Somewhere around the time Mark-Paul Gosselaar showed up outside a random trailer park and had carnal sex with Weeds matriarch Nancy Botwin in the series’ most recent season, it became even harder than usual to argue the show still has its feet on the ground. Actually, it’s been hard for a while. Originally a tart little suburbs-suck satire, the series became a caustic jumble of international drug dealers, the DEA, city council intrigue, teen angst and single motherhood—and that was just in the first three seasons.
This week, the sixth season came to a close. Now the awful cliché most often hurled the show’s way is that it has “jumped the shark.” Even if that actually ever meant anything, it can’t possibly explain the wholesale reinvention-upon-reinvention Weeds has pulled off year after year. It’s gotten to the point that, this past season, what’s left of the original cast has traipsed around the country in an RV (Canada wouldn’t let them in) because Nancy’s manic teenage son violently murdered the political guru of a Mexican mayor/drug lord, who also happens to be Nancy’s latest husband and the father of her third child. Got all that?
In recent episodes, the crew has been on the run, working to get fake passports to escape. Their grand plan? Flee to Copenhagen!
The series, initially about a widowed mother of two (Mary-Louise Parker) who begins selling pot in suburban California to pay her bills, was among the first at Showtime that helped build the pay-cable network into a true rival to HBO. Though Weeds’ ratings have remained solid since it debuted in 2005—a happy consequence of a large following built on DVD releases—its cachet among early fans and critics has eroded along with each breakneck dash in a new direction. A show once heralded as “colossally great” and “utterly essential” in its first two seasons began to alienate fans as Nancy and the gang got darker and weirder than the premise ever suggested. “I’m ready for Weeds to be amazing again” is a typical critical accord. On the eve of the fourth season, one writer summed up the populist voice: “When a show takes so many chances—some fans might say recklessly—when does it all implode?”
More to the point: does it have to? The truth is that Weeds is no longer the structured dramedy it was for the first few years, and it will never be that again. It doesn’t have the patience. Armed with iced coffee and bemused determination, Nancy has plowed through multiple law-enforcement agencies and cartel operations and somehow made it to the other side. Andy (Justin Kirk), her brother-in-law, has been a porn star and a border coyote, and Nancy’s middle son, Shane (Alexander Gould), has become a gleeful maniac who doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. Many of the most-loved early players simply disappeared when they no longer had anywhere to go.
Through this delirious march forward, Weeds has unfolded as one of the most creatively subversive and purely pleasurable series we have. Had the show stuck to its more grounded, winsome early cheer, it would be far less trenchant than it has become, not to mention a lot less fun. There are big-name guest stars, but unlike so many other high-end series, they are never the mechanism that drags the show along from one season to the next. It’s always about the characters. The aimless, at times contrived, universe Weeds has cultivated as a result is part of its triumph, not its downfall: the liberating sense that anything can happen is a rare virtue on TV. No two seasons are ever the same.
Why have so many turned against the series? The impulse to reject its perpetual commotion is understandable given how long television has trained us to value the static and familiar. Try to imagine a network comedy with Weeds’ thrill for the unknown. A How I Met Your Mother where Lily and Marshall not only have a kid, but where the kid is now a preteen with mental-health issues? A Parks and Recreation that burns down its quaint Indiana suburb for the hell of it? Even Showtime’s latest, The Big C, spent almost its entire first season just getting the heroine to tell a member of her family that she has terminal cancer, and that’s the whole premise of the show.
Weeds’ ambition and pure nerve simply outpace anything of its kind. Creator Jenji Kohan and her dark, inventive team are not immune to digression—really, this entire sixth season has been one long, highway-bound digression—but there’s never any question that the series will continue with its driving hunger to evolve. Showtime has already ordered a seventh season. The Botwins take Europe? Don’t doubt it.