“Putting the Herb in Suburb”: The Use of Stereotypes in the Comedy of Weeds


A television series exploring drugs and the drug trade isn’t anything new to the small screen. A half-hour comedy revolving around it is. Premiering in August of 2005, Weeds was initially met with great critical acclaim, and its success has certainly not been short-lived – the show has since won 1 Golden Globe award and has garnered an impressive 10 Golden Globe and 19 Emmy award nominations[1]. Many critics saw and still see the show about a newly widowed housewife (Nancy Botwin, played Mary Louise Parker) selling marijuana in suburbia to make ends meet as a breath of fresh air not only into the ailing Showtime network, but into the half-hour comedic structure itself. But as innovative and “daring”[2] as the show’s first season may be, Weeds derives almost all of its comedy from tropes and socio-economic stereotypes that have been played with in film and on television for decades. What makes Weeds different is the way in which it plays with those ideas – rather than turning a stereotype on its head, the show finds both comedy and commentary in passionately committing to those stereotypes and taking them to their absolute extremes.

The most blatant trope utilized in the series is also a major pillar of the show’s premise: the idea that something sinister lies beneath the idyllic setting of the modern suburban development. Blue Velvet, American Beauty, Desperate Housewives and countless other film and television productions have explored this territory, however few have depended so heavily upon the setting as does Weeds. This suburban setting is no less important to the show than any one of its characters.  In fact, each major character on the show seems to be in some way a personification of  stereotypical suburbia – consumed with maintaining pristine appearances while always plagued with something dark.

Additionally, when it comes to the idea of false appearances, Weeds isn’t really that interested in any moral ambiguity, and the suburban backdrop ensures that there is none. Where all appears to be “right”, it’s pretty easy to pick out what’s “wrong”. The clean-cut scenery of Agrestic highlights the extreme behavior of its residents and heightens the comedy of the show. The single white mom selling pot in suburbia gets a lot more laughs than the single white mom selling pot in the projects.

There’s no mistaking that the creators of the show consciously recognized the importance of the suburbs within the reality of Weeds. Their thoughts and feelings on “just-add-water” communities such as Agrestic are in fact made very clear from the get-go with the use of this opening sequence and theme song:

Written and performed by 1960s activist Malvina Reynolds, this song while played over a montage of upper-middle class settings and activities truly does speak for itself. Within minutes of the show’s start, even the first-time viewer of the show gets that Weeds aims to expose that which isn’t meant to be exposed, and thus they should understand the comedy of Weeds instantly as well.

The series’ writers comment on the absurdity of suburbia in far more subtle ways too. “Agrestic”, the small town in which the show initially takes place, is a joke in and of itself. A word meaning “rural” and “unsightly”, it seems to poke fun at the fantastical names of so many upper-middle class community developments.

Celia Hodes, the show’s resident frenemy of the main character, is an obvious character-based extension of the upper-middle class white suburbs as well as one of the shows main sources of comedy. Absolutely consumed with appearances, she is that stereotypically perfection-obsessed soccer mom that everyone loves to hate times ten. In true Weeds fashion, both her words and her actions go above and beyond what one would expect to see in a standard archetype. Take this clip, for example, of Celia talking to her daughter about homosexuality:

This lecture is rather tame for Celia’s character. It is repeatedly made extremely clear that she is willing to go to any length to maintain her and her family’s pristine appearance – even if it means replacing her daughter’s chocolate with laxatives, for example.

Nancy Botwin and her coffee

Nancy Botwin, the show’s main character, also exhibits the hallmarks of a suburban mom. Though not psychotic in quite the same fashion as Celia, it still takes a person of a questionable mental state to turn to drug dealing as a way to support a family when it appears as if a legitimate job could just as easily be found. The show’s writers can again be seen commenting on suburban values through the examination of Nancy’s drug-dealing motives. She claims that she sells pot in order to maintain her life-style, however one has to question just how necessary it is to maintain such a life-style. She drives a Range Rover, has a live-in house keeper and always has an iced coffee in hand. She views what most would call luxuries as necessities, and is willing to put her family, her reputation and her own safety on the line to keep these “necessities”.

Sharply contrasting the stereotypical suburban landscape is the African American family that supplies Nancy with her weed. The family, led by the matriarchal figure Heylia, is portrayed every bit as stereotypically as the characters of suburbia. Heylia is a large, angry black woman that’s good at cooking and a mother to an unwed daughter with a new-born. Once again, these stereotypes are taken to extremes for the show’s comedic purposes, as in this clip:

Though the scene is arguably successful in it’s comedic intent, it’s really no wonder why some groups have criticized the show for its perpetuation of black stereotypes. Despite the fact that Nancy and all of her customers are white, she still finds herself going to African Americans for supplies and dealing advice.

As the first season progresses, though, it seems as if parallels are drawn between the various socio-economic groups. Nancy speaks to and treats her family in much the same fashion that Heylia interacts with hers. The poker table that Nancy’s customers gather around closely resembles the kitchen table that the dealers are always pictured sitting at. In one episode, Nancy’s son calls someone a “poor schmuck”. Immediately after this, Heylia’s daughter is shown saying the same words about a similar person. Weeds would be a much more superficial show if it kept it’s stereotypical worlds self-contained. It is the interactions between the stereotypes that give the series its unique comedy.

Heylia's kitchen table

Doug's poker table

Tonye Patano, the actress that plays Heylia, has some interesting commentary on the show’s use of  racial stereotypes:

Though I am obviously in absolute agreement with her comments about the show’s use of exaggerated stereotypes, I’m not sure that as the season progresses and the layers of each character are peeled back the characters become all that more real. In fact, I think they generally become more psychotic. But I don’t think that’s a problem – it’s what has attracted me to the show. On a superficial level it appears as if Weeds is perpetuating stereotypes, however in grossly exaggerating such characters the absurdity of stereotypical ideals is seen. The show exaggerates flawed thinking to the extent that it’s impossible for the viewer to overlook it. This gives the audience the opportunity to look inward and examine their own lives for similar though most likely much less pronounced patterns. Weeds offers an escape from what’s normal, and in doing so makes us think about what normal even means.

[1] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0439100/awards

[2] http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/09/05/050905crte_television



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