The ongoing success of Weeds, a Showtime comi-drama about a PTA soccer mom-turned-marijuana-dealer, may be one of the most visible reflections of marijuana’s continued march into the American mainstream. Mere days before the show entered its seventh season, CULTURE spoke to executive producer Roberto Benabib about why Weeds has resonated with such a large audience, and how its allure—and that of its central character, Nancy Botwin (played by Mary-Louise Parker)—might be as much about parenting as pot.
“Basically, three years will have passed,” Benabib says of Weeds’ Season 7 opener. “Nancy has done time for the murder of [her lover’s political ally] Pilar and, through a set of circumstances, she is released to a halfway house in Washington Heights in New York. We check-in with [Nancy’s family and friends] Shane and Andy and Silas and Doug in Copenhagen and we start to see how they come together again.”
Weeds began in 2005 with Nancy Botwin turning to low-level marijuana dealing in a fictitious California suburb to support her family after the sudden death of her husband. Through this premise, the single-camera series took a wry look at the often grubby behind-closed-doors realities of life in a gated community. But by Season 4 Nancy was associating with hard drug and human smugglers on the Mexican border, and by Season 6 she and her family were on the run in Seattle after one of her sons commits murder.
While some longtime fans of the series have grumbled that Weeds has developed a soap opera-esque, semi-farcical hue of late, Season 7 seems set to swing back towards the show’s original deft balance of comedy, drama and darkness.
“I would say it’s probably a little more light-hearted. I think viewers will be seeing a touch more comedy this season and a little less tragedy,” says Benabib. “Especially since essentially we’ve left Mexico behind and the Mexican drug trade, which is pretty brutal. In order to portray that realistically the show definitely got dark for a while.
“We like to change it up—we get bored as well! We have the license to really do whatever we want and change tone and location dramatically, so I think we’re going to have a little more fun this season and maybe slightly less drama—although there certainly will be tons of drama!”
“A very realistic light”
Weeds’ first season premiered to 540,000 viewers and was Showtime’s highest-rated original series in 2005. It has since enjoyed as many as 1.3 million viewers (for its Season 5 debut in 2009). The show has scooped numerous awards and nominations, including multiple Golden Globe and Emmy nods. Despite all this, Benabib expresses some surprise that Weeds, which is written by fellow executive producer Jenji Kohan, has even reached a seventh season.
“To a certain extent that’s a mystery to us,” he admits. “I think it’s its honesty. The show has always been very honest about subjects that television and even movies are not very honest about. Those subjects are drugs and family.”
“I think that we portray motherhood in a very realistic light and a lot of people who watch the show can relate to that. I think parenting is something that’s not necessarily done to perfection by most people, and yet everyone on television, everyone in movies, they’re all great mothers and fathers. I think there’s a kind of refreshing honesty to how we portrayed Nancy Botwin and how she was trying to keep her family together, certainly, but how difficult it was.”
With more and more U.S. states legalizing medical marijuana since the series started, it also appears that Weeds was timed perfectly to tap into a seismic shift in mainstream American perceptions of cannabis use.
“I think we debuted at a moment at which we were coming out of this sense that all drugs were bad; that marijuana led to heroin,” says Benabib. “There are, I believe, 60 million pot smokers in this country and they cut a swath through all facets of life—from hedge-fund people on Wall Street, to students at Columbia [University], to housewives in the Midwest. Yet the subject of drugs had always been portrayed as they’re evil, and anyone who smokes pot is going to end up either dead or in jail.”
“We had the ability, and we were given the license, to not have to attach that melodramatic bullshit baggage onto the subject of marijuana, and we were able to deal with it frankly and realistically, and I think people responded to that.”
Descent into the darkness
So, it seems contradictory that Nancy Botwin’s initially petty pot dealing puts her on a trajectory to having a relationship with (and a son by) a Mexican crime cartel boss; going on the lam with her family after her second-oldest son kills an associate of said gangster; and serving jail time (after she takes the fall for that killing).
“(A), we definitely just wanted to keep it interesting—it was a television show!” says Benabib, who has also worked on the Fox comedy-drama Ally McBeal. “And, (B), we didn’t demonize the smoking of pot. The dealing of drugs is something that, because of its illegal nature, can lead to getting into bed and doing business with some pretty shady people, because it’s all in the netherworld of the black market.”
“You don’t see [the show’s marijuana-smoking characters] either going mad or being hauled off to jail or moving on to heroin.”
In other words, Nancy Botwin’s descent into the darkness of the drug business is a byproduct of prohibition, not marijuana itself—another aspect of Weeds that perhaps rings true to the increasing number of Americans who feel that that the “War on Drugs” causes more social problems than it solves. It’s dealing marijuana, not smoking it, that gets some of the show’s characters into precarious situations.
“I learned a lot about [cannabis] culture, but my view of it didn’t change. They were pretty set before I worked on the show and they haven’t really moved at all,” Benabib explains. “I learned more about the marijuana business and how it’s run and how it’s grown and how it’s distributed, and that probably led me to, rather than thinking it should be legalized, being certain it should be legalized.”
A comedic package
Cannabis’ curious semi-legal status in numerous U.S. states (16 plus Washington D.C. at press time) and widespread usage across America provides a context central not only to Weeds’ content, but also crucial to the show’s tone, says Benabib.
“I think it’s what allows us to be funny. I think it’s what allows us to be a comedy. I don’t think that if our characters were trafficking in heroin or crystal meth people would be able to laugh at the show the way they do with marijuana. I mean, marijuana is a grey area; marijuana is probably closer to beer and cigarettes than it is to heroin and crystal meth.”
“So, we were able to take it and wrap it up in kind of a comedic package, whereas I think if you were dealing with some of the harder drugs it would probably veer off into more dramatic territory . . . [Though] to a certain extent you have shows like Breaking Bad, which deals with crystal meth—which are also successful in their own way.”
Though portraying “hemptress” Nancy Botwin has made Mary-Louise Parker a poster girl for the cannabis community, the 47-year-old actress insists she has never actual smoked cannabis and only recently even tried a pot lollipop (“It did nothing . . . I didn’t feel anything,” she told Vanity Fair of the experience last year).
“I think it makes [Weeds] much more intriguing,” says Benabib. “I don’t smoke pot; Jenji Kohan doesn’t smoke pot. Very few people on our writing staff smoke pot. I don’t smoke cigarettes either, but I feel that if I had to do a show about the tobacco industry, I could do it.”
“I think it allows us to be advocates in a very deliberate way … it allows us to be more interesting advocates for the subject. We tend to look at it more politically rather than just the fact that we like to smoke and, boy, wouldn’t it be great if it was legal.”
A “very honest” actor
Parker has had a serious theater career since the late 1980s (including winning almost every available award for the Broadway play Proof) and has starred in major movies including 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes and ’94’s The Client. She won a Supporting Actress Emmy for her performance in HBO miniseries Angels in America in 2003 and enjoyed a recurring guest role in NBC’s hit drama The West Wing. Yet this svelte Southern gal has become all but synonymous with Weeds. She won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Nancy Botwin in 2006, and has received a trio of Emmy nominations for the role.
“The show is very honest and I think she is a very honest actor,” mulls Benabib. “She doesn’t shy away from portraying a character’s faults and shortcomings, so there’s an honesty in how she approaches the character which matched perfectly with the honesty with which we wrote the character. I think those two things came together and really sang—for us and the audience.”
And while Parker says he’s never partaken, she has shared her views about why she passed the pipe.
“I guess if it was going to happen, it would have happened when I was younger,” she told Vanity Fair last year.
“But it was never an effective or interesting form of rebellion for me, because everybody did it. Marijuana was just a social thing. It wasn’t dangerous or frowned upon. If I’d been popular in high school, I’m sure I would have wanted to do it. But I wasn’t.”
But that’s not to say she has nothing in common with Nancy Botwin (who has in fact only once smoked pot on screen in Weeds).
“They’re both mothers—that is probably the single most important aspect of their lives,” says Benabib. “When [Parker] gives interviews; when she goes on talk shows, she talks about her children. So, to me, Weeds, besides being a show about drugs, is a show about motherhood . . . [Nancy Botwin’s] involvement in the drug business has always been set against her trying to keep her family together.
Nancy Botwin is the widowed mother of two (and by Season 5, three) sons. Parker is a single mother of a 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old adopted daughter.
“Family is very important to both of them,” says Benabib. “They have very different ways to go about it and dealing with that subject, but it’s a subject that’s paramount . . . to Mary-Louise and I know it is for Nancy Botwin as well.”
“I like it that [Nancy Botwin is] such an unapologetically flawed character; she wasn’t sort of an opaque heroine,” Parker said during a Paley Center interview in 2008. “And just that she was a mother and a flawed mother—and that’s something that in our culture is kind of taboo . . . You’re not meant to sympathize or empathize or be on the side of or even get into the psyche of a mother who is . . . not necessarily putting her children first.”
Yet for all her faults as a person and parent, and despite her almost serial poor decision-making, Nancy Botwin is a deceptively strong woman who, throughout Weeds’ many shifts in setting and tone, displays an almost uncanny ability to overcome even the most testing of challenges and circumstances.
“Well, the show does have to continue on!” Benabib laughs. “If anyone had put a bullet in her brain or . . . locked [Nancy Botwin] up for 16 years, that would probably bring Weeds to a swift end. So part of this is just the nature of an on-going television series.”
“But also part of that is that Nancy is blessed with kind of a ‘luck of the Irish’ to a certain extent, where she gets involved with people, they go down, and she tends to squirm away unscathed. We think it’s one of the more amusing conceits of the show.”
Though the New York-based Parker expresses little interest in ever using marijuana, she’s specific in her opposition to its prohibition—a standpoint perhaps comfortingly familiar to many Weeds viewers.
“Historically, being caught is not a deterrent,” she told WebMD.com last year. “If you can control it, maybe marijuana is not as dangerous and not part of another world of harder narcotics. To have people in the park outside my house trying to sell me stuff when I’m pushing a stroller—that’s not awesome. [But] anything that’s going to lessen crime in any small way is a good idea, and what they’re doing now just doesn’t work.”
While Weeds has entered its seventh season to considerable fanfare, the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, has more than hinted that this season may be her baby’s swansong.
“In my mind, it is [the final season],” she told HYPERLINK “http://www.tvguide.com/News/Weeds-Finale-Kohan-1025636.aspx?rss=breakingnews” TV Guide in November. “Everyone’s contract is up next year, [including] the actors and mine. Seven years is a good run, and I’d rather leave while on top. I’d never say ‘never,’ but I have a feeling this might be it.”
Benabib isn’t so specific, or sure.
“We never think that far ahead—as is probably witnessed by our season endings!” he insists. “Because we never know how we’re going to get out of them. We paint ourselves into a corner; wait for Showtime to pick us up for another season; and then figure out how we’re going to get out of it, basically.”
“And this season is no different. So I can’t tell you that there will be an eighth season, but definitely it doesn’t change our approach to the writing of the show at all.”
The Greatest Gift of All
While the revelation that Mary-Louise Parker has never smoked cannabis (though she tried a medicated lollipop once) might have left MMJ patients and fanatical fans dumbfounded and slackjawed, you can bet your bottom dollar that the actress finds herself on the receiving end of “green” gifts all the time; from bags of marijuana to bouquets made out of leaf. “I’ve gotten a little of everything,” Parker told Vanity Fair’s Eric Spitznagel last August. “But I usually don’t keep it. Sometimes I give it away to friends who smoke. Or I just thank them and walk away and leave it on a table.”