Maybe THE idea of a suburban mom selling pot just wasn’t that subversive anymore. After all, cable TV also has suburban chemistry teachers making meth (“Breaking Bad”) and suburban polygamists (“Big Love”) hiding in tract homes. Even CBS is about to show suburban couples in mutual adultery (“Swingtown”).
Maybe, as creator Jenji Kohan explained, the writers on “Weeds” were more excited about new projects they had in the works than the one they’d been writing for three seasons.
In any case, as writers embarked on the fourth season of Showtime’s hit dramedy (returning June 16), Kohan decided to change the show’s premise, moving Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) out of her natural habitat to someplace less stifling -- a California beach town near the Baja border. “It’s a big TV taboo to move a show,” she said. “The conventional wisdom is, you’ve built an audience that is tuning in to see this setting. If you move it, they’ll get upset.”
They still might. But Kohan, who revels in tweaking convention, said the borderlands offer an abundance of new opportunities for Nancy and her often raunchy and profane entourage to toy with sexual, political, racial and religious taboos. And to resharpen the show’s original, sometimes precarious, edge.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, creative arguments between Kohan and Parker have subsided, they both said, as a new executive producer directed the transition from the towns of Agrestic to Ren Mar. Parker, who won a Golden Globe for her role as the charming, self-centered widow and mother of two, said she was impressed with the changes. “I’ve never seen that. It’s pretty brave,” she said. “I like that.”
The cast couldn’t go home again, anyway. In the Season 3 finale, Nancy rode off into the sunset on a Segway with Agrestic in flames behind her. At loose ends, she decides, in the Season 4 premiere, to move in with her estranged father-in-law (Albert Brooks) who lives in a scruffy house in a seaside town something like Del Mar. Establishing shots show Tijuana and the border crossing, but most outdoor locations were shot in Manhattan Beach. (Indoor scenes were filmed at the not-so-coincidently named Ren-Mar Studios.)
The geographic change precipitated many others, and soon the operating word for Season 4 became “reinvention.” Malvina Reynolds’ popular and much-covered theme song, “Little Boxes,” had to go, along with the scene-setting titles that featured identically dressed suburbanites driving identical cars in identical neighborhoods.
The first episode will open with an empty swing set as a transition. After that, short title cards will introduce the theme of each episode and there will be no new music. “We weren’t going to beat ‘Little Boxes,’ ” Kohan said.
Some characters (business partners Heylia, Vaneeta and budding love interest Conrad) were left behind. Others, including brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk) and Nancy’s partner Doug (Kevin Nealon) have their reasons for tagging along. BFF Celia (Elizabeth Perkins), who took the fall for Nancy last season after informing on her, is preoccupied with jailhouse issues of her own.
Notably, Brooks will return to television in a special guest-star role as Nancy’s father-in-law, Len Botwin, who cares for his comatose mother at home. And Nancy’s old supplier Guillermo (Guillermo Diaz) will have a bigger role teaching her about trafficking on the border.
In this election year, Kohan said, the writers are exploring hot-button issues in the national debate, such as immigration and the drug trade. For homework, the creative team did a ride-along with the border patrol in Tijuana on a random weekday afternoon and returned with a treasure chest of dramatic scenarios, she said.
When THE show was set in what looked like the Valley, its fans -- surprisingly, a large number of teens and college students -- liked its outlaw tone, even if the outlaw was a fortysomething single mom who still had friends on the school board. The characters were outrageously outspoken in the way allowed only by pay cable. Their politics were clearly to the left: Nancy’s son once won a school debate contest with a two-word argument for the popular vote: “George Bush.” A cross stolen from a church was used as a grow light for marijuana plants. Heylia observed that white neighbors who greeted her with a cheery “Hello!” were really saying, “I’m not a racist.”
After its first season as Showtime’s top-rated original series, “Weeds” settled in as No. 2, behind “Dexter.” Last year, the show became the network’s most-watched by the cherished 18-to-34 demographic. Parker won the Golden Globe in 2006 for her performance, and the series has received several Emmy Award nominations.
Not all critics felt the show succeeded completely, but others raved about its offbeat sensibility, a wry, dark tone popularized by shows such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Arrested Development.”
In Season 4 as before, “We go after everyone,” Kohan said. “No one’s exempt.” Nancy refers to Ren Mar’s blond surfers as “beach Nazis,” and much is made of her Jewish father-in-law’s disappointment that his son married a shiksa.
The point, Kohan said, is to show that you can still like some people who do, think or say awful things. “It’s up to individuals to make their case,” she said. “So much of this show exists in gray areas. There are well-intentioned people who screw up, bad people who get rewarded,” she said.
Parker said that Nancy doesn’t make what she would call admirable choices, but she does have “a certain charm. Charming people are not always kind. You can be seduced by what looks like sweetness, but it’s not. It’s a misplaced narcissism. Sometimes it’s a survival technique. Sometimes it’s just hollow.”
To Kohan, the mix is comforting, a sign that all people are flawed and doing the best they can. “No one is living up to the unreal expectations placed on us.”
“Weeds” fit ideally into Showtime’s quest for the unconventional and controversial -- and predictable questions were raised in the first seasons about the basic premise of a mother selling pot. Some others were shocked that Celia jokingly told her daughter she wished she’d had an abortion. Kohan said her own children, ages 8, 6 and 2, don’t watch the show. But “teens are very sophisticated. It’s not my job to monitor what people watch. If kids are watching a cable show in the middle of the night, it’s inappropriate and not my responsibility.”
Kohan belongs to a family of creative heavies, including her father, Buz, an Emmy-winning comedy writer; her brother David, co-creator of “Will & Grace”; her husband, writer Christopher Noxon (“Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up”); and his sister Marti Noxon, formerly an executive producer on “Brothers & Sisters.” Kohan’s credits also include work on “Sex and the City” and “Will & Grace.”
This season of “Weeds” may also draw flak for situations and dialogue involving children. Indeed, Kohan said, “My biggest concern is for the children [actors] in our show. We do pretty edgy stuff.” She said some scenes involving children were shot separately, so that the young actors were not on a set when adult actors were filming a sex scene, for instance. “Once the show is cut together,” she said, “it will look pretty bad.”
Nancy, however, will be called upon to make some tough moral decisions, Kohan said.
In an environment free of the typical social conventions of suburbia, Nancy has a chance to build a life on her own terms, Kohan said. According to Parker, the task is like breaking an addiction to her old environment. It requires her character to become more aware and more proactive than she’s ever been.
Until this season, Parker said, Nancy has been “propelled from one thing to the next by the momentum of her depression and disassociation.” But each season, as the tone has grown darker, her character has become less passive, she said. “Before she was kind of nowhere. Now she’s at least in the present without a clear understanding of past or future.”
This season Nancy will have a new boss, played by Demian Bichir, and a new love interest. Those close to the production would not say whether the sexy star’s character turns out to be one and the same.
The complicated role of Nancy was always hard to pin down emotionally, Parker said. “She’s pretty narcissistic. She relates to people based on what she needs from them.” She has a dry wit but mostly laughs at others. And she behaves naively as if nothing could ever hurt her. “I can’t relate to that,” Parker said.
In shooting the new season, Parker said she’s had to deal with Nancy’s new voices. “It takes consideration to bring it together,” said Parker, who had worked onstage and in movies before taking this role. One recent evening after a day of shooting, she said she realized she had put too much of herself into a big scene. She said she beseeched director (and co-executive producer) Craig Zisk to reshoot it the next day. Though television’s quick pace typically precludes such reshoots, Parker said Zisk found the time. They were both happier with the result, she said.
That wasn’t always the case in the early days when news spread about a rift between Parker and Kohan over creative issues. Parker said she’s not really interested in “likability,” a key issue for television executives.
“She’d never done television before,” Kohan said. “There were characters and material she often found objectionable. TV is different from theater and movies. There’s a different relationship between the writer and performer. We had to find common ground.”
“It’s impossible to work with someone every day and not disagree with them,” Parker said. “I don’t know if she [Kohan] has had a lot of people disagree with her.”
Now, both said, they had put those conflicts behind them and have been able to develop a respect and an affection, even, though they might not ever be lunch buddies. Kohan said now when disagreements arise, they can talk about them or, if not, e-mail or communicate through Zisk.
“She’s brilliant at what she does,” Kohan said of Parker. “She breathed life into this character. We made our peace. We share the baby.”
How long the on-screen drama in Ren Mar will last is anybody’s guess. “We’ve mapped out at least two years here,” Kohan said. “Who knows where life will go from here? To a certain extent, we reinvent the show every season. This is just a larger reinvention.
“I can’t think too far ahead or my head will explode.”