Mary Louise Parker has been a consistent, if never technically regular, presence in ‘The West Wing’ for a number of years now and has made show-stopping appearances in, amongst other things, ‘Angles over America’. Every time I’ve seen her perform she’s struck me as having a vast untapped potential to be the generically thirty-something lead of her own TV show.
She’s undeniably funny, obviously smart, clearly an exceptionally capable actress and, yes I’ll admit it, really very sexy. That she didn’t have her own show already was always clearly some kind of spectacular oversight that would surely be corrected in time.
Well, obviously someone agrees with me, for a change, and HBO have obliged by providing her with ‘Weeds’ in which to star. In it she plays a suburban American Mother who has resorted to dealing cannabis in order to make ends meet. Although pitched at that point that American TV insists of referring to as ‘dramedy’ (yuck), i.e. serious plots but plenty of funny lines (that’s lines of the dialogue, rather than the drug, kind) the script for the show’s opening episode manages to be serious and funny in a way that series described that way often don’t manage.
It doesn’t shy away from the moral complexities of such a life (‘no dealing to kids’ ) even while simultaneously being crassly amusing in its verbiage (‘If they’re not old enough to bleed, they’re not old enough for weed’) and it bounces along at a fair old pace while sketching in lots of details about its characters and their world. The dialogue crackles with references, opinion and put downs. ‘The Passion of the Christ’ is a ‘full on snuff movie’ only bearable when stoned; Law and Order’s Jerry Orbach is ’strangely compelling’ to the recently widowed lead; Al Shrapton is to be listened to, if not taken entirely seriously.
In terms of Parker’s family life there seems to be an entire teen soap happening in the margins of her existence, one of which she is only peripherally aware. The attitude that the series takes to dope-smoking, seeing it as normal and ‘dealing’ it as a technically illegal profession less risky than, say, owning the other kind of drug store is bound to outrage some, but it’s not the most innovative, nor impressive, part of the show. American TV divides women up into two basic categories (‘Mother’ and ‘Girlfriend’) even more so than American film does. This attitude extends even to series where the characters affected by this odd constraint are of the peripheries. Consider (the female friendly to the point of being actively feminist) ‘Buffy, The Vampire Slayer’; is there any real reason for Buffy’s mother to be quite so firmly middle-aged other than the audience’s presumed need for the character to be overtly matronly?
There are countless other examples of television shows where someone’s Mother’s age is effectively bumped up by half a generation in order to provide an obvious age gap between them and their teenage offspring (who are likely to be played by people approaching thirty anyway). Mother figures are, of course, not allowed to display any character traits other than the purely maternal – and if they ever do it’s an aberration, almost as if TV land was stuck in the eternal Eisenhower era of ‘Happy Days’.
Parker is, while young, vivacious, attractive and fashionable, also clearly no mere girl and yet, instinctively, the part she’s playing seems wrong for her. Then you realise it’s wrong for her only in terms of TV logic. In terms of reality, in terms of mathematics, the mid-thirtysomething Parker as the unexpectedly widowed Mother of teenage boys makes perfect sense. In fact, it’s only the fact that she’s widowed rather than divorced make her ‘re-emerging into dating’ at the same time that her sons are growing up and becoming, er, ‘active’ themselves that makes her any different from thousands of women across the Western world. That she’s an intelligent, capable, interesting character is even more admirable.
Whether she’s a role model or not (and I think she probably could be, given time) Parker’s Nancy is the kind of character that TV has notably avoided featuring because of it generically fears the notion of women over twenty five having either sex or responsibilities, never mind both. Funny, relevant, timely and clever, ‘Weeds’ has the potential to develop into genuinely exceptional television.