Photo by Peter IovinoFor a show with pot dealing as its engine, the new Showtime half-hour comedy Weeds doesn’t draw its laughs from glazed, giggly tokers and sanded-off conversational excursions. Those flamboyantly lovable puffers Cheech and Chong would appear completely out of place in a walk-on, because the setting for this pointedly witty show is a whitey-white California McMansion enclave called Agrestic, where the prevalence of ganja is nothing compared to the simmering resentments, hidden disgraces and numbing melancholia of its overprivileged residents.Drug-dealer roles are one of those movie-and-TV staples that can be an ugly temptation for struggling performers, usually of color, who don’t so much get hooked on them as tarred with them. What Weeds creator Jenji Kohan smartly does is reform the role, casting stringy, heady New York stage actress Mary-Louise Parker as a widowed mother of two boys who makes ends meet — or, more honestly, keeps up an exterior of manicured financial stability in her moneyed, security-patrolled village — by helping others get their smoke on.It’s a mildly twisted take on female independence, but in a country that still finds the topic of breadwinner women worthy of debate, Weeds gets credit for exploring the issue of women making their way in business, even if that business sparks controversies all its own. And while the show is obviously pro-cannabis, last Sunday’s pilot episode — which will re-air Friday night at 10 p.m. — took pains to show Nancy Botwin (Parker) as resolutely against selling to teens, and then took further pains to have a rival dealer with a preteen clientele, who is the son of a genial city councilman/CPA played with smiley authority by Kevin Nealon, suitably call her a hypocrite. In fact, the final word on the show’s stance on drug glorification was laid out in the same episode, when Nancy is hanging out in the home of her inner-city supplier, a heavyset, middle-aged African-American matriarch named Heylia (the masterful Tonye Patano), who sits at a kitchen table bagging weed with her grown children with the same domestic nonchalance with which she preps dinner. Nancy, for whom Heylia’s home is a refuge of sorts, casually tries to pull off a street-style boast by calling herself “the biggest game in the private community of Agrestic.” Heylia, the show’s real queenpin and a tough-talking reminder that everyone’s problems are relative, affectionately zings back, “Drugs sell themselves, biscuit. You ain’t shit.”Moralizing isn’t what Weeds traffics in, anyway. The series is about a double life, but not in the conceit of an upstanding mom who’s also your friendly neighborhood connection, but of someone who both loves and hates the tranquilizing trappings of her clean-cut world. Think Desperate Housewives as re-imagined by Election satirists Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, and you get something of the show’s sensibility: The humor is raunchy but deadpan, the hurt is real but unsentimental, and everyone is not what they seem, not because they’re characters in a soap opera, but because they have images to uphold.Nancy may be coping with money issues, delayed grief, a sex-addled 15-year-old (Hunter Parrish) and a sweet-minded 8-year-old (Alexander Gould) whose own bereavement leads him into nutty scrapes, but it’s Nancy’s best friend/neighbor, Celia, who probably most needs some stoned-alone time despite her just-say-fuck-off stance regarding drugs. Elizabeth Perkins, a gifted actress whose repertoire is studded with the bitter and unhappy, plays Celia like the Wisteria Lane resident too caustic and depressing for prime time, an all-appearances materialist with a vengeful streak — swapping out chocolate for Ex-Lax to speed up one daughter’s weight loss, shipping off the other daughter to boarding school for having sex — but also a strange poignancy: She’s a gossipmonger who actually hates secrets.Together with Parker’s odd brand of brainy sex appeal — bedroom-growl delivery, conspiratorial glances and a kind of ex-hippie fragility — these two are like a suburban comedy team when they start cynically musing about their lot in life, a Lucy and Ethel too fried to be frazzled.Inevitably, what Nancy and Celia fear is not being able to protect their children from the big bad world, but as Weeds makes perfectly and sometimes hilariously clear over the five episodes available for review, you can’t stop kids from growing up any more than you can stop adults from acting like children. You also can’t stop a pay-cable channel from indulging its ability to air politically incorrect material, and Weeds has plenty, tackling religion, prejudice and frank sexual talk with a welcome comic fearlessness, making the core story of a blooming marijuana business seem as incidental as organized crime did when compared with Tony Soprano’s mother issues. (And after laboring in HBO’s shadow for years with barely fizzy programming, Showtime finally has an original series to be proud of.)Getting baked isn’t surprising anymore, anyway. Or, at least, self-medicating isn’t. The shock is how we ever get to feeling that we belong anywhere in the world, with so many things we’re made to feel shame for — our bodies, our financial health, our sexual predilections, our social attitudes — ready to do us in. The brilliant ironic touch that makes Weeds one of the smartest American comedies to come along in years is that by selling pot, Nancy Botwin, who once had it all, truly has become a member of her cliquish, clannish community — she finally has a dirty little secret.
Cullen and Martha Burns
weather the Slings & Arrows.

Over on the Sundance channel — usually the beacon for independent film
— the cause of theater is being taken up with the airing of Slings & Arrows,
the 2003 limited series from Canadian television that looks at the inner workings
of a tourist town’s Shakespearean festival. Written by Bob Martin, Susan Coyne
and Kids in the Hall alum Mark McKinney (who also has a part), it’s a briskly
funny, farcical tale of behind-the-curtain theatrics, split into two story threads:
the creeping corporatization of the festival under an aggressive sponsor — the
threat: more musicals! — and the return of a disgraced, unhinged stage great (a
roguishly charming Paul Gross) to run the company after the longtime artistic
director (Stephen Ouimette), his former mentor, dies.
If the latter plotline has that rotten-Denmark smell, that’s no accident. It’s this series’ endearing way of retelling Hamlet, which is also, naturally, the Bard classic that the troupe is trying to pull off without its descending into complete catastrophe. Directed with breezy good humor by Peter Wellington, Slings & Arrows swiftly captures the backstage mania of putting on a show: jealousies, loopy acting techniques, rocketlike passions, drinking binges, prankish hijinx. At times it’s almost absurdly quaint how life-or-death the power and integrity of the theater is dramatized when it’s become so marginalized in the cultural landscape. But this is a smart, enjoyable six hours with a variety of wonderful performances — especially Don McKellar as a pretentious yet cowardly director and a fresh-faced, pre-Hollywood Rachel McAdams (Wedding Crashers) as an ambitious understudy — that plays like a sour-sweet television companion piece to Michael Frayn’s Rube Goldberg–like stage comedy Noises Off! WEEDS | Showtime| Sundays, 11 p.m.; repeats throughout the week.
SLINGS & ARROWS | Sundance | Sundays, 8 p.m.; repeats Wednesdays, 6 p.m.

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