06/24/2012 06:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Defense of Weeds


Weeds is a show that seldom gets the credit it deserves. When it premiered in 2005, Weeds's immediate critical and commercial success helped establish the viability of a new kind of half-hour dramedy, one that has since become a staple of premium cable.

Creator Jenji Kohan managed to construct a template that allowed for a comedic exploration of serious subject matter, underpinned by a dedicated character study of Weeds's anti-heroine Nancy Botwin. While this template has been applied to other shows to various degrees of critical and commercial success to shows like Californication, United States of Tara, Nurse Jackie and House of Lies it certainly marks a refreshing change from the traditional expectations of what a comedy and a drama should be.

Weeds was a comedy that didn't rely on a joke every twenty seconds. And it was a drama that didn't have to be earnest with constant stakes -- not that it lacked them. It is because of this that Weeds probably lost a few fans along the way. Most who prefer the earlier seasons cite the show's move away from the satire of suburban living as a reason why. When the show exhausted the suburbs and moved beyond them, exploring other areas of the drug business and began peeling back the layers of Nancy Botwin's character, many became disgruntled that the show had changed. As quick as TV viewers are to turn their back on a show for staying the same, they're even quicker to jump ship when it changes.

It was more than just the change to the show's premise that upset people though. t was the perceived changes in Nancy Botwin herself. People claimed she got more and more selfish as the show went on and was no longer the sympathetic suburban widow, selling weed to support her family, that she was in the first season. First, I've never been one who has to like, sympathize or empathize with a character to find them compelling -- it's nice to like them, don't get me wrong, but it's not a must (and in this instance, I do like Nancy Botwin). Let's look at Nancy Botwin in perspective. Her husband dies and she starts selling weed to make money. She was never, ever your 'everywoman' protagonist. The vast majority of widowers don't turn to illegal activities to make ends meet. Selling drugs isn't a normal reaction to losing a husband. And from that I extrapolate that Nancy Botwin was never a normal person.

I think the show should be praised for digging beneath the surface of its lead character to explain her behavior. And I think the slow reveal that Nancy was always a self-centered danger junkie during season five was a stroke of genius. This subverted our opinions of the more restrained Nancy we met in season one, who by all accounts had been subdued by fifteen years of living an happy life as a suburban housewife. It didn't take long after her husband's death for Nancy to free herself from the constraints of normalcy and return to her old ways. This was a gradual process that begun with her becoming a drug dealer and took full effect when she deeply involved herself, personally and professionally, with a Mexican crime syndicate in season four.

Weeds has always been a tragedy. And not because it's about a woman who tried to support her family after the untimely, sudden death of her husband. No, its tragedy lies in the fact that Nancy Botwin is still struggling to keep her family together in spite of her true nature. The main conflict in Weeds isn't generated by law enforcement, rival dealers, Mexican crime syndicates or mysterious snipers; instead the main conflict is far more universal and it's Nancy's desire to be the good mother/person she knows she can be versus a compulsion to be the self-centered, danger junkie she actually is. It's a shift between external conflicts, which are easier for viewers to monitor, and internal conflicts, which are less easy to follow -- unless clearly signposted by the writers -- and less easy to sympathize with as viewers develop a "get over it" mentality towards the characters (see: House and Buffy season six and seven). Breaking Bad gets away with focusing on Walter White's internal struggle because it was built into the show from the pilot, whereas with Weeds it didn't take the forefront until much later and so many of its existing viewers were unable to adapt to the paradigm shift. (And make no mistake about it, Vince Gilligan pre-empted Internet backlash by divulging/spoiling the Mr Chips to Scarface arc for Walter White early on. If he hadn't, people would've bitched about that show in droves from the season two finale onwards.)

Returning to Weeds, the focus on Nancy's internal conflict was most clear in season five when her indecisiveness, passivity and poor decision-making took the forefront. As frustrating as this may be for viewers to watch, it's a valid character arc for writers to explore as long as the writers are aware of it and the Weeds writers always have been. Granted, some shows aren't as self-aware of this internal struggle as Weeds and subsequently fail to address it, stretching an audience's patience for that kind of storytelling (see: Veronica Mars season two and three, Californication, Dexter, Nip/Tuck).

With this in mind, Weeds embarks on its final season this coming Sunday. Nancy Botwin and her family are returning to the suburbs and I'm looking forward to seeing how the Botwins, and Nancy in particular, re-adjust to suburban living after everything that's happened after they left Agrestic. If you became disenchanted with Weeds at any point during the last few years but are going to tune in for the final season, I'd like to ask you to try watching it from a different perspective. Weeds never stopped being a good show; it just became a different kind of good show.