Main Plot: 3
Spoilers: Yeah, some
Part One: Like Breaking Bad But With More Teen Angst and Poop Jokes
Here’s an idea for a television series: a suburban parent falls into hard times with no real means of supporting themself other than manufacturing and selling drugs. They try to keep their secret life as a drug dealer hidden from their family but soon friends and relatives become complicite as what was once a small organization spirals out of control and leads the protagonist to do more and more desperate things, eventually becoming a kingpin.
Despite the obvious similarities in premise between Breaking Bad and Weeds, the two shows really have little to do with one another. Weeds is a more light-hearted take on the idea of a suburban drug dealer and takes much more advantage of the suburban aspect of its setting to produce comedy. I found myself somewhat perturbed by the show when I first watched it, confused by the directions it went and its apparent failure to be a Breaking Bad impersonator (not that it could have been that even if it wanted to, considering Weeds aired first). Weeds is more casual and ridiculous, adopting a comedic tone reminiscent of Orange Is the New Black, Parks and Recreation, and at times even Arrested Development.
The show follows former housewife Nancy Botwin as she goes about trying to support her two sons and brother-in-law in a Los Angeles suburb after her husband dies of a heart attack. The family members all have their own subplots that change over the course of the episodes, ranging from delusional conversations with dead relatives to butter-eating contests. Outside of the main family, other recurring characters contribute more subplots, including a friend/rival suburban mom and her family, Nancy’s incompetent accountant, the weed dealers and their no-nonsense matriarch, and a slew of blackmailing boyfriends. The side characters are what make the show enjoyable, and most of the humor comes from their more ridiculous exploits while Nancy’s story is the serious core that keeps some semblance of a plot plodding ahead.
However, the consistency of the characters’ delivery, either regarding their persona or their comedy, leaves something to be desired. Only about two of the characters are continually funny; for every episode in which one character acts as a unique entity with their own goals and motives, there are two or three episodes in which that character could be replaced with almost any of the other characters in the show. Several of them could be replaced with pieces of furniture in certain episodes, and by the middle of the series, many don’t even bother to show up outside of cameos.
Summarizing Nancy, you wouldn’t think I have much of a problem with her; she’s a mother who starts the series with few means and climbs her way up the drug empire ladder, largely because, like Walter White, she seeks respect and finds it fun. She learns from her mistakes and has varied skills, and her personality is assertive, but not in that arrogant “I’m better than everyone because the writer made ME the main character” sort of way. She’s not exactly humble, but she’s cynical enough that her victories feel earned, and unlike some of the other characters who the audience feels vindictive schattenfreide for when they fail, Nancy’s failures are discomforting because you sympathize with her. She’s all that, on top of being a single middle-aged mother. What’s not to like?
Well, the sex stuff is a bit of a dealbreaker. I’m not complaining about shows focusing too much on sex as the ultimate means of happiness – no, actually, scratch that, yes I am. Sex is not the end-all, be-all of relationships, and I think it’s exceptionally silly when it happens to be the major driving force in a series about drugs. I don’t even really take issue with Nancy being defined largely through her sexuality — the cliché of women using sex to get a leg-up in their work can be unsettling, especially in the wake of the MeToo movement revelations, but I feel the cliché is offset in this show by Nancy’s relationships almost always being on her terms. It’s refreshing to see a story in which a middle-aged woman is in control of her sex life. My main issue with this recurring subplot is just that it’s uninteresting, especially when there are more interesting things happening elsewhere in the story. Do you remember the affair subplot in Breaking Bad? Do you remember how pointless and irritating it was? Imagine that, but recurring each season with a different person. Can you see how Walt trying to bang Tuco or Lydia or Gus might detract from the focus of the series?
Beyond the boyfriend subplots, or perhaps because of them, I end up not really liking Nancy all that much. I simply can’t engage with the qualm of “what will I do about this guy that I like but can’t be with” the third time it happens. I can accept that she’s still a complex character and her moments of desperation over her and her family’s safety are intense enough to get me to care about them, but those moments are rare enough that I often forget that she’s more than just a romantic interest to some minor antagonists. If you step back far enough, you can see her character arc and progression from housewife to drug lord, but in the moment-to-moment of the episodes, she usually comes across as shallow and simply motivated. This problem isn’t unique to Nancy, either; most of the characters experience this same diluting effect for their own reasons.
Part Two: The Sitcom Phenomenon
Part of the problems with the characters derive from problems with the plot. Comedy series are maddeningly difficult to write, and comedies with serious elements are even more challenging as the two tones of the story frequently clash with one another. To compensate, a lot of comedic shows make use of life tropes that are relatable and either funny, tragic, horrifying, or cheesy depending on the circumstances – things like sex, death, arguments, stealing, lying, and so forth.
Death and near-death accidents, for instance, are frequent fodder because they’re played up as so sentimental and serious in other pieces that treating them lightly creates a dissonance with the audience that, under the right circumstances, incites humor. Weeds tries to dance the line between dramatic and comedic by relegating certain tones to certain characters. When side character Andy finds someone to have sexy funtime with, it’s hilarious because the person is invariably going to be off their fucking rocker in a way he is not at all prepared for. When Nancy finds someone to have sexy funtime with, though, it’s usually some drug-related authority she works for, who will inevitably prove to be off their fucking rocker, threaten her family, and get killed.
There’s a point where a character dies off-camera and I seriously wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a joke or not. It’s sudden and no one presents evidence that the character dies until much later, but that comes in the form of a gruesome rotting skeleton. Is that supposed to be a joke too? I get gallows humor and subverting the audience expectation that something else happened because off-screen deaths usually mean those characters aren’t really dead, but if it is a joke, it doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of the scenes or subplot its set within, and if it isn’t, why the odd format?
The series is designed to be taken episode by episode with few overarching plot threads, as most long shows prior to the rise of online streaming were. I tend to think of its plot more like a chain than a single arc, with each season winding continuity but plot threads breaking or being dropped with little connection to previous threads. Often this occurs as breaks between seasons, but it’s mainly controlled by location and character cast. When a character leaves or appears, or the main characters move to another location, the show jumps track and heads off in another direction, usually dropping any subplots it hasn’t yet resolved. This allows the series to remain somewhat fresh with the potential for new subplots, but with previous narrative components left unresolved, the new plot threads rarely satisfy.
At one point, Nancy’s father-in-law shows up. He sticks around for about five episodes before he discovers she’s a drug dealer and blackmails her. Then he leaves. The blackmail subplot is just dropped, as is the character’s gambling tendencies and attempts to throw the protagonist out of his house.
This trend doesn’t happen frequently enough to be distracting most of the time, but that’s often because the abandoned plots are unengaging. You might argue, Well isn’t this a good thing? The show is aware of its lesser plots and cuts them entirely instead of dragging them along for several seasons on the off-chance you’ll eventually care. That may be true, but it’s only a positive point if the narratives replacing them are any better, which is seldom the case.
This isn’t an issue unique to Weeds, but that doesn’t excuse the series; more than half of the subplots slip your mind once you’ve finished the series simply because they had no impact on the characters, no consequences for the plot, and no memorability in their own regard. They are simply padding that make large parts of the show a waste of time.
Part Three: Boxy
Given my apparent dislike of this show, you might be wondering why I would write it a whole review. It’s not a detestable show or anything – some moments are cringeworthy or padded, but I don’t hate it. For me, it’s more of a bland bit of nothing with little to discuss other than some weird quirks that aren’t even that unique to this series. I do think it has something of an appealing aesthetic, and as underwhelming as it can be at times, it’s rarely outright disappointing. The style of humor and the padded nature of the show make it easy to follow without directly watching; it’s kind of the perfect show to listen to while doing chores around the house. The actions of the characters are easy to deduce just by listening, and the dialogue is often one of the show’s best qualities, and the main means of comedy. If you want to do something rote with something on in the background, Weeds might be worth a look.
I wouldn’t recommend Weeds to most people, but I realize it has an audience. I’m down on it in the hope that people like me who won’t find it very good will know to steer clear, but people who remain interested will start the show with tempered expectations and be pleasantly surprised. Go in knowing that it’s no Breaking Bad in terms of drama, and no Arrested Development in terms of comedy and you’ll like it fine. It’s not a show worth shitting on, even if it isn’t something I particularly enjoy.