Despite the political focus on sex and violence, one element that most clearly distinguishes pay cable from broadcast TV is casual drug use, with rampant pot smoking (and worse) in “Six Feet Under,” “Entourage” and “The Sopranos.” From that perspective, the ostensible come-on for this interesting but not especially funny Showtime half-hour — a desperate housewife who resorts to selling marijuana — proves less provocative than the familiar theme of secrets and lies in suburbia. Like Showtime’s “Huff,” there’s much to like here — beginning with star Mary-Louise Parker — but the complete package falls just short of must-buy TV.
That’s in part because “Weeds” doesn’t really take root, pardon the expression, until the fourth of five episodes made available, when Parker’s “Angels in America” co-star Justin Kirk arrives as her ne’er-do-well brother-in-law, injecting a welcome dose of vitality and fun into the proceedings. Whether that comes too late for those who view the lively but light-on-laughs premiere remains to be seen.
We meet Nancy Botwin (Parker) some time after life has been upended by her husband’s sudden death, and she comes across as a woman in a benumbed state of shock. Yes, she’s peddling pot to pay the bills, but there’s an emotional detachment as she grapples with issues surrounding her sexually active teenage son (Hunter Parrish) and screwy younger boy (Alexander Gould), the kind of dweeby kid who’s going to get beaten up a lot in school.
To her African-American pot suppliers, meanwhile, Nancy is “the white lady” who drops in periodically, receiving a-little-too-studied homespun wisdom from matriarch Heylia (Tonye Patano) as well as offers of friendship and possibly more from son Conrad (Romany Malco). At the same time, she’s dealing to her local city councilman (Kevin Nealon) and providing a sympathetic ear to head-of-the-PTA Celia (Elizabeth Perkins), whose preoccupation with outward appearances includes tormenting her overweight daughter and belittling her philandering husband.
These various stories are told well enough, but few of the threads are truly distinctive — beginning with the central notion that suburbanites slap “Just Say No” bumper stickers on their SUVs and then privately say “Yes,” which shouldn’t come as a major revelation to anyone.
In short, the plots dreamed up by creator Jenji Kohan are essentially more risque embodiments of the shenanigans occurring on otherwise-idyllic Wisteria Lane — another place where gossip travels fast. As Celia’s states, “There are no secrets in this town.”
Alas, there’s not much originality either. The major attraction thus becomes the immensely appealing Parker, whose character adheres to her own semi-hypocritical moral code (she won’t sell to kids); and later Kirk, a cool-to-have-around uncle who might not be the best influence on Nancy’s boys.
Besides lacking a big concept a la “Fat Actress,” “Weeds” (set to run three times a week after this preview telecast) hews more toward drama along the blurry “dramedy” continuum, which is more of a truth-in-advertising warning for those anticipating guffaws than an indictment.
Showtime’s understandable goal remains penetrating the velvet ropes of HBO’s fashionable club, and in some respects, this series wouldn’t look out of place there. In part, though, that’s because the cost of admission isn’t quite what it used to be.