Where There’s Smoke

Illustration by Jason Gnewikow.Photo: Courtesy of Showtime

It was a Wednesday night on NBC a couple of West Wing seasons ago, and Mary-Louise Parker’s Amy Gardner, all dolled up for a White House hootenanny, was enumerating her assets, not just as a political operative but as a sensual being and feminist flirt. To these she added, clinching her point, “I have legs that go all the way down to the floor.” Whatever this meant, ever since I haven’t been able to watch Parker on stage or screen without thinking, She’s got legs that go all the way down to the floor! And this is in addition to the way she swims through scenes like an absent-minded dolphin. And the impression she gives of always thinking about three things simultaneously, one of them scandalous. And how often the pain in her eyes contradicts her Mary Tyler Moore grin, as if she secretly spoke a different anguish.

But I am too old for rescue fantasies. The best I can wish for is a vehicle worthy of Parker’s prodigal talents—an Angels in America rather than a Reckless; a Proof instead of a Saved! By this standard, Showtime’s new sitcom Weeds is at least adequate, verging occasionally on inspired. As Nancy Botwin, Parker plays a suddenly widowed soccer mom. To maintain herself and her two young sons in the style to which they are accustomed, she could become “the oldest Gap employee in America.” She chooses instead to deal pot. And so we pop the Range Rover hood for an R-rated look at race, class, kinkiness, and pastry abuse in the California suburb of Agrestic. Here is where I am supposed to spot hybrids, e.g., Desperate Housewives get by with a little help from their Friends. Except that all sitcoms, from Mr. Peepers to Everybody Loves Raymond, from The Brady Bunch to The Simpsons, originate in the same stem cell. Besides stars, the important differences between Mary Tyler Moore’s show (“I’ve never been to jail, Mr. Grant! I never even had to stay after school!”) and Brett Butler’s (“Every time you hurt a small animal, a clown dies”) are the writers and the support group.

Weeds has Jenji Kohan as creator and executive producer, a veteran writer for Mad About You, Sex and the City, and Gilmore Girls. For an ensemble, it has Elizabeth Perkins as an over-the-top neighbor who hates her obese daughter; Justin Kirk as Nancy’s sleazy brother-in-law; Kevin Nealon as her sweaty accountant, city councilman, and best customer; the wisecracking Tonye Patano and the sweet-talking Romany Malco as her suppliers on the wrong side of the tracks; and many scary youngsters, all of whom seem to specialize in hurting one another. Each gets a chance to strut his stuff, because one of the things Parker is best at is letting her co-stars sing their arias un-upstaged; she makes funny faces on her own time.

But obviously, despite the jokes about Enron, WorldCom, the Wilderness Channel, Winged Migration, The Passion of the Christ, “the Rain Man of weed,” the Shaolin Stalker, a stolen goat, a hungry mountain lion, sex online and in saunas, a nanny-cam in the teddy bear and marijuana in the sponge cake, Weeds moves steadily toward the daunting and ambiguous, where laughter in the dark is a gag reflex. In a drug-deal drive-by, Mary-Louise actually gets shot at, and the funny face she makes while trying to pretend it didn’t happen, that it isn’t even imaginable, broke all the hearts in my house.

I have one complaint. Each episode begins with Malvina Reynolds singing “Little Boxes,” her send-up of suburbia, where the tract houses and the tract souls “all look just the same.” But it has always seemed to me that those of us who grew up in such real-estate scams were equally lonesome and strange, and just as likely to write poems against the hydrogen bomb, as were people who grew up in identical but presumably more authentic houseboats, igloos, wigwams, family farms, and trailer camps. So far, Weeds shows signs of intelligence, but no character on the show seems smart enough to have written a single one of its episodes. It’s a peculiar snobbism indeed that sneers at any room of one’s own, with or without a bong.

Mondays at 10 P.M.
Premieres August 8.

Where There’s Smoke