With Showtime's breakthrough show peaking at an all-time high (ratings have almost tripled), Weeds showrunner Jenji Kohan took a tip from Talking Heads. At the end of last season, she had Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker), the pot-dealing widow, burn down her suburban house to thwart DEA sleuths.
Gone is the great but grating "Little Boxes" theme song, the suburban setting of Agrestic, and, dismaying fans, the most vivid supporting players, Nancy's supplier Heylia (Tonye Patano) and dealer/squeeze Conrad (Romany Malco). Now Nancy's clan is on the lam, hiding out at her late husband's mother's house by the beach. Grandma's dying at home, tended by her sleazebag son (Albert Brooks), Nancy's father-in-law. Nancy graduates to the big leagues of drug dealing, driving a car to Mexico and back for her new thug mentor, Guillermo (Guillermo Diaz).
It's the most screeching narrative hairpin turn since Tony's hallucinated alternate life in the last Sopranos season, only infinitely more promising. According to The Guardian, the cause was irascible Parker's demand that Kohan shift the tone from light comedy to darker drama. It makes sense: Parker spurned the Teri Hatcher part in Desperate Housewives, so why wouldn't she want to flee suburban satire on Weeds? In the face of Parker's ruthless basilisk gaze, the balsa-wood caricatures on Wisteria Lane would've burst into flames. Parker's so tough, she could hold her own with uber-basilisk Stockard Channing on The West Wing.
Fans, don't fear. There's plenty of yocks left on Weeds. Losing Conrad is sad, but it's a fair trade to get Albert Brooks. A comedy genius with a flatlining career (his Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World found none), Brooks scores as the pa-in-law who loathes Nancy for not being Jewish, and his Oedipal strife with his son Andy (Justin Kirk) strikes comic pay dirt. Nancy's squabblesome best friend Celia (Elizabeth Perkins) was getting tired as a desperate housewife type, but as "Gangster Barbie" (Conrad's term), she rocks. It's funny that she's facing a rap for Nancy's drug house; the fact that another inmate threatens to make Celia her "special girl" gives the laugh an edge.
The edge is where Albert Brooks has always lived, and his Len character changes the whole flavor of the show -- he's like the Arrested Development paterfamilias with fangs. He calls his grandsons nasty Aryan names to taunt them for not being Jewish enough: Silas is "Klaus" and Shane is "Alan Ladd" (the star of the goyische film Shane).
Two amazingly risky jokes show the scary territory where Weeds is heading. When Nancy arrives at Len and grandma's beach place, still reeking of the gasoline she torched her old house with, Len snaps, "You're sitting in mother's living room eating German food and smelling like gas. She was in Auschwitz! What kind of a monster are you?" Later, Guillermo tells Nancy she'll have to do a dry run before she smuggles big drugs across the Mexican border -- after all, he points out, when the killers boarded those planes on 9/11, it wasn't the first time they'd tried it.
Gags like this are light-years away from Desperate Housewives, and from last season's Agrestic. They exemplify Quentin Tarantino's maxim: "Funny and scary-two great tastes that taste great together!"
I don't mean to overstress the dark side of the new Weeds. It's still mostly feels like a romp. Doug (Kevin Nealon) is a pothead clown on a par with Brad Pitt in True Romance, and he's getting gigglier. When a DEA agent expresses his love of right-wing legislation in a new episode, it sounds more like an Adam Sandler gag than pious West Wing-ish leftist agitprop: "If the Patriot Act had tits, I'd buy it a steak!" the agent says. It's telling that both Sandler's new movie You Don't Mess With the Zohan and Parker's Nancy use the exact same joke, mixing up "You don't s--t where you live, or live where you s--t." Weeds isn't really getting serious or political, it's just pushing every boundary it can find while still racking up the laughs and re-tripling the ratings.
As Americans lose their own homes to the banking crisis, and their jobs, health care coverage, and 401k's vaporize, will they empathize all the more with a mom forced to turn Barbie Gangster in hard times? Or will they change the channel to something lighter and more uplifting? At my house, we'll be watching Weeds right up until they cut off the electricity.