When it comes to dysfunctional TV families, Showtime's Weeds sets a high bar.
In more ways than one.
Showtime's unconventional dark comedy about widowed soccer mom Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) selling marijuana to make ends meet begins its 15-episode third season Monday (10 ET/PT). But marijuana is merely an entry point for a satirical exposé that strips the facade off suburban cookie-cutter conformity.
"Most families, organic or the ones you create with friends and co-workers, are flawed and messy," says Weeds creator and executive producer Jenji Kohan. "A lot of comedy comes from that."
Many comedies fall short trying to mine family dysfunction for laughs. But Weeds' cast and story lines, which touch upon drug use, race, politics and social mores with subtle wit to slapstick humor, have made the show a critical favorite. In two seasons, Weeds and its cast have received 14 Golden Globe and Emmy nominations.
The premise and pilot script drew name actors such as Parker — an in-demand Emmy, Tony and Golden Globe winner — Elizabeth Perkins, former Saturday Night Live cast member Kevin Nealon and Justin Kirk (Angels in America), who as Botwin's brother-in-law Andy is the most hyperkinetic and energized small-screen character since Entourage's Ari Gold.
Parker relishes her role. "She's damaged, which are the most interesting to play. But she's well intentioned and trying to do the best she can." Parker enjoys how all of the characters interact. "I love their perversity and their relationships. There are so many little stories from different worlds."
Romany Malco's comedic turn in The 40-Year-Old Virgin brought ample offers for narrowly drawn, stereotypical African-American roles. He spurned most offers until Weeds. His character, Conrad Shepard, is Botwin's multilayered horticulturalist, consigliere and potential love interest.
"You got a black man selling drugs. But he's cerebral and subtle, not the reactionary guy you're accustomed to seeing," Malco says.
He also was drawn by Weeds' exploration of family. "The thing that appealed to me is how vulnerable everyone is. The protective veneer is stripped away."
Kohan, a veteran producer and writer who wanted to do a show about an outlaw, says Weeds' pot-selling-mom premise was a novel but relatable concept. With government estimates that 96 million Americans have tried pot, Weeds "crosses all social, ethnic, political and economic lines."
Kohan insists Weeds "isn't a soapbox" for marijuana. But writers get topical on pot and other topics, often with timely, charged zingers. A stoned character rants about a businessman who "overcharges like Halliburton." Another lambastes the Iraq war. A sixth-grader complains, "Bush is the worst president ever."
Despite the awards and critical praise, Weeds has a tiny but growing audience. While viewership jumped 20% last season, the average weekly audience was just 1.9 million. With Showtime in only 14 million homes, it's unlikely Weeds will become a mainstream hit. (To spur interest, Showtime marketers persuaded the 43-year-old Parker to pose nude for this season's promotional ads, a snake draped seductively over her shoulder. "The snake was real," she says.)
Word-of-mouth praise has planted Weeds on the cultural radar and helped sprout a fan base on other platforms. It's among the top TV shows downloaded on Apple's iTunes. Sales of the just-released Season 2 DVD rank 11th out of 400 TV-to-DVD sets released so far this year, according to tracker Nielsen First Alert. And the show has been sold to 120 foreign markets, a fat number for a decidedly outside-the-box American comedy, says Kevin Beggs, president of TV programming at studio Lionsgate.Be sure to turn to Showtime next Monday night, and stay tuned after Weeds for the Premiere of Californication, starring David Duchovny.