High Definition: Out of the Weeds

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It’s hard to recommend Weeds, though I’ll likely subscribe to Showtime before it returns Aug. 16, just so I can once again watch. My wife and I ran through the first five seasons on Netflix and DVD like a pair of addicts; it was difficult not to say “just one more” at the end of every 25-minute episode, no matter how late the hour. And the withdrawal has been hell. Even when we stopped liking most of the characters, we couldn’t stop watching a half-decade-long story arc that was more like a downward spiral as every bad decision from Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) compounded, leaving a wake of destruction behind her (including the smoldering ruins of those original little boxes on the hillside). She’s a drug-dealing suburban widow, an increasingly absent mother to her two sons as she’s attracted to danger like a moth to 1,000-volt bug zapper.

And yet, other than being incredibly entertaining, how is this show in any way edifying? Despite less sex and violence than shows like Dexter and True Blood, it generally leaves me feeling a little dirtier than either. Characters that started off charming but cursed in the first few seasons like Nancy and her accountant Doug Wilson (Kevin Nealon) now just seem horrendous. Characters who started out horrendous like Celia Hodes (Elizabeth Perkins) have become absolutely despicable. Fortunately, Andy Botwin (Justin Kirk), one of the greatest characters in recent memory (#17 of the last 20 years, according to this website), has only gotten better with age. Andy is Nancy’s irascible brother-in-law, but has tellingly become the moral center of the show.

Still, I keep watching. We’re living in the Age of the Anti-Hero—shows about people worse than us. It began with the characters of Seinfeld, whose blatant self-centeredness was refreshingly honest. Then came Curb Your Enthusiasm and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the latter of which was populated by the worst humans we would somehow still care about. Our hearts went out to drug-dealers like D’Angelo Barksdale and Stringer Bell on The Wire and corrupt cops on The Shield. The last two years, the Emmy winner for Best Actor in a dramatic role was Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, who plays a teacher who cooks Meth.

Each of these characters, more than June Cleaver, tells us a little bit about ourselves. We’re watching the worst of our instincts and impulses and cheering for better decisions to win the day. In pulling for Nancy Botwin to rise up out of the mire she’s created, we mentally exercise compassion and mercy. In watching her sink into the abyss, we’re reaffirmed in every choice not to. There’s something glamorous about anti-heroes on the surface, but if a show rings true, their darkness is eventually revealed as their weakness.

Weeds does this in spades. Unfortunately, the show also seems to live with its constantly lowered ethical expectations by looking down on the hypocrisy of every character trying to hold to a religious or ethical code. Christians, Jews and Muslims have all appeared in various seasons and their roles have invariably been to show that the devout are just as screwed up as everyone else—but worse because they’re selfish and self-righteous. While the genius of The Simpsons was to poke fun at every group of people, Weeds’ brand of satire seems to say, “We’re all assholes, especially anyone who doesn’t think they’re an asshole.”

And while I see some truth in that sentiment, Weeds bugs me most when Nancy and Doug get to look down on those who’ve tried—and failed—to hold onto any sort of moral bearing. When the audience is invited to say “at least we’re not that bad,” the whole idea of the anti-hero collapses on itself. Honesty about moral bankruptcy is refreshing, but when you hold up that honest self-assessment as some sort of banner of decency, it rings hollow.

Fortunately, that’s a minor squabble with a show that delivers almost everything else you could hope for: hilarity, tension, great writing and acting. Hopefully Season 6 will also give us a little more lightness to balance a show that’s gotten darker with every one of Nancy’s colossal mistakes. You know what goes well with a cliff dive from grace? Some sliver of redemption.