Marylouiseparker_weeds4_240The producers of Weeds were almost certainly correct that after three seasons on Showtime, the show’s original premise had run its course.

Widow Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) spent three years selling pot to maintain her family’s status in the cookie-cutter suburb of Agrestic, but the comedy’s central irony was tapped out. So in last year’s finale, series creator Jenji Kohan literally burnt her fictional creation to the ground, in the hopes that it would rise phoenix-like from the ashes and creatively rebound or expand.

So good-bye, "Little Boxes" and farewell Agrestic.

And hello, Ren Mar, the newly minted California beach town making its first appearance in Monday’s (June 16) Weeds season premiere.

Through the two episodes initially sent to critics (a third is sitting next to my computer, but I haven’t had the chance to watch it), my initial read is that although the Weeds team knew that it was time to revise and reboot the show’s formula, the exact mechanics of that transition and the new satirical targets weren’t anywhere near as clear.

Monday’s episode mostly just achieved its basic two-pronged basic purpose: Nancy, Shane and Andy have left the smoldering remains of Agrestic behind, taking up residence with Nancy’s father-in-law, a grudge-holding gambling addict played by Albert Brooks. Meanwhile, back in Agrestic, the remaining lynchpins in the Botwin Drug Empire  have been left to tie up Nancy’s loose ends in the most fruitful ways possible (Celia Hodes in prison? Comic gold, though not til next week, really).

But if the first season tackled general suburban hypocrisy and the second season was all about the hypocrisy of US drug enforcement policy and the third season expanded its focus to the hypocrisies of religious fundamentalism, where is the fourth season going?

The obvious answer is that Weeds is ready to turn its attentions to our border policies and immigration hypocrisy, with a little help from the return of Tres Seis leader Guillermo, who offered Nancy a gig at the end of last season and now conveniently seems willing to relocate from Agrestic to Ren Mar himself. But I’m sort of with Nancy at the episode’s end, expressing a bit of confusion as to what Guillermo wants her to be doing and why she’s uniquely qualified. Nancy’s great stealth virtue has always been that because she looks like Mary-Louise Parker, she can get away with things that more easily profiled people — i.e. racial minorities, mostly — can’t. We’ve covered that before, though. If that’s all that she has to offer Guillermo, too, I’m going to be disappointed.

Things that worked in the premiere:

  • Mary-Louise Parker. Sure, the cast is a true ensemble and guest stars often get to do good work, but MLP is Weeds. Favorite moments from the episode include Nancy’s very plausible paranoia that birds are out to get her, her cathartic confession to burning down the house, the by-memory recitation of character details about the little Ren Mar skater kid (details she’s proven in the past she might not be able to give about her own children) and her expression of muted glee at Guillermo’s suggestion she might make enough money to retire in five years. And, as been shown in the past, the clash between Nancy and her Jewish in-laws is always priceless, because any time you get Parker droppin’ Yiddish in her more-flat-than-flat cadences, it’s magic.
  • Albertbrooks_weeds4_240Albert Brooks. Albert Brooks is a fine writer-director-comic. We all know this, but Brooks is a much better actor than the parts he’s written himself in his most recent films, so it’s fantastic to see him working with a meaty role like Lenny, a man with conflicting streaks of bitter cruelty and thus-far-unexplained altruism. The best thing about the character may, actually, be the serious side he’s bringing out in Justin Kirk’s Andy. Kirk has always deserved more recognition for his comic chops, but the Angels in America star can go as dramatic as this estranged father-son arc wants to push him. Plus, we can all chuckle at how this role is reuniting Brooks with his fishy Finding Nemo son Alexander Gould.

    Things that didn’t work so well:

  • The out-of-synch supporting cast. Through three seasons, the writers often had difficulties tying Nancy together with the satellite characters and that’s particularly complicated this season. Doug (Kevin Nealon), Dean (Andy Milner) and Isabelle (Allie Grant) have been conspiring to crush Elizabeth Perkins’ Celia for the run of the series and in the second episode she pretty much hits rock bottom. And there are funny moments to be had, but I used to like the Celia-Nancy and the Doug-Nancy scenes and there isn’t any way those are going to happen this year without contrivances. And how are we going to work Maulik Pancholy’s Sanjay into the action? He’s too good to just vanish.
  • The departed supporting cast. My concern that this season is going to be about immigration policy is that Weeds have always never really been as smart about racial issues as the writers have sometimes thought. The marginalization and eventual elimination of Heylia and Vaneeta last season and the wasting of Romany Malco’s Conrad left myriad plotlines unresolved and basically ditched any number of difficult questions. I feel like those characters had more to do in the show’s universe and deserved a payoff.

    Anyway, enough of me. What’d you think of the Weeds premiere? And how are you feeling about the revamped format?

  • Posted by:Daniel Fienberg