Monday, August 13, 2007

Wacky tabacky

Back in my salad days, a good measure of how much you loved your friends was how long you could stand to be around them when they were stoned.

For me, though, the tougher test came before the first joint was lit, sometimes hours before, at that moment when someone let it be known that there was some righteous weed available, if anyone was interested----and you could tell who was interested by the look of sly smugness that came over their faces. It was bearing the company of that smugness that was the test.

I don't think anyone has written extensively on the smugness of potheads back in the day. Weeds, however, which is starting its third season tonight on Showtime, has captured it perfectly.

The smugness of the soon to be toking could and did pass as a hipster's cool. There was that insider's confidence that they knew something only the truly with-it knew and something of a rebel's delight in taking on and defying the Man. But it wasn't a true rebellion, not for the crowd I hung with, upper middle class suburban white kids, because real rebels put something on the line.

They might have liked to think of themselves as glamorous outlaws, but their smugness was really the smugness of spoiled brats. They knew they were about to do something that their parents, teachers, priests, ministers, rabbis, the cops, Nancy Reagan, and even many of their friends thought was wrong, or just dumb, but they didn't care. They didn't care because they knew they were going to get away with it no matter what.

They were upper middle class white kids. Nobody was going to punish them for doing something as goofy and harmless as smoking pot. They knew the hypocrisy behind the war on drugs. They knew it was just a cover for a war on poor young black men. They were safe. Their coolness lay in their being among the privileged.

They were congratulating themselves ahead of time for being invulnerable.

In the middle of the first season of Weeds there's an episode in which Nancy, our heroine, the pretty widow making ends meet by dealing pot, expands her market onto the campus of the local commuter college---a school, it's made plain, that isn't like commuter colleges in more working class areas where kids who can't afford to go to private colleges go part-time when they're not at their jobs; this is a school for upper class underachievers who were too lazy, or too distracted, to earn the grades they needed in high school to get into a good college. It's a place for them to hang-out for four years while they wait for their family and social connections to rescue them.

And as Nancy makes her rounds, drumming up business, shopping her wares, that familiar look of smugness appears on one pretty, bland, young face after another.

It was during this sequence that I almost gave up on watching the show. I wasn't put off by the smugness, although the nostalgia it induced was hard to bear. But I made the mistake of thinking the writers and producers wanted us to cheer the fact that Nancy had successfully opened up a new market. I thought, Oh, I see, we really are meant to take Nancy's dealing as just a business and through it see the hypocrisy that underlies legitimate business.

Then Nancy got busted by the head of campus security.

She's cuffed and thrown in the back of his SUV and her smugness dissolves away in a flood of tears. She pleads and she begs and she even flirts with the cop, trying to convince him to let her off with a warning, on the grounds that she's just a poor widow woman trying to support her family and suddenly my attention was riveted. It finally dawned on me.

She has no clue!

I realized something I'd been missing because Nancy is played by Mary-Louise Parker, who is adorable, and I was making the mistake the show wants us all to make at first, attributing Parker's adorableness to Nancy.

Nancy has a lot of little tricks, gestures, expressions, cute little habits of speech that she shares with Parker and that help give the impression that she's just as adorable as Parker, plus she is as beautiful as Parker and has great big gorgeous brown eyes like Parker's that you just want to throw yourself into.

But as her dealing partner Conrad says somewhere in Season Two, You showed me those big brown eyes and I fell into shit.

Nancy isn't adorable. She's a reckless, self-deluded, dangerous narcissist.

She truly expects the cop to let her go. She expects him to accept her version of herself over the reality and feel sorry for her.

And when it turns out that the cop is actually shaking her down---although Nancy, because she is too busy feeling sorry for herself, doesn't figure this out---and he "relents," having had no real intention of arresting her, he just wants to get his hands on her merchandise, and lets her go with a warning but holds onto her pot, she starts pleading and flirting again, trying to convince him to let her keep it so she can sell it to make her mortgage payment.

She thinks she's talking to an honest cop and she's asking him to give her back her pot as if he wouldn't and shouldn't care she's going to use it to continue dealing.

Nancy doesn't know she's a criminal.

She doesn't see herself as a drug dealer.

She believes she is a nice, fairly decent person doing something she should be congratulated for, taking care of her family.

And it's not as though she's developed a mobster's double-think about what she does. Mobsters consider their criminal activities "business" with a set of hard and unforgiving rules, and while they don't necessarily think of themselves as bad guys---they get around having to face this by insisting there are no good guys. One way or another, everybody's on the take, they'll be glad to inform you, and it's hard to argue with them on that point.---they understand on some level why civilians don't like them.

Nancy knows that drug dealers are bad people. But she's not a bad person. Therefore she can't be a drug dealer.

She's not a businesswoman either. She's not focused enough on what she's doing. She's always looking past the moment to the future payoff, when she has the money in hand to pay her bills, not paying attention to how she's earning the money, but fixating on the image of herself as having succeeded in doing what she says she's doing, being a good and responsible mother.

This is how she navigates through all her daily chores and errands, how she handles all her obligations and manages her love life, by looking past the actual moment to the future payoff and the time to come when everything will be well and happy for herself and her family again.

The writers of Weeds don't go in for flashbacks or long expositionary speeches, so we're never sure if Nancy's self-flattering state of permanent denial has always been the main feature of her personality or if it's a reaction to her grief. She might just be a narcissistic flake or it might be that if she lets herself actually focus she'll have to face the awful, central truth of her life: Her husband is dead and she isn't up to the job of surviving without him.

It's the possibility that it's the latter that allows us to forgive the appearance of the former, to a point.

That point comes quickly in the second season when Nancy's fecklessness helps corrupt the so far only real grown-up in the show and her general inattention leaves her sons to descend into their own forms of corruption and out and out criminal activity.

And we're way past that point by the time Season Two comes to its cliffhanger ending with five guns pointed at her and Conrad's heads and an important character lying dead on a garage floor because of her.

Nancy's inability to accept that what she is doing is real, even at a remove, as a "business," makes her dangerous, and the professional criminals in her life, her supplier Heylia, her now former partner Conrad, and, as Season Three gets underway, her new boss, U-Turn, know she is dangerous and know why she is dangerous. She brings the cops with her everywhere she goes because she doesn't believe she has to worry about them.

Each of these three criminals tries to make Nancy see the truth. They try to make her grow-up and take responsibility for herself and her actions. In doing so, they come across as close to being actual grown-ups themselves.

But they aren't. We're not meant to take Weeds as a 21st Century re-play of those early 70s movies in which the outlaws are the real good guys. Conrad is a coward. U-Turn is a remorseless killer. And Heylia, it turns out, is in her own way just as narcissistic and just as in denial as Nancy.

In the first season, Heylia seemed to be the show's most grown-up character, insisting that Nancy face up to what she's doing and follow the rules. Heylia appeared to have an ethic---a ruthless busineswoman's ethic, but she kept to it and tried to teach it to Nancy. Whenever she tried she managed to sound somewhat wise and adult, at least when it came to their business.

But in the second season it turns out that her ethic is only a rephrasing of Look Out for Number One and that her apparent responsibility towards her family, her nephew Conrad and her pregnant daughter Vaneeta, isn't based on love but on yet another narcissist's inability to see other people as not mere extensions of herself. She turns on Nancy because Nancy steals not Conrad's love or loyalty but his usefulness to her---when he's out following Nancy around he's not there to do Heylia's bidding. He's her extra pair of hands and legs, that's all.

Heylia isn't a very smart criminal, either, as it also turns out. Being a version of Nancy, she doesn't really see herself for what she is, despite all she's said previously. The fact that she thinks she has a chance of marrying a devout and extremely priggish follower of the Nation of Islam (a plot development that parallels Nancy's thinking she can date a DEA agent) shows the extent of her self-delusion. But she's even more dangerous than Nancy. Nancy is self-centered and self-aborbed, and can be careless of other people's persons and feelings. But she's not mean and not entirely selfish. Heylia is mean. And like anybody who never questions their own righteousness or self-importance, she's capable of anything, including murder---Nancy can get people killed, but so far, she's been incapable of having them killed---and incapable of remorse, shame, guilt, or even taking responsibility.

As Season Three gets underway, the immediate threat to Nancy's life is coming form U-Turn and the Armenian drug dealers. But the long-term threat has to be from Heylia for whom Nancy is a narcissist's worst nightmare, an unflattering mirror.

This is how Nancy survives as a character worth our sympathy if not our affection.

Bad as she is, everybody else is worse.

Except for her eleven year old son, Shane, but he's trying. Thanks to the tutalege of his cheerfully amoral Uncle Andy, Shane's on his way to becoming a precocious pervert.

Nancy's eldest son, high school senior Silas, has already come close to ruining his girlfriend's dreams of a career and robbing her of her chance to go to Princeton by deliberately and coldly, calculatingly getting her pregnant. He's also a thief and he's trying to muscle his way into his mother's business, apparently with the intention of expanding her product line io include heroin.

In fact, there isn't a truly likeable or even half-way decent main character on Weeds. All of these people are sociopaths. They are criminally narcissistic when they aren't out and out criminal. They have their charms, even some good qualities that border on actual virtues. They do and say things that make us forget for a moment what terrible excuses for human beings they are. Mostly, though, the show's writers and producers make sure we don't forget what they are or let us make excuses for them. They let us identify with them, even sympathize. They are all in desperate staits, of their own devising, but we've all been in those ourselves. Just when we're ready to pass judgment, to loathe and despise one of them they way they all deserve, another one of them comes along and does something even more loathesome and despicable to them and we are forced, despite ourselves, to feel their pain and humiliation.

But ultimately the show never lets us lose sight of the fact that all of them, Nancy included, are a collection of amoral, destructive, and self-destructive jerks.

It's kind of our Restoration Comedy.

Weeds is a very funny show about people who wouldn't be at all funny to know in real life. It's a very moral show about amoral people that achieves its moral ends by never being moralistic or judgmental.

And it's not a show about weed. It's about the smugness of those pot smokers I used to know extended to everything. It's about people who think they never have to worry about getting caught because they know that consequences are for other, less privileged mortals.

Tonight we'll find out if the character we think is dead really is dead, how Nancy and Conrad escape getting shot by U-Turn and the Armenians, if Silas is going to wind up in jail and if Shane will wind up in Pittsburgh.

But almost as important to me is that we'll find out if Zooey Deschanel's going to be coming back for more episodes.

Episode One of Season Three starts tonight at 10 PM, Eastern and Pacific. David Duchovny's new series, Californication, premieres immediately afterwards at 10:30. Over at newcritics, Dan Leo gives his review. Short version: Fun if you what you want to see is David Duchovny do the wild thing, which he does, a lot.

Cross-posted at newcritics.

Seasons One and Two of Weeds available on DVD through your friendly neighborhood aStore.

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