Sunday, January 11, 2009

High Comedy

Right before the holidays, as a Christmas present to myself, I bought Season 1 of Weeds. Then I made it an early birthday and picked up Season 2. I haven't yet seen Seasons 3 or 4, but the quality of the first two years of this go-for-broke Showtime comedy series reinforces what I've been saying for some time now: television is officially superior to movies.

I know: heresy. But consider the following titles to emerge over the last ten years or so. From HBO: Deadwood; The Wire; The Sopranos. On Showtime: Weeds; Dexter. AMC: Mad Men. FX: The Shield; The Riches; Rescue Me. Sci-Fi: Battlestar Galactica. USA: Monk. NBC: 30 Rock; The Office. ABC: Lost. Undoubtedly viewers could add more favorites to the list. I'm a bigger fan of some of these shows more than others, but I've seen enough of all of them to know that the writing, directing and acting on a typical episode is better than what you'll see on an average motion picture.

Movie comedy is in an especially wretched state. I've bemoaned ad nauseam on this blog that Hollywood cinema, once the gold standard of farce (mixing American vaudeville with elements of British theater), no longer understands the first thing about it. While the worst bar none have been the Julia Roberts/Meg Ryan/Sandra Bullock romcoms, which pretend to celebrate female independence only to espouse that what these ladies really need is A Man, the best comedies to have emerged over the last few decades are either dry-as-toast Indie affairs or overwrought raunch-fests. (Anthony Lane and I remain virtually yet unapologetically alone that one of the best American comedies of the decade is Dodgeball.) Many of the latter have sprung from the Judd Apatow comedy empire -- not incidentally a byproduct of Apatow's fine failed TV series Freaks and Geeks -- and I've liked quite a few of them....yes, even Walk Hard. Yet there's a family-values, be-a-better-person recurring theme to his films that sucks a bit of the air out of them. Part of the fun in classic screwball affairs like The Lady Eve or Bringing Up Baby was that the characters never listened, never learned; you knew they'd still be driving each other crazy after the story was over.

That sensation has been retained on occasion by the best episodes of 30 Rock. But the freedom of cable programming has taken Weeds to a higher level. It's not just the premise -- newly widowed mother Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) turns to marijuana distribution to eke out a living in the affluent California suburb of Agrestic -- that makes Weeds (at least its first two seasons) an updated, risque, TV version of those classic screwball films. Its writers, led by creator Jenji Kohan, grasp that one of the key elements of farce is fast and funny dialogue. A memorable scene from the first season features a pair of likable jerkballs, Doug and Andy (Justin Kirk and Kevin Nealon), having a semi-coherent, pot-fueled debate in the living room about the precise name of a certain part of the male anatomy. Like a scene from a stage play, the quick-witted maid Lupita (Renee Victor) then enters the room.

Andy: Hey, Lupita, what do you call that thing between the dick and the asshole?
Lupita: (pointing) The coffee table.

In the first season, Kohan and her writing team convey the joy of idle bullshitting better than anyone this side of Tarantino. And in the second season, they maintained a balance between agreeably rambling talk, startling zingers and sight gags (one episode has a brilliant visual shock involving a dog, a hamburger, and a pair of toes), and ratcheting up the tension emanating from Nancy's rise in the biz. The start of S1 had more wayward elements -- a touch of soap-opera, a pinch of artificial American Beauty gloss -- that sometimes bumped elbows with the show's more comedic aspects. By the final episode, however, when Nancy unwittingly hooked up with an enigmatic DEA agent (Martin Donovan, whose handsomely blank features were put to better use than any role since his unlicensed shrink in Lawrence Kasdan's underrated gem Mumford), Weeds hit a stride that continued throughout S2, when the show's twisted comic logic pulled all the disparate plot strands giddily together like tentacles.

(Additional props must be given the decision to offer a different cover version of Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes" for the opening credits of each episode of the second season. The variations -- follow the link and you can watch them all -- underscore the show's evolving theme of the tension in the ticky-tacky suburbs between the unyielding status quo and the possibility for change.)

Weeds also gives its cast -- arguably the best comic ensemble on TV -- the creative freedom to shine. It starts with Parker, always a good, unusual actress whose line readings are always a beat faster or slower than you expect. As Nancy, she's required to fill in a lot of blanks: we're never fully told why she opts to sell pot (not being a smoker herself), but Parker's expressive brown peepers suggest that her chosen profession has unleashed an inveterate danger-seeker. Nancy is at her best when the noose tightens around her (and, boy, are the writers wizards at noose-tightening), and it's exhilarating watching her think on her feet. When another character threatens Nancy by waving an incriminating videotape in her face, the speed with which Parker casually plucks the tape, drops it on the floor and stomps on it will have you reeling with pleasure.

It's no exaggeration to say that Parker resembles Paul Newman in her ability to inspire the actors around her to raise their game. If, like me, you assumed that Kevin Nealon was a D-list alum from Saturday Night Live, prepare to be wowed by his funny, pathos-laced portrayal of a corrupt certified accountant who's happy only when he's stoned. Elizabeth Perkins employs her acid wit to devastating effect as the hypocritical yet desperately lonely Celia. (An amazing scene from the second season features Celia seizing Nancy, who has kept her in the dark about her business, and screaming, "Be my fucking friend!") The underappreciated Romany Malco (from Knocked Up) brings his uncontainable energy to Nancy's fellow entrepreneur and potential love interest Conrad, while the wonderful Maulik Pancholy (from 30 Rock) brings his impeccable low-key timing to the role of Nancy's distributor. There's also a spectacularly unnerving performance from Page Kennedy as the passive-aggressive drug kingpin U-Turn, whose hilariously circular arguments with a slow-witted henchman (Fatso-Fasano -- that's the actor's name) are a profane version of a classic 30s radio show.

The heart of Weeds is its depiction of the Botwin family -- behind the comic surrealism, the most believable family unit on television. Yet there's never too much heart. Nancy's protective affection for her sons Silas (played as a magnificent teen douchebag by Hunter Parish) and Shane (Alexander Gould, who started a little shaky but has improved dramatically) is leavened by hair-pulling frustration: she loves them unconditionally, but that won't stop her from wielding an axe to smash through a door to a locked bedroom. And the lively presence of Justin Kirk's gadabout brother-in-law indicates that lessons never will be learned, creates the sense that the characters are still driving each other crazy offscreen. I've heard mixed reviews about the quality of Seasons 3 and 4, but for now the series has left a message far more heartening than anything in the movies: We're fucked up, but we're okay.

No comments: