Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On DVD: "Weeds: Season 7"

When we last saw Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), the decreasingly lucky soccer mom pot dealer of Showtime’s long-running comedy/drama Weeds, her attempt to escape to Copenhagen with her new baby, her extended family, and her life had failed by that much. Reverting to “plan C,” she gave herself up to the authorities—and, presumably, gave up her father’s child, Mexican kingpin Esteban, in the process. The idea of master improviser and unlikely survivor Nancy spending a little bit of time in the slammer was a delicious one, so it is a bit of a disappointment that the seventh season of Weeds opens with the text “THREE YEARS LATER,” and Miss Botwin’s parole hearing. It’s a fairly bold move, narratively speaking; you don’t see shows taking those kinds of leaps in chronology all that often. But it’s a bit of a copout as well—don’t promise us Nancy behind bars (in not only that last episode but the season’s promo materials) and then leapfrog her stint. This is the first of several issues with season seven, a year that finds Nancy & Co. still engaging, but their vehicle showing real (and worrisome) signs of old age.

Brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk), eternal hanger-on Doug (Kevin Nealon), and sons Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Shane (Alexander Gould) did make it to Copenhagen, where they’re discovered leading lives that are idyllic, but certainly not too hard to away from when they get word that Nancy has been sent to a halfway house in uptown Manhattan. Her baby, meanwhile, has been raised by sister Jill (Jennifer Jason Leigh); getting said baby back from Jill, who plans to take over custody, provides the primary motor for Nancy’s actions in season seven.

At least, we presume so. From the moment of her release, Nancy is in immediate and rather irritating trouble, leaping headfirst into selling a suitcase full of guns in order to get her hands on weed to move. There’s no real suggestion of rehabilitation; questioned on her motives, she merely invokes Beckett (“Tray again, fail better”). That’s all good and well, but there are real questions of what’s driving our protagonist here—Nancy’s back in the shit before she even knows that she needs money to get the baby back, suggesting that she’s more interested in the kick of being bad than anything else. When the series started (as with its grimmer counterpart, Breaking Bad), tremendous energy was expended in making motivations clear, in showing that Nancy was left with little choice other than the generation of ill-gotten gains. That kind of attentiveness to purpose is sorely lacking here.

This is not to imply that Nancy’s M.O. can’t shift—one of the show’s primary points of interest is its insistence on complicating our sympathy for her. About halfway through the run, it became all but impossible to ignore that, good intentions or no, obvious crimes aside, Nancy was (charitably speaking) perhaps not the greatest mother. The transformation from loving mom to savvy and somewhat ruthless criminal is bound to have some collateral damage: in this case, warmth and psychological health. Parker is a terrific actress—her cock-eyed line readings never whiff, and no one is more entertaining with a straw—and this gives her a good arc to play. “I don’t need your help,” she notes stubbornly in season seven, “or your judgment. I’m fine with who I am, and what I’ve done.” There’s a lot to the character there, and there’s no reason that she must be literally sympathetic to retain our sympathy. But we’ve got to know what’s going on in that noggin of hers, and too much of these later episodes, we’re left in the dark.

The supporting ensemble remains airtight. Kirk doesn’t get enough credit for the show’s continuing success; he’s got a wry comic sensibility and never fails to deliver, in scene after scene. (His best line, when waking up in a visual artist’s scary bedroom: “Why is your apartment weird and full of danger?”) He makes even his throwaway lines sing, but he also gets a great scene in the tenth episode where he’s finally had enough, and lashes out with real bite. Nealon—an actor I never liked before Weeds, and have been unable to dislike since—is given the comic gift of turning Doug into an evil Wall Street one-percenter, and he relishes the opportunity. Parrish and Gould continue to flesh out their surprisingly durable characters, and Leigh proves a good foil. Aidan Quinn, making a brief appearance as a crooked CEO, is a good, snug fit into this cast.

But the series is getting a little wheezy. Look, I’m not one of those Weeds fans who insists that the show sunk when the Botwins fled Agrestic; the three years they spent there were about right, and as much as I miss Conrad or Celia, there wasn’t much of anywhere else for their characters to go. (That said, there are a couple of surprise returns in seasons seven that are most welcome—yet wisely kept brief.) The fact that the series has continued to evolve, to try out new locales and narratives in the changing seasons, is admirable and risky, as is the decision to have Nancy’s less-than-credible constant luck start to run dry. At the end of the season’s eighth episode, we get a clear picture of exactly how bad she’s gotten at keeping all of her plates spinning, though that wrinkle does end up coming out a bit too smoothly in the end. By this point, the stakes aren’t that high anyway. What’s the worst that could happen—she’ll get sent to prison? They can just skip over it.

In its seventh season, Weeds has turned into a bit of a pay cable soap opera: the turns are compelling, and we’re never bored, but it’s more about melodramatic entertainment than anything resembling a real emotional attachment. (And it takes the final step into DallasLand with its asinine cliffhanger ending.) There are still big laughs to be found, and strong performances to be enjoyed. But Weeds is a show that is getting further and further past its prime.

"Weeds: Season 7" is out today on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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