Killing the Weeds


Although it’s interesting to watch a single, white mother struggle to raise her two sons with income derived solely from dealing marijuana to an entire suburban California community, I think I’ll stop. I finished the entire first season of Showtime’s Weeds in one day (my gratitude to Megavideo for illegally hosting them all conveniently here). Although the show has smart dialogue and engaging characters, there are aspects of it that don’t sit well.

What’s most troubling is the lightness with which serious issues are treated. Nancy Botwin, the main character of Weeds is a recent widow who resorts to selling pot to the white-picket-fence, dysfunctional town of Agrestic in order to maintain her lifestyle. Her clients include a city councilman, lawyers, local adolescents, and students at a local community college. The show brings up, or rather constantly exhibits, topics such as drugs, sex, and family strife. Instead of treating them with the seriousness they demand, Weeds trivializes their severity and brushes them off as hilarious plot developments. The outcomes of Agrestic’s upper-middle class residents’ half-baked (pun totally intended) and oftentimes morally questionable behavior transpire without consequences. Within the first few episodes, adultery is committed, spouses are caught in mid coital bliss induced by tennis rackets, and heads are shaven in vengeance – all without any lasting repercussions.

Celia Hodes is a blonde-haired, ruthless, gangsta Barbie who rules her household with a fist of steel. Upon discovering that her slight-chubby daughter Isabelle is disobeying her dietary restrictions by hiding a stash of chocolates, Celia surreptitiously replaces them with laxatives. I agree with Mr. Hodes, even though he’s hardly one to act as the moral authority, when he asks his wife, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” Isabelle finds out her mother’s tactic and one ups her by slipping Imodium into Celia’s food causing her to suffer massive constipation. The disturbing nature of the mother-daughter relationship is highlighted when Isabelle, who cannot be older than eight years, telling Celia she wishes her mother were still dying from cancer because then she’d be a better person.

The dangers of mindless sex and ethical questions of drug abuse by pillars of society are shrugged aside as an afterthought in Weeds. Nancy’s oldest son Silas has sex at 15, takes ecstasy at 16, and she can do little to stop him. Her brother-in-law, a womanizer with a shady history, impersonates his nephew and lures a 16-year-old handicapped girl into having cybersex. The genuinely touching scenes of the once whole Botwin family before their father Judah’s death are eclipsed by the show’s lack of respect and grievance towards the dead at Judah’s Jewish tombstone unveiling ceremony.

It’s unfortunate Weeds is wantonly sensational. Nancy has sex in broad public daylight with a Mexican drug dealer who’s been threatening her family for several days, and worst of all, it somehow neutralizes the problem. (He buys her a cute satin teddy soon after their car trunk tryst.) I suspect the producers are the ones behind the show’s exploitation of the physical attractiveness of Mary-Louise Parker who plays Nancy. It’s not hard to see why many of the male characters find Nancy alluring, but Weeds focuses on Parker’s beauty to the extent you start to think the lives of their ratings depended on it. I also suspect Parker’s not happy about this. Weeds*‘ fourth season ends with Parker in a revealing bathtub scene. In an interview for MORE magazine, Parker said, “I didn’t think I needed to be naked, and I fought with the director about it, and now I’m bitter…I wish I hadn’t done that. I was goaded into it.”

On the other hand, there are reasons why Weeds has so many viewers and such successful ratings. It’s entertaining, hilarious, and witty. But some things should not be portrayed so lightly. There is a difference between raising awareness about difficult, taboo topics and forcing the audience to confront them with due gravity and simply sensationalizing and then trivializing the consequences. Weeds is guilty of the latter. This offense would be fine if the series were simply a feel-good sitcom, but the show is an odd hybrid of drama and comedy. When Nancy’s eyes water from watching videos of her husband building a beryllium atom model with their younger son Shane, I sympathize with her, but when she toasts with her partners in crime to the expansion of her marijuana racket in Shane’s plain sight (in a Francis-Coppola-Godfather-like manner), it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I feel deceived into liking a morally reprehensible character.

But there’s also a larger question here: what do we do about shows that we feel go against our values and principles? Tom Ashbrook, the host of National Public Radio’s On Point program, recently interviewed Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC Universal Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Networks. Under Zalaznick, NBC has come up with shows like The Real Housewives of New Jersey and Top Chef. I was surprised at the number of callers criticizing Zalaznick’s programming. Here are a few of the most vehement ones:

Don’t waste your time watching the mindless, brain-rotting, sleazy, programming that Lauren Zalaznick offers up on her mickey mousey networks.

Well, I think it’s clear from the interview thus far that she is just a purveyor of dreck who knows nothing more than what sells. Calling this stuff “pop culture” doesn’t redeem it. It’s still dreck. Worse, it’s another brain-numbing opiate for a society that needs less diversion, not more.

This one was picked simply because of the potential for a great show:

As a glib apologist for her foul TV shows, your guest is amazing. I think that the shows she produces are a sort of pornography, where you leer at the low IQs and damaged self esteem of people who should feel ashamed to put themselves on display. What do you do after “Dance Your Ass Off?” “Celebrity Bowel Movements?”

"couldn't resist"

On second thought, it’s not surprising an overwhelming majority of NPR callers objected to Zalaznick’s shows. It’s hard to imagine someone who watches The Real Housewives with gusto and then tunes in to On Point.

Zalaznick argued her shows were honestly describing lifestyles of real Americans. She pointed to the shows’ successes as their justification. Many of the critics fired back with the accusation that the shows, by displaying such lifestyles, were prescriptive. These callers implied the media had a role in society as an arbiter of morality. Zalaznick disagreed. It seems she thinks of the media as a mirror reflecting the desires of society. If the public wants it, they’ll put it on.

Media has tremendous influence. So responsibilities does it have? To what extent should it be bound by moral standards? Can we separate the descriptive from the prescriptive?

I have absolutely no idea how to answer these questions, but they are manifested in debates ranging video game violence to the age-old critique that such dreck is responsible for social decay. For me, I’ll stop watching Weeds, partially because there are simply better shows out there and one has to be selective. I’m going to watch The Wire now.