How Weeds Has Gone Wrong, and How It Could Have Saved Itself

When Weeds debuted on Showtime in 2005, it was another well-received entry in the trendy subset of TV antiheroes, one in which a historically good type of character does a bad thing: In this case, it was Mary-Louise Parker’s suburban housewife selling marijuana to make ends meet after her husband dies. Weeds quickly attracted a fan base that enjoyed the show’s cheeky tone and flip take on suburban mores, but in season three, things started to go wrong. The show went from being a quirky family satire to becoming a loopy, out of control crime saga, with increasingly ludicrous plot twists. Murder! Arson! White slavery! We’re two episodes into season seven, and out of habit we find ourselves hoping it turns itself around and gets back to its roots … but with our hopes annually dashed, we find it harder than ever to muster optimism. Here is our summary of the season-by-season trajectory of the show, tracking what went wrong and how it could have saved itself … but usually didn’t.

This is the prototype season, against which all others will be judged. Here, the show established its identity: a gentle satire, poking fun at the ridiculousness of suburban life while embracing the values on which it was based. We meet Parker’s Nancy Botwin, the hot but grieving widow who loves her sons so fiercely she will even sell pot if that’s what she has to do to makes ends meet. Heylia, Nancy’s wise dealer, makes sure we know that Nancy doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing, which makes her ill-advised but good-hearted attempts to deal drugs and provide for her kids — who, meanwhile, are having their own struggles — both hilarious and heart-tugging. Remember when the worst thing that could happen was Nancy getting the shakedown from the Valley State campus security guard? Or when she was actually and understandably frightened to find herself on the receiving end of a drive-by? When the show was recognizably and empathetically about real life? This is the Weeds we once loved. The fix? None needed.
At the end of season one, Nancy consummated her simmering attraction to DEA agent Peter. This season, she decides that the way for her to have her Fed and eat him too is to fly to Las Vegas and marry him — without telling anyone — after only a couple of months of dating. Predictably, things get complicated when Nancy’s “associates” find out that she’s married to the enemy, and even more complicated when Nancy decides she isn’t so hot for agent anymore and tries to leave him. This winds up getting Nancy on the hook with two major drug gangs and begins the series’ transformation from a dark-around-the-edges suburban comedy to a funny-uncomfortable dramedy about real live drug dealers and their hot-but-incompetent gofer. The season is still sterling, but Nancy’s rushed wedding was a surprisingly selfish move for a woman who has heretofore pretty much done it all for the kids. This jarring note is an omen of future unwise plot twists to come. The fix? Instead of marrying Peter to shut him up, she could have planted weed on his karate-kicking son and tipped off the cops. Peter would then have been forced to resign from the DEA, or at least have been embarrassed enough to move out of Agrestic, leaving Nancy to sell her pot without the real and imminent threat of dying in a gang war. While major gunfire is one way to keep the drama fresh, it’s too loud and bombastic for this series.
Nancy was never the smartest drug dealer in town, but since her customer base was largely bored fathers and college students, that didn’t really matter. But in season three, she’s suddenly sassing scary drug dealers, seducing corrupt city planners, and forgetting all the drug-dealing lessons she ever learned. Things start to go really wrong with the introduction of biker dude Chess, who sells Nancy some skank weed, and she demands a refund. Suddenly: The two are enemies; Chess sends his goons after Nancy’s older son, Silas; Nancy seeks protection from the leader of a fearsome Mexican gang, which sets Chess’s grow fields on fire; all of Agrestic goes up in flames; and in the season finale, the Botwins make a dash to the border. And in fleeing their cookie-cutter town, the catchy theme song “Little Boxes” is rendered moot and is cut for season four; gone is one of the show’s last dependable joys. The fix? We learned back in season one what to do with ditch weed: bake it! Rather than antagonize Chess, Nancy could have made him a trusted partner and supplier of the new edibles branch of Botwin Enterprises, and thus would never have had to get Guillermo involved. Nancy has made risky alliances before; one with Chess would have kept things calmer, while the one she did make with Guillermo’s gang was wholly unnecessary and wound up taking the series to such a sad, non-satirical place.
So, now we’re in Ren-Mar, just across the border from Tijuana, run by the seductive and deadly mayor Esteban Reyes. Naturally, Nancy falls in love with him, because that’s the kind of thing that would happen the way things are going on this show. Back in season three, Nancy had explained that although she sells pot, she doesn’t smoke it: control issues. So why on earth now would she let Esteban, powerful politician and ferocious lover though he is, convince her to try ayahuasca, a hallucinogen so powerful it makes peyote look like aspirin? The intense trip leaves Nancy exhausted, but with a newfound moral clarity that is the very antithesis of the entire point of this series, built as it is on a premise of moral equivocation – it’s okay to do wrong things as long as you’re doing them for right reasons. Okay, she’s the front for a Mexican heroin, guns, and white slavery ring, and now she wants to talk ethics?! Weeds, we don’t even recognize you anymore. The fix? At this point, we are literally miles from what made this show great, but we might have avoided total meltdown if Nancy had kept on being her usual hypocritical self, refused the drugs, and opted for tea instead. Then she and Esteban could have gone back to having hot, predatory, not-too-introspective sex, while Nancy schemed a morally questionable but entertaining way to get out from under the drug lord’s thumb and back to the States for some lower-stakes dealings. That way lies plot sanity and consistency.
Back in Agrestic, guests like Mary-Kate Olsen and Matthew Modine could have fanciful half-season character arcs, and we loved it. Lapped it up like a dog licking antifreeze off the garage floor. Now that we’re holed up at the border, with Nancy knocked up with Esteban’s kid and the family once again in danger, Alanis Morissette’s popping up as Nancy’s OB-GYN is a cruel reminder of the silliness this series used to get into but that is now totally out of context for the show’s new, earnest identity. Andy falls in love with the doc and is in the process of proposing when the family has to go on the lam again after Shane beans Esteban’s ex-wife with a croquet mallet and kills her dead. Seems like vintage Weeds, but it’s too quick of a directional shift; we were just getting acclimated to intense, drug-war Weeds and now this switchback feels like a cruel joke. The fix? Slowly wean us back to the lighter tone of old. Whimsical plot twists and deadly cartels don’t make for an easy mix: There’s a reason Breaking Bad isn’t a comedy. We understand the reasoning behind the move – fans were clamoring for it. And it is encouraging, but it should have been a more organic move. Let things calm down in Mexico before introducing Alanis and ditch the pregnancy, as fetuses only add a weird, heavy overtone to everything.
Save for a few selfish Nancy moments (e.g., she orders the family to go make some hash while she has extremely violent sex with Mark Paul Gosselaar) that we could have done without (okay, we’ll keep Mark Paul Gosselaar), season six wasn’t half bad. We got away from the border and back into satiric territory, i.e., Seattle. Sure, the Botwins are trying to avoid getting charged for murder, but at least they’re not in imminent danger of being gunned down by an illegally purchased firearm. So why, why oh why, did they bring back Esteban? And even worse, Guillermo, who set Chess’s grow fields on fire and can be blamed for instigating the last three seasons’ worth of incongruous craziness? Just when we thought the series was getting on its feet, Nancy goes to prison, taking the blame for the murder of Esteban’s ex, and shit gets very, very real again. The fix? There are ways of resolving a murder that don’t actually involve resolving a murder. Like, don’t resolve the murder! Life on the lam seemed to be agreeing with the Botwins, so why not make the series about that? A sort of Catch Me If You Can–meets–The Riches kind of thing. With pot. We think it has potential. Photo: ?Showtime 2010
The first two episodes have not left us terribly optimistic. Nancy’s out of jail and in a Washington Heights halfway house (it’s not Agrestic, but we’re partial to New York, and it’s a hell of a lot better than a narco border town). Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, young Shane is having his man parts insulted by his puppeteer ex-girlfriend, Silas is modeling for some kind of Euro beverage, and Andy and Doug are giving tours and running for public office. (Andy in a political story arc? See season five: Don’t remind us how great this show used to be!) When the family finds out Nancy’s free-ish, they pack off for New York, only to arrive and find Nancy toking up with Pablo Schreiber (see season four: don’t do drugs!), and trying to find a way to score more to sell (see season six: don’t look back!). So, just two episodes in, and already the show has committed half of our cardinal sins — 60 percent if you disqualify “don’t marry Peter,” since she can’t exactly do that again. The fix? For this season to turn itself around, we need something newer than a new locale, which can easily become the ground for old mistakes. It’d be great to see Nancy learn from all the stupid shit she’s pulled in the last six seasons and get some real growth. There are only so many times we can see that same old slack-jawed-but-pouty I’ve-been-caught face before we’re going to change the channel for good.
How Weeds Has Gone Wrong, and How It Could Have Saved Itself