The seventh season of Weeds debuts tonight on Showtime at 10 p.m. Eastern.
As Showtime’s longest running original fictional series, the first to enter a seventh season, Weeds is an unfortunate position.
The show was the network’s biggest mainstream hit when it premiered, connecting with audiences beyond the niche demographics that the network initially targeted with its original programming. It was edgy and sexy in a way the network desired, and it was complex and well-acted in a way that critics, Emmy voters, and viewers recognized. Through its first two seasons, Weeds was a compelling series about a self-destructive female protagonist, the kind of show that captured America’s attention (or at least as much as a show on a low-rated premium cable channel can catch America’s attention).
If you were to ask viewers about Weeds today, I doubt you would hear many of the same superlatives. Although the show’s ratings have continued to justify renewal for Showtime, the series has fallen off the cultural radar: Those who watch it are quick to mention that it isn’t as strong as it once was, while those who stopped watching are quick to cite numerous flaws in the show’s later seasons as justification for their departure. For viewers, Weeds became a show that overstayed its welcome, running its premise into the ground and losing the "edge" that made it a hit in the first place.
For critics, meanwhile, the show has another fault against it: Not only has it dropped off creatively, which makes the show much easier to write off, but it has also become indicative of Showtime’s creative struggles. For every show the network develops that effectively steals Weeds’ premise of a self-destructive protagonist whose behavior threatens his or her family/livelihood, Weeds looks more and more like the show that started the network off on this derivative path. If Weeds had stayed consistently strong, perhaps it could have been held up as the initial triumph that Showtime failed to successfully emulate. Instead, as the show dipped in quality, it developed into a part of the network’s problems, rather than a victim of the likes of Nurse Jackie or The Big C revealing the flaws in the formula.
However, despite the odds stacked against it, Weeds is in the midst of a bit of a creative rebirth. The show has not entirely abandoned its traditional formulas, but it has taken a more critical gaze on who or what drives those formulas. The sixth season may have seemed aimless, never settling into a clear comic or dramatic setup akin to Agrestic/Majestic or Ren Mar, but the road trip turned into a large-scale rumination on how far these characters have been taken by the decisions that Nancy has made. The sixth season ended with Nancy doing what she probably should have done seasons earlier, turning herself into the authorities so that her family (and the unshakeable Doug) could live out a normal life in Copenhagen. On some level, regardless of the quality of tonight’s seventh season premiere, I feel the show should have ended there: After a season of exploring her past behavior and after six seasons of running away from her problems, she finally stopped running in order to let her family do the same. It was poignant and compelling, a dramatic moment on par with the show’s earlier seasons and a moment that established enough momentum that a seventh season didn’t seem as crazy as it had when the sixth season had begun.
Having only seen tonight’s episode, “Bags,” I have no idea whether or not this season will continue to justify its existence as it continues in the weeks ahead. Based on this episode, however, Weeds finds itself in a thematically rich space: Picking up three years into Nancy’s sentence, the show returns at just the right point in time to assess how Nancy and her family are surviving without one another. When Nancy executed ‘Plan C’ at the end of last season, we were given no sense of the exit strategy, and Andy confirms late in the premiere that there was never any discussion about what would happen when she was released. It’s a detail that becomes important than Nancy is, well, released (albeit only to a halfway house in New York City where she will serve out the rest of her sentence). That news is slowly revealed to different characters throughout “Bags,” and along the way, everyone has to decide whether Nancy being released changes anything about their life.
Given the three-year gap in the narrative, everything is not as we left it. Nancy’s kids, for example, are now older: Shane is no longer a minor, Silas is now comfortably classified as a twentysomething, and Stevie (living with his Aunt Jill) has officially graduated to toddler. Similarly, without going into too much detail, life in Copenhagen seems to be pretty normal, still complicated but in a way that is logical given the track record of the men of this family even outside of the drug business. As we drop into Copenhagen in medias res, creator Jenji Kohan has set up a comfortable little life for the family, with Andy and Doug operating a business and Shane and Silas pursuing careers of their own. The episode leads up to the moment where news of Nancy’s release reaches Denmark, forcing each of them to consider whether the life they’re leading is better than the life they might be able to lead should they return to Nancy’s side.
That question is valuable to the season’s arc, but “Bags” is really more about Nancy. Although there remain conditions on her release, moments in this episode are perhaps the closest thing to freedom that she’s experienced since the moment she burned her own house to the ground and rode off on a Segway (which was a limited freedom to begin with). While her family has to decide what to do with their lives now that she is released, Nancy has to ask herself the same question: What kind of person does Nancy Botwin want to be when she’s truly on her own, without the sense of responsibility that she had when Silas and Shane were dependents? It’s perhaps the first time since the first season that Nancy's decisions are not primarily motivated by survival, and it results in some strong storytelling and a compelling performance from Mary-Louise Parker (who is unlikely to ever win an Emmy for this role, which will go down as an unfortunate oversight).
Admittedly, there are parts of “Bags” that give me pause. The show had a similar opportunity to start things off fresh at the start of the fourth season, and it quickly fell into the same rhythms by the time that season ended, and parts of tonight’s premiere definitely felt like flashbacks to earlier developments. However, like with the sixth season, it seems like the show has a different perspective on the same events: While earlier seasons wanted us to relate with Nancy, here I almost felt like a voyeur. The opening scene has Nancy in front of some sort of administrative board, but we never see the board from Nancy’s perspective: The camera focuses solely on Nancy, with the board rendered only as disembodied voices. We’re never allowed inside of Nancy’s head, with Kohan’s script leaving us in the dark regarding what Nancy’s plans might be for her new life, and it almost forces us to judge her in a way that the show has resisted to this point.
Ideally, for the purposes of a pre-air review, I would have seen more than the season premiere: There are a lot of balls in the air at the end of “Bags,” and I have no idea if they’ll get caught (as I felt they were last season) or dropped (as they were in the three seasons before that). However, I will say that “Bags” does some deft work setting up a fairly detailed "Three Years Later" scenario without ever feeling too overburdened by the task. Nothing feels false that isn’t supposed to feel a bit false, while every problematic story development feels tied to the characters rather than to the writers. While I can offer no assurances that this will all stay together by season’s end, I can at least say that I think there is something more here than just another season of Weeds.
And that’s a pretty impressive feat for a seventh season.
- I doubt it was intended as an homage, but there are some definite echoes of Les Miserables in tonight's opener.
- I still sort of maintain that Kevin Nealon’s Doug should have been sent out to pasture last season, and his new goatee has done nothing to change my opinion. On the one hand, I hope they have a storyline to justify his continued presence, but on the other hand, I don’t really want to have to deal with a Doug storyline.
- Don’t know how much New York location shooting the show intends on doing, but it is effective in tonight’s premiere (presuming that it’s actually New York, and I wasn’t just being bamboozled).
- Returning to the voyeurism comment above, there’s a thread of Nancy getting half-naked in front of strangers in the episode. Also, unrelated to nakedness, there’s also a lot of videochat, which also sort of fits the voyeur motif.
- Jennifer Jason Leigh returns as Nancy’s sister, seen only through the aforementioned video chats, and her character is perhaps the only one whose motives are clear from the outset. That’s all I’ll say for now.
- We’re still sort of up in the air regarding covering the show week-to-week, so if this is something you’re interested in, do let us know in the comments (or by choosing to “follow” the show using the fancy new TV Club system).
- I have a fair number of more spoilery observations to make about the episode, so I’ll probably edit those in after the episode airs later this evening, so come back for that.
Spoilery Stray Observations
- There was a lot of tabloid-style “OMG NANCY IS A LESBIAN” reporting when the premiere was first made available for press streaming, but I don’t think that’s the point of those scenes. To me, her relationship with her cellmate was less a sign of Nancy’s sexual orientation, and more a logical extension of her survival instincts. It’s an interesting relationship, and the sexuality side of things is certainly worth exploring, but for me it’s more a character moment than a sex moment.
- Based on the fact that the Copenhagen folks had different names when they fled the country, we’re to presume they applied for new passports/ID when it was clear that Shane was no longer being hunted? There’s no explanation on the name change, but you’d think that would be a logistical nightmare — just one more thing that time leaps avoid, I guess.
- It’s a simple little moment, but I liked Kohan playing with audience expectations by showing us Renata without showing us that Shane is her spurned lover — obviously, our minds presume that it is Andy (or at least Silas), so it’s a nice way to suggest that Shane has at least partly taken up that mantle.
- I quite like the idea that Shane makes a decision for Silas about whether or not he would return to America — while Shane seems to think that Silas has a life with his “Flower Water” campaign, Silas doesn’t seem as convinced, and it all provides a nice parallel with Silas’ initial decision to stay behind in the States at the end of last season.
- Kohan has always been strong at balancing the comic and dramatic sides of the series, so I quite liked how the comedy in this episode was a bit broad but never felt like it pushed too far. The rhyming halfway house supervisor is a fun character, but he didn’t seem unrealistic — the stuff in Copenhagen is a bit broader at times, but there was a control to the Flower Water campaign (for example) that kept it on track.