The Soft Bigotry of Sensemilla?

Curator's Note

In a cramped kitchen redolent with marijuana, a dreadlocked black woman wearing a bandana dispenses bud and bromides to a made-up, model slim white woman who relaxes against the kitchen sink, sipping home-brewed tea. It’s a typical scene in Showtime’s “Weeds,” now in its fourth season. The show presents an ironic – some might say alarming — take on upscale suburban life, a life of rampant ennui and incidental cruelties. Heylia James (Tonye Patano) is described by Showtime as “the strong-willed matriarch of an inner-city family.” The white woman in the scene, Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker), is a wannabe strong-willed woman, one whose gated-community family seems always on the verge of disintegration.

In a comedy where all the main characters either deal dope, smoke it in paralyzing quantities, or rail against it out of the sheer vacuity of their own existence, these little scenes are meant to anchor the show around the home fires of traditional values. The dirty little secret of “Weeds,” and part of its immense charm, is its celebration of traditional family values against a backdrop of broken marriages, horrific parenting and felonious business practices. By disavowing innocence, even in children, “Weeds” unearths rich comedic soil lying just under the shiny, plasticene surface of Agrestic.

But those kitchen scenes are rarely played for laughs. Instead, we are meant to see them as a dialogue between the rich white world and the working-class black world, a rare display of common ground. Here the show is on shakier ground, as we observe Heylia’s world mainly from Nancy’s point of view. Heylia exists when Nancy needs her, and not the other way around. And viewers must be wondering why Heylia, the supplier, continues to live in the “inner city” while Nancy, whose budding business is far down the food chain, maintains her toney address and SUV by slipping bud to the mayor and the local high school mafia. Is it just that whites are so clever? Or that black women are more comfortable in modest surroundings, despite their economic success?

Patano recently won a NAMIC Vision award for her role in Weeds, an honor given to cable programming that “reflects the world’s rich, multi-ethnic populace.” Whatever. In a show where the deaf girl is a brilliant hottie, the Latina maid is irascible, the white guys are incompetent and overpaid, and you can almost smell the Starbucks skinny latte on the brittle white housewives, a black woman in a mammy scarf risks becoming just another American television stereotype. Does Weeds really present a ‘vision’ of ‘rich’ multi-ethnicity? Or simply an admittedly clever reformulation of classic television tropes?

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