LOS ANGELES (Zap2it.com) - Recently widowed soccer mom Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) is in a pickle. Her adoring husband dropped dead while jogging, leaving Nancy with neither partner nor paycheck to pay the mortgage on their picture-perfect home in Agrestic, Calif.
Convinced that being a stay-at-home mother is best for her two sons (Alex Gould, Hunter Parrish), she does what any doting mommy would do to make ends meet: She starts covertly selling pot to some of her wealthy neighbors.
"Weeds," the dark new comedy series premiering on Showtime Sunday, Aug. 7, takes place in a world "Blue Velvet" director David Lynch would recognize all too readily, a place where a cosmetically flawless exterior often masks the dry rot underneath.
"There is no perfect relationship, or Garden of Eden or perfect anything," Parker says of the good-looking but hollow existence her character prizes so highly. "In our suburbia, there's a woman who may seem perfect, but she's a drug dealer. If you were to go into each of these houses, you'd find some deep secret in every one of them."
Celia Hodes (Elizabeth Perkins), for example, is head of the local PTA, but hasn't a clue about how to cope with her own children. Another neighbor, Doug Wilson (Kevin Nealon), is both Nancy's accountant and one of her biggest customers, a middle-aged suburban dad who gets stoned to forget his mundane job and home life.
"I wanted to do a show that focused on gray areas of human nature and life, as opposed to the standard black-and-white, good guys/bad guys stories that we see all the time on television," says "Weeds" series creator Jenji Kohan ("Tracey Takes On...").
"I was inspired by shows like 'The Shield' and 'The Sopranos,' in which people who are functioning outside of society's moral code have adopted a moral code of their own. How do you convince yourself that you are still a moral person if you are doing something illegal?"
Parker negotiates a very fine line between the poignancy of Nancy's financial dilemma and the comedy of her contraband commerce, but Perkins nearly walks away with the show as Celia, a mother so misguided she hides a videocam in her older daughter's bedroom to make sure she isn't having sex and "helps" her chubby younger daughter by mixing laxatives in with her hidden chocolate stash.
"Celia believes that she is 100 percent politically correct, but she could not be more politically incorrect if she tried," Perkins says of her role. "This is a woman who, in her quest to have the perfect life and be the perfect mother, has as one of her chief concerns, 'My daughter is fat and she is not going to succeed, so I need to put her on laxatives.' She honestly believes that, and her outlook sort of becomes a metaphor for the whole show: There is this perfect world that everyone wants to live in, yet underneath it is a very different, very ugly world."
And that's one of the things that gives "Weeds" its sardonic bite, the fact that both Nancy and Celia are struggling to hold on to a perfection that is all illusion.
"When you go out to these 'just add water' communities, they all look pretty but they're built like crap," Kohan says. "It's the same house over and over, all style, no substance.
"Everything in their world is mass-marketed," Perkins points out. "Their homes are full of 'condo furniture,' which looks perfect at first but it's just trash. That kind of suburban sprawl is everywhere here in Southern California these days. They're springing up at a rate of 250 houses every six months.
"Valencia basically built a town, then added a fake main street that they kind of antiqued, to make it look as if it had been there a long time. It's fake reality, like Disneyland, and Celia is very much in tune with that."
In the fourth episode (Showtime has ordered 10), Parker's former "Angels in America" co-star Justin Kirk joins the cast as Nancy's reckless and corrupt brother-in-law, Andy, who moves in to "help" but quickly sniffs out Nancy's furtive little business. It's a smart plot twist that jolts the series onto a completely new level.
"I totally agree," Kohan says. "Justin was a vital ingredient to this mix, and he brings a whole new level of comedy and immorality and provocative behavior. Andy is Nancy's biggest threat, because he is such a live wire and so unpredictable, and he is just magnificent."
Kohan says she is grateful for the creative freedom Showtime has given her at a time when networks are yielding to conservative political pressures. Still, it's important to note that not even the title of "Weeds" is primarily about marijuana.
"Besides the pot reference, the title refers to a lot of things," Kohan says. "Weeds are hardy plants that pop up everywhere and survive despite desperate climate and inhospitable environments. There is also the expression 'widow's weeds,' referring to a time when widows wore hats made of weeds. Mainly, though, it refers to hardy plants struggling to survive."
If Showtime orders a second season, expect to see more of young actor Justin Chatwin, who appears in the premiere episode as Nealon's teenage son, then drops out of sight.
"He got cast in 'War of the Worlds,' and you can't keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Spielberg," Kohan explains. "But if he has time and we do another season, we would take him back any day. He and Mary-Louise had a blast together. Put that in big letters: 'JUSTIN, PLEASE COME BACK.'"