracted a good husband and who is raising two children who seem to be inherently good - lacks a single marketable skill set to get any other form of employment. Sure, I get that her husband died recently leaving her nothing, but the question of why and how she got into dealing is not even explored.

One of the big problems is in the acting. Mary-Louise Parker plays Nancy Botwin. I'm familiar with Parker from her role of Amy Gardner on the third and fourth seasons of The West Wing. She's a Hollywood-attractive brunette with a cute-as-a-button nose and big brown eyes and . . . no discernible acting talent. Nancy is played almost identical in mannerisms to how Parker played Gardner. She is not showcasing her acting ability on Weeds, she's merely continuing the performance she began on another show!

Similarly, Kevin Nealon, who plays Doug adds nothing genuine to the role that is different from any number of other characters he has played. Weeds ends up being a series that is well-cast as opposed to well-acted.

The final nail in the coffin of this otherwise average show is that it's not particularly funny. Watching the series killed time, but it didn't leave me with any real enjoyment or feeling of being entertained, enlightened or challenged. Indeed, after the ten episodes (average of 28 minutes each), I was left where I started before I sat down to watch my first episode: "Weeds is a show about a mother dealing pot in the suburbs."

For other dramedy reviews, please check out my takes on:
Sports Night
Glee Volume 1


For other television DVD boxed set reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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