Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives has been rightfully accused of hawking a lurid form of conservatism on Sunday nights, but you get a sense while watching it that it intends to say something profound about suburbia with an outmoded view of females and the inexplicably coordinated Redbook couture that hugs their perky frames. What that message is I’m not exactly sure, and neither does Matt Feeny, whose amusing review of the show for Slate focuses almost entirely on the program’s single most irritating facet: the narration by Mary Alice Young, a woman whose mysterious death is the program’s one unbroken plotline. The woman’s honeyed voice, rife with emphatic pauses, beats the audience over the head in such a way you’d think the show’s creators believe we’re as stupid as their characters. (Want to annoy the shit out of your roommate? Just answer any and all of their questions with a sexy, drawn-out yeeeeeeeeeesss.)
A mess of genre inflections, Desperate Housewives has nothing to say about the neighborhoods we live in that wasn’t already essayed with greater complexity and a more intense, cohesive vision by David Lynch in Twin Peaks and its big-screen preamble Fire Walk with Me. But we continue to watch anyway, and it’s not because there isn’t anything else playing on Sunday nights, but because the show does have its pleasures: The dramatic elements may be contrived, but Felicity Huffman is a revelation and the comedy is often very good—provocative even, like Marcia Cross’s uptight Bree revealing her husband’s private sex fantasies to a roomful of people or her character suggesting “Palestine” as a control word during a role-playing scenario.
It’s easy to see Showtime’s Weeds as a response to Desperate Housewives, much in the same way that Cherry’s dramedy has opened the door for films like The Chumscrubber and Thumbsucker that paint suburbia as secret covens of perversity. (For the sake of film culture, we should all pray that Desperate Housewives fizzles out sooner rather than later.) The Village Voice’s Joy Press, who shares my opinion and inexplicably sick fascination with Desperate Housewives, sees Weeds as “a giant fuck-you to the retro conservatism of Wisteria Lane,” but I’m not so sure this fuck-you is so giant or that Showtime’s new show is hawking a vision of Americana that’s any less retro.
Desperate Housewives isn’t subversive because that would mean Cherry was actually trying to subvert something to begin with; instead he upholds a status quo that champions a weak, soulless form of womanhood. And though Weeds doesn’t grapple with hot-button issues the same way Desperate Housewives does (via gossip, secrets, and mock shows of horror and righteousness), its “keepin’ it real” demeanor still feels like a hackneyed front. What’s the difference anyway between the women of these shows besides the fact that Mary-Louise Parker and Elizabeth Perkins’s characters probably don’t subscribe to O Magazine and that they enjoy saying “fuck” a lot, which isn’t even radical, just a luxury of having your show play on premium cable. One show panders to conservative fears, the other to liberal sensibilities. I mean, who else but a snobbish blue-stater would smile when Kevin Nealon on Weeds says, “I wouldn’t take a dump in the Olive Garden”?
In the span of four episodes, we have learned absolutely nothing about Nancy (Parker) except that she’s recently widowed and that she supplies the town’s adults with marijuana, which she gets from some African-American matriarch, Heylia (Tonye Patano), who lives in a part of town that is never really surveyed but is assumed to be a little more ghetto than the part of the neighborhood where the white people live. (Like Desperate Housewives, there isn’t a profound sense of location, as if the camera refuses to really open up and study the topography of its fictional ‘burb. It’s Backlot, Hollywood as Americana.) Nancy can’t be bothered to play the mother to her two boys because she’s too busy trying to score hash from her sassy supplier, whose family’s congregations around the kitchen table suggest the show’s creators learned everything they know about black social customs from The Cookout.
But Weeds isn’t racist because the whites seem to be cut from the same stereotypical cardboard as the blacks. Desperate Housewives played the race card during its season finale, readying season two with a villain by dragging Alfre Woodard into white-bread Wisteria Lane. (The way Nicollette Sheridan and Woodard interacted you’d think the town committee had just passed an anti-segregation housing measure.) On Weeds, the interactions between Nancy and her suppliers are no less troublesome. The camaraderie Parker and Patano’s characters share is of the honky-you-so-crazy-nigga-please variety, and I’m not sure if these exchanges are genuine expressions of friendship or contempt. Are these characters simpatico because they like each other or because they need each other’s business? It’s not an elucidation the show’s writers care to make.
The show begins with Nancy’s husband already dead and the woman trying to eek out a living for her children. How she got involved selling marijuana isn’t a point the program wants to belabor; it assumes, rightfully so, that hip audiences don’t care about what she’s doing (’cause, you know, we want some of that ganja too), at least as long as she isn’t selling to minors. But how she came to choose this path is important, and since the matter-of-fact tone of the show doesn’t suggest that secrets are being withheld from the audience, I’m not exactly sure we’re ever going to find out why Nancy came to sell drugs or how her husband came to pass. This is lazy storytelling, and if the creators want us to sympathize with their main character, it isn’t working. I mean, if money is such a problem for this woman, why isn’t moving out of her oversized house and firing the Latina maid ever an option? Even if the memories of her husband and her liberal guilt preclude her from doing so, you wouldn’t know it from watching the show.
Lucky for Weeds that some of its supporting players are knockouts, especially Perkins, who plays Nancy’s neighbor and best friend. Both Perkins’s character Celia and Bree from Desperate Housewives are ghoulish control freaks trying to cope with cheating husbands and children whose problems are really their own: Bree’s son likes to mess around with other boys and Celia’s daughter is overweight. Usually a major fixture in any given episode, Celia is almost completely abandoned in episode four: She kicks off the episode by flicking her husband’s morning wood and isn’t seen again until the final scene, when she reveals to her husband that she has cancer at the precise moment fallen cargo from an airplane has ripped a hole in the roof of their bedroom. Having Perkins’s only scenes bookend the episode was a dynamic expression of her character’s profound sense of emptiness.
Allie Grant, as Celia’s daughter Isabelle, is also good, stealing episode three after Celia puts laxatives in Isabelle’s cookies and the girl describes the horror of having to throw her panties in the woods and the children at school dubbing her Shit Girl. Ditto Alexander Gould, the voice of Nemo from Finding Nemo, who plays Nancy’s 10-year-old son Shane. The character’s awkward pre-adolescence is perceptive and separates him from the rest of his team on the soccer field, and in spite of his chipper and eccentric demeanor (he cracks an impious smile when he hears on television about a dangerous mountain lion that is loose in their fictional town of Agrestic, California), there’s a profound sense of loneliness that underscores his every action. He misses his father and he seems to understand that Mom is unable to fulfill or understand the paternal void the man’s death has left behind.
Whenever Gould is on screen, the show feels miraculously centered. His solo scenes, whether it’s staring at images of his dead father through a video camera’s viewfinder or strapping himself to a chair and waiting to shoot a mountain lion with his BB gun, are quirky, funny and humane without feeling forced or ingratiating. His character is rich in a way that Parker’s simply is not. (This isn’t an insult to Parker; like Lisa Kudrow on the heinous The Comeback, Parker brings a great performance to a less than one-dimensional part.) There’s a sense that the writers of Weeds are as lazy as their main character, that they understand her as little as she seems to understand herself, but maybe there’s hope for both the show and its protagonist. Nancy doesn’t believe Shane when he says he shot the mountain lion in the eye, but later she sees the lion in her backyard with a gooey mass of bloodied flesh on its face. In this single moment, she realizes she needs to learn trust. One hopes it’s a message of growth the show itself will take to heart.