Why does the fourth season of Showtime's Weeds, now on DVD for $39.98 to get you prepped for the June 8 start of the fifth season, take place on the U.S./Mexico border instead of the fictional Northern California suburb of Agrestic, like the first three seasons? In some of the DVD bonus feature interviews (which are pretty good), creator Jenji Kohan and others claim it's because the writers were feeling restless, and demanded a change.
News flash, folks: Writers in Hollywood can't demand anything (except maybe stale bagels). Stars can, and Mary-Louise Parker, the high-strung, highly talented indie film and theater actress who plays Nancy, the series' pot-hawking mommy, demanded a big, risky change in the show's direction, which is practically unprecedented for a successful show, let alone a cable niche hit just breaking through to mass consciousness. I can't say for sure that she mandated the location change, but she told a British newspaper that the Desperate Housewives-like light tone of the show was getting to her. "For me, it got aggressively comic, while I favored the last few episodes of the second season, when it got darker."
Parker turned down the part Teri Hatcher took in Desperate Housewives, and Weeds got noticeably darker and less DH-like at the close of the third season, when Nancy burns down her entire neighborhood and flees en famille to the beach town of Ren Mar (actually Manhattan Beach, south of LA, and named to echo the actual town of Del Mar and to honor the spot where interiors are shot in LA, Ren Mar studios). Plenty of fans kvetched that this switch constituted the sin of shark jumping.
But there's more to life than satirizing the suburbs, and Weeds actually benefited from the new premise. Instead of reworking the same situations, everything changes. Nancy morphs from understandable victim of circumstance to a rather bad person, watching both her sons get into the pot business and getting in way over her head with some extremely shady Mexican characters (all superbly played). She moves into the home of her father-in-law, the incomparable Albert Brooks in a breakthrough TV role completely unlike his film persona (meaner, arguably funnier). She falls into a hole in the ground as weird as Alice in Wonderland's. Her best frenemy (Elizabeth Perkins), once a spoiled rich lady, gets whomped and bloodied in Tarantinoesque slapstick misadventures. Nancy's ne'er-do-well brother-in-law (Justin Kirk) comes into his own, running illegal immigrants and finding his heart unexpectedly infiltrated by Nancy. Kevin Nealon's superannuated pothead character moves closer to center stage, and lights it up like a Tommy Chong bong. If his delivery were any drier, he'd burst into flame.
You never know which way a scene's going to turn. When Nealon's character gets sad about his life and decides to put his head in a noose, the scene turns out to have an ecstatically happy ending -- autoerotic asphyxiation, then he loosens the noose and breathes a sigh of relief. This could stand as a metaphor for the fourth season: these people won't be tied down by any convention, and they'll do whatever the heck their crazed ids tell them to.
The kids keep growing into their roles, and now that the older son (Harper Parrish) is of age, he gets farcical nude scenes to rival Parker's notorious, actually quite moving large-nippled-boobs-bobbing-in-a-bathtub scene. The whole cast has coalesced beautifully, and even the kids (Parrish and Alex Gould, playing his younger brother) have become skilled ensemble players. The writing is sharper than ever, even the authentic-sounding stoned soliloquies.
src="http://i.realone.com/assets/rn/img/9/2/8/0/15890829-15890831-medium.jpg" alt="Weeds" width="162" height="221" align="left" hspace="6"/>Medically speaking, marijuana may not be addictive. But Weeds sure is. And you should probably watch this set before you tune in for the fifth season, so you'll be up to speed on the post-Agrestic way of life. One warning: The opening-sequence renditions of Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes" by Randy Newman, Joan Baez, the Shins, the Decemberists, Billy Bob Thornton, and every band on earth disappear after the first episode of Season 4, and thank God. They tried to replace it with Jay and the Americans' tune "Only in America," and thank God that proved too expensive. Instead of a song, each episode starts with a short, clever visual sequence featuring one of the forthcoming plot elements (the Mexican border crossing, a mourning candle, a fruit basket, a guy in flip-flops walking on a beach), with the show's title, credits, and a pot leaf worked in. Maybe you're addicted to "Little Boxes," but this is a lot better, and it leaves an extra 56 seconds per episode for story complications.
The featurettes are must viewing for Weeds fiends. "Tour of Bubbie's House" shows off the incredibly elaborate new set, full of echt '70s stuff Nancy's late grandma collected: Avocado washer, harvest gold fridge, big glass grapes on each step of the stairs (items owned by the show's creator Jenji Kohan), many vintage spectacles (likewise). In "Moving Weight," Guillermo Diaz, who plays Nancy's Mexican crime advisor, interviews a real attorney about the real smuggling business and its legal consequences. "Burbs to the Beach" catches you up on the show's migration south, with solid crew and cast interviews including Parker, who insightfully calls Albert Brooks' acting "spare" and "elegant." It's cool that Brooks, who played Alex Gould's father in Finding Nemo, gets to play his grandfather in Weeds (and since Elizabeth Perkins played his mother, this show was a family reunion). The kid interviews in "I'm a Big Kid Now" and "The Real Hunter Parrish," and "The Weed Wranglers," about how they make those realistic-looking marijuana plants and bags, are boring. The voice-overs (by Kohan, Perkins, Nealon, Kirk, and others not including Parker) are a mixed bag. They're full of interesting inside skinny -- who knew Kohan's friend Matthew Weiner was going to play a bit part, or noticed that the guy who played the part wears a uniform that says Mad Men?
But the voice-overs are exceedingly casual and light on info. In the first episode, Kohan keeps apologizing for taking our time, and is so meek she mostly wastes it. The best voice-over is hers on the last episode, "If You Work for a Living, Then Why Do You Kill Yourself Working?" which is a quote from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, to which the episode is an homage. Weeds seasons always end with a movie homage. Actually, there's a micro-homage in this episode to The Shawshank Redemption, because one of the writers is obsessed with it, but mainly, the homage is to spaghetti Westerns, with their many portentous close-ups.
Kohan pauses to let important dialogue be heard to clarify the plot and her points, which other voice-over commentators don't do. They just riff and joke constantly, so you can't hear what's going on. To watch the other commentaries, you have to have watched the whole episode first. I like Kohan's method on the last episode best. But Weeds addicts will have to watch them all.