The title sequence of Showtime's Weeds promises something dispiritingly familiar, another American Beauty-inspired television show about a conformist suburban wasteland littered with middle-class McHouses and populated by Stepford Wives. Add to that the premise of a single mother moonlighting as the neighborhood pot dealer, and the easy-bake recipe for subversive social commentary practically reheats itself. The small miracle of Weeds is that it delivers exactly that, but tweaks expectations just enough to feel inspired, becoming a caustic black comedy that's grounded by its heroine's determination to hold tight to the shaky rung of middle-class normalcy. Played with toughness and bracing wit by Mary-Louise Parker, she enters into the drug trade with a forward-thinking entrepreneur spirit and a surprising willingness to defend her turf from the thugs who encroach upon it.
Weeds picks up the action about a year after Parker's husband died suddenly, leaving her with two troubled boys and little money to pay off the mortgage and their prickly housemaid. Tooling around in her standard-issue Range Rover, Parker runs back and forth between a ghetto marjijuana compound run by a streetwise mother (Tonye Patano) and son (The 40-Year-Old Virgin's Romany Malco), and a burgeoning underground of white-collar stoners. With the help of accountant Kevin Nealon, who also happens to be her best customer, Parker establishes a bakery (or "fakery") as a front for her drug money and quickly works to expand her business into other territories, which leads to confrontation with competing dealers. Her deceptions are hard to contain, so it makes sense that her best friend of sorts is the imperiously bitchy Elizabeth Perkins, whose self-regard keeps her safely in the dark.
The series starts out a little shaky, with too many abrasive slights at the 'burbs and production values that dip well below the HBO standard, but it soon recovers. Helped along by a terrific cast, creator Jenji Kohan picks up the slack by introducing numerous snags in the business, including a screw-up brother-in-law (Justin Kirk) who's like Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count On Me, only not as tortured about his destructiveness. Kohan mostly resists the temptation to get too cutesy about her dope-pushing widow—for what not to do, see Saving Grace (or better yet, don't)—and the exceptionally versatile Parker makes her seem level-headed, resourceful, and real. In other words, a pretty cool mom.
Key features: Cast and crew commentaries on six episodes, "herbal recipes," and a strange marijuana mockumentary called Smoke & Mirrors.
(In stores July 11)