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Life in The Suburbs, Where The Grass Is Greener

Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times, 2nd September 2006

When “Weeds” began on Showtime it was a “Queer as Folk” for the illegal drug trade, a dark comedy that depicted suburban marijuana use as boldly and matter-of-factly as the previous series did the sexual practices of gay men.

Crime is never as illicit as sex on American television, so there was not nearly as much outrage over the mischievous portrait of a suburban soccer mom who deals pot to make ends meet. But it was nevertheless a remarkable feat: no other series, not even on HBO, has been quite so nonchalant about the discreet charm of the pot-smoking bourgeoisie.

“Weeds” turned out to be an irreverent and absorbing nighttime soap opera, a “Desperate Housewives” for smart people.

It still is. Yet the second season is trying harder for what Showtime’s advertising campaign coyly calls “buzz.” When it began, “Weeds” was careful not to laugh out loud at its own jokes; three episodes into the second season, the series is straining for shock value and guffaws. The two female leads, played with delicious subtlety by Mary-Louise Parker and Elizabeth Perkins, are in danger of becoming caricatures, while some of the supporting characters are being pushed into the realm of Cheech and Chong.

Sentiment and satire are hard to mix, which is why similar shows like “Nip/Tuck” or even “Desperate Housewives” wilt or labor in their second and third seasons. Drama is much easier. A procedural crime show like “Law & Order” is like paddle tennis — as long as the ball is hit in a steady, predictable pattern, the rally can last indefinitely. Series that blend farce and drama (television executives call them “dramedies” ) are harder to pull off. They are like those old-fashioned puzzles where the player has to tilt the tiny steel balls just right to make them slip into all the holes at once.

The appeal of Nancy (Ms. Parker), who turns to dealing to maintain her family’s affluent lifestyle in a sterile suburban development called Agrestic, is that she has to balance illegal activities with an Erma Bombeck existence: PTA meetings, housekeepers and nosy neighbors. Her motive for turning to crime to stay in a soulless community where neither she nor her children were happy was always hazy, but that was blunted by the charm of Ms. Parker’s performance. As Nancy sinks deeper and deeper into the drug business, she becomes harder to follow. The pathology of a mother who would put her children at so much risk overshadows her spacey, low-key charisma.

Nancy’s brittle best friend, Celia, is to “Weeds” what Ari Gold is to “Entourage,” an outré secondary character who steals every scene. Ms. Perkins layered Celia’s tartness and self-absorption with a knowing sadness, and it made her irresistible. This season, she is reduced to deadpan cracks about her daughter’s weight and her husband’s weakness; the lines are funny but increasingly predictable. Her daughter refuses to put on a pretty dress for a campaign poster, saying, “Dick Cheney has a lesbian daughter who is gay.” Celia retorts, “Yeah, and she’s not in any of the pictures, either.” She adds, overworking the joke, “And I didn’t shoot anyone in the face, so stop making comparisons.”

The series’ sendup of suburbia is quietly caustic: the housewives attend stripper fitness class, Celia’s daughter is recruited to model for a children’s clothing line called “Huskaroos,” and a western theme restaurant sends customers home with tinfoil doggy bags in the shape of a cactus.

Nancy’s hapless business partners form an amusing ensemble, led by Kevin Nealon as Doug, the pothead C.P.A. and City Council member. Nancy’s brother-in-law, Andy (Justin Kirk), a charming ne’er-do-well and parasite, is desperate to get into rabbinical school to avoid Army Reserve duty in Iraq. Struggling to compose an essay on what Judaism means to him, Andy complains, “So far I’ve written that being a Jew means I have no foreskin and I may be a Tay-Sachs carrier.”

Some jokes are tapped too many times, particularly the awkward tension between white suburbia and the urban black community. “Weeds” didn’t shrink from casting the series’ only African-American characters as drug dealers, and it moved quickly and confidently beyond stereotypes, particularly in the case of Conrad (Romany Malco), Nancy’s partner in crime and the nephew of the sharp-tongued black matriarch, Heylia (Tonye Patano). But one of the recurring themes — the contempt Heylia holds for middle-class meekness — has been spread to too many other characters.

Heylia acquires a suitor who is a strict follower of the Nation of Islam and who nonetheless reins in his militancy in front of his white customers at the airport lost-luggage desk. Conrad seeks a bank loan from a friend from the old neighborhood who also turns mealy-mouthed around his white co-workers. Even Nancy’s brief tussle with a black employee at the power company has a similar dynamic to her relationship with Heylia; the clerk is harsh and dismissive until Nancy stops apologizing and sasses her right back.

“Weeds” is still an outstanding show, but it would be better if it didn’t push so hard to stand out.

WEEDS

Showtime, Mondays at 10 p.m., Eastern and Pacific times; 9 p.m., Central time.

Jenji Kohan, creator and executive producer; Roberto Benabib and Craig Zisk, co-executive producers; Mark A. Burley, Shawn Schepps and Devon K. Shepard, supervising producers; Matthew Salsberg, producer; Barry Safchif, Michael Platt and Paul Cajero, co-producers; Michael Trim, director of photography; David Helfand and William Turro, editors. Produced by Lionsgate in association with Tilted Productions.

WITH: Mary-Louise Parker (Nancy Botwin), Elizabeth Perkins (Celia Hodes), Kevin Nealon (Doug Wilson), Justin Kirk (Andy Botwin), Tonye Patano (Heylia James), Romany Malco (Conrad Shepard), Martin Donovan (Peter Scottson), Hunter Parrish (Silas Botwin), Alexander Gould (Shane Botwin), Andy Milder (Dean Hodes), Renée Victor (Lupita), Isabelle Hodes (Allie Grant), Indigo (Vaneeta), Maulik Pancholy (Sanjay), Shoshannah Stern (Megan Beals) and Meital Dohan (Yael).

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