If I remember anything from Ray Louter – one of my theatre professors and my primary acting and playwrighting instructor – has ever told me, it’s this: Raise the stakes. Storytelling is most interesting when there’s something that hangs in the balance. Something including and in between embarrassment and death. Anything. It’s made me a better actor, a better writer, and a better director. Believe me when I say that while I may forget the bulk of my education, I could never forget this.
Unfortunately for Jenji Kohan, she appears to have done so with her show Weeds. You know the pitch: suburban mom turns to pot dealing after the untimely death of her husband. Hilarity ensues. And for three seasons, it was one of my favourite shows. Mary-Louise Parker is terrific as Nancy Botwin, who balances less-than-legal entrepreneurship with single parenthood. It was the kind of show that could switch from high drama to low comedy in the same scene without missing a beat. The supporting cast, including Justin Kirk as her brother in-law Andy and Kevin Nealon as disgraced accountant Doug Wilson, meshed in such a way that it was rarely, if ever, a dull show. The third season stands out particularly, as it began with a mexican stand-off and somehow managed to never lose steam until it’s finale saw Nancy and her family literally rising from the ashes to fight another day.
Season 4 saw many changes. Major characters like Conrad Shepard were gone. Most of the background players didn’t follow the Botwins to the border town of Ren-Mar. Neither did a good chunk of what made the show great. The stakes, raised close to the highest they could be given the circumstances, are now worse than low. They’re unclear.
That’s been my major beef with Weeds this season. It’s still a well-written, well-acted show. But great dialogue and actors to make that dialogue great will only get you so far. Despite the sheer volume of illegal activities taking place (up to and including human smuggling, as well as the usual drug rackets), I have yet to care what happens to Nancy and company next. Because while I know what’s theoretically at stake (jail, Silas and Shane homeless, etc), I’m not convinced the characters do. I don’t live in their world. Their world is defined by many things, but only the things expressed onscreen. The threat of Nancy getting caught is long gone, as is so much as a reference or two per episode of her vocation. And with few circumstances remaining constant from episode to episode, it’s simply too unclear what’s at stake. I rarely have a sense of what their worst-case-scenario is. And when I do (and when it comes to pass), it resolves itself with little to no consequence. So as such, my level of empathy is dropping. Andy and Doug have been smuggling immigrants across the US-Mexico border for much of the season, but it seems as though Doug not getting laid is their worst case scenario.
For a show that’s fundamentally about criminals, it’s alarming how little risk seems to be present.
I don’t want to discount Weeds entirely though. It’s made me laugh out loud, gasp, and have difficulty waiting a week to see the next episode over. It’s a show I’ve spent whole days marathoning DVD box sets with. It’s made an Olsen twin not just watchable, but interesting. Weeds is an A+ show having a C- season though. Eleven of Thirteen episodes down, and I’m still waiting for so much as a return to form, let alone something that raises the bar. While I can understand that the show needed to establish a new order (new location, new characters etc), it’s been handled in such a way that it’ll take an incredibly strong season finale to keep me around for a fifth season. But for now, I’ll be waiting for a season finale that’ll make this post redundant. If there’s anything Weeds does absolutely right, it’s those.