For TV to deal with substance abuse, someone usually has to get arrested. Outside of cop shows, however, addiction is not just a legal matter but also a way of life. Now, two series are giving it a sophisticated eye--by playing it for laughs.
Showtime's Weeds (Mondays, 10 p.m. E.T.) focuses on the supply side. Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) is a housewife in fictional, upscale Agrestic, Calif., whose husband dies, leaving her with two sons and too little insurance money. So she starts dealing marijuana to bored salarymen. Soon Nancy discovers a whole illicit world of suburban toking: a young dealer gripes to her that his inventory was tapped out by stoners watching the bird documentary Winged Migration at the multiplex. Far from hardening her, her tiptoe into the grass has Nancy "beginning to think I am extremely naive."
Secrets in the burbs is a hoary theme, and Weeds begins unfortunately, with the suburbia-spoof folk classic Little Boxes ("... and they all look just the same") playing over the credits. Showtime likes to hammer viewers with its high concepts--The L Word, Fat Actress--and the note tied to this particular brick is, "This comedy will satirize the suburbs." But Weeds proves far more complex about Nancy and her neighbors. She's a criminal and a fiercely caring mom, a hypocrite with true morals. Even her superficial neighbor Celia (Elizabeth Perkins), who nicknames her chubby daughter "Isabelly," proves to have a soul that the Botox hasn't completely paralyzed.
Parker's laid-back delivery, which can seem mannered in some roles, is perfect for the shell-shocked Nancy, and the characters are well realized almost down the line. (The exceptions are her egregiously stereotyped black pot suppliers.) Creator-writer Jenji Kohan gives Weeds an arch yet dreamy tone that improves on its two obvious influences. It's Desperate Housewives with nuance, Six Feet Under without the self-seriousness, a pot comedy worth the buzz.
On FX's crudely brilliant Starved (Thursdays, 10 p.m. E.T.), the drug of choice is food. The show has a Seinfeldian quartet--sarcastic New Yorkers, three guys and a gal--but their meeting place is a toughlove eating-disorder group. (Ironically, though, they also hang at a diner.)
Creator-writer Eric Schaeffer (who stars as compulsive eater Sam) says he has battled eating problems in real life, and perhaps as a result Starved treats Sam and his friends with sympathy but not sentimentality. They are people, not case studies. In the pilot, for instance, Sam dates a sweet girl whom he tricks into dressing like an actress from a cookie commercial. He does this, we see, because of deep body-image and intimacy issues (also because he's kind of a jerk).
As with Weeds, some will believe the subject matter cannot be funny because it should not be. Neither sitcom is for those who want easy answers from TV. The rest of us will be hooked. --By James Poniewozik