May 20, 2009
Smoking the Stereotypes
‘Weeds’ creator Jenji Kohan delights in tipping over Judaism’s sacred cows.
Unlike most Hollywood writers, Jenji Kohan got her creative education at the family dinner table, where there was a subtle, but largely predetermined, genetic imperative to write. On any given night, those present included her Emmy-winning writer father, her acclaimed novelist mother and her quick-witted older twin brothers, each ready to one-up the last funny line spoken. In the Kohan household, peer pressure at school was a cinch; making the parents laugh was the more daunting challenge.
“Our dinner table was a really rough room,” said Kohan, the writer-creator of Showtime’s hit television series “Weeds.” “I have a really distinct memory of my brother telling fart jokes at the table, and my parents turning to him and saying, ‘Honey, fart jokes are funny, but it’s an easy laugh, and you can do better.’ We had to be more complex in our language.”
With the sacred family table an intellectual battleground and such a high premium placed on erudition, it’s no wonder Kohan wanted to rebel. Her earliest fantasy was to be a famous actress-singer named Rainbow Star. But she couldn’t act. Or sing. Years later, after some time working in television, Kohan considered rabbinical school. But none of those whims proved as powerful as her (very Jewish) birthright, which has catapulted Kohan to many a writer’s highest aspiration, helming her own TV show.
“None of us were supposed to go into the business. We were supposed to go to law school; we were supposed to go to med school. I was supposed to sit on a bench at Cal Tech and meet a nice guy — my mother told me one day: I should go sit on a bench.”
Isn’t it apropos then, that Kohan, herself now an Emmy-winning writer, created the darkly comic satire “Weeds,” a show about the peculiar nature of American domesticity? Originally set in the fictional suburb of Agrestic (later Majestic), the show follows the widowed, single mom Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), who becomes her community’s dope dealer in order to support her bourgeois lifestyle. Armed with louche connections and iced lattes, she raises her two sons, Silas and Shane, with limited assistance from her cute-but-useless brother-in-law, Andy, a kind of surrogate father whose maturity leveled off at 13.
The show’s fifth season, which starts up on June 8, is rumored to include a Levirate-style love story between Nancy and her brother-in-law/pot-dealing partner (in the Bible, duty demands a man marry his brother’s widow, only here Andy it seems might really enjoy the obligation). The Botwins have relocated now, having fled the suburbs at the end of season three, when Nancy’s operation imploded and she was forced to torch her own home in the midst of a wildfire. Their new neighborhood is Ren Mar, a beachy town near Mexico (really Manhattan Beach), where Nancy gets roped into an operation that smuggles drugs, guns and human beings across the border.
Neither “Weeds” nor Kohan fit any classic stereotype. In Kohan’s suburbia, the seduction of drugs, political corruption, adultery and Oedipal issues far overshadow the grim realities of PTA meetings and carpools. There is underworld glamour to family life in “Weeds,” where the most perverse practices seem almost normal (a son follows his mother into the drug trade, wanton sex is openly discussed and nearly all the men at home lust one way or another for Mom). That “Weeds” also has some of the most original Jewish themes and characters on television today is a testament to Kohan’s dynamic approach to Judaism. If the most subversive mother ever imagined can be the show’s hero, then a Jewish character could be virtually anything.
“There are no boundaries,” Kohan said of her portrayal of Jewish characters. I interviewed her recently in front of an audience of women in entertainment assembled by Hadassah’s MorningStar Commission. “I think it’s actually a little patronizing to lump all Jews or Jewish characters and have them represent everybody.”
Kohan could be the Jewish girl next door. But there is edginess to her — her hair perpetually tousled, and she always wears those signature eyeglasses with the art-deco glamour. Kohan was born and raised in cushiony Beverly Hills before graduating into the West Hollywood “s—- box,” as she describes it, where she lived prior to her success. Her father, Buz Kohan, a frequent writer for the Academy Awards, among other gigs, is the recipient of 11 Emmys in a career that spans five decades. Her mother, Rhea Kohan, is a novelist, and her eldest brother, David, is a creator of the NBC sitcom “Will & Grace.” Kohan worked for her brother on “Will & Grace” during her leaner years, but decided his humor was too tame. “David took the big, commercial, funny route; I was always a little darker personally,” she explained, “and not terrific within the system. I had to make my own way.”
It makes sense that an irreverent, unorthodox mind like Kohan’s could conjure the quirky palette of Jewish characters that populate “Weeds.” They include Nancy’s deceased husband, Judah (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a hunky heartthrob who appears in dreams and home videos, as well as his brother, Andy (Justin Kirk), a slacker who cuts a fine figure (and posthumously competes with his dead brother’s sexual legacy) and has a ferocious wit. Andy’s shining Jewish moment came in season two, when he enrolled in rabbinical school in order to dodge military service in Iraq. At the yeshiva, he takes up with Yael, a pretty Israeli who works in admissions and with whom he engages in a sex act lewd enough for Showtime to intervene.
Kohan also admits that the rabbinical school subplot, in which a clever but completely ill-intentioned Andy sets down Judaism’s most sacred study path, “came out of a little sour grapes” on her own part. “I had just looked down the path of rabbinical school — like, what else could I do instead of this? — and was told I was ineligible because of my husband [who is not Jewish], and that pissed me off.”
Kohan isn’t big on conventions. “When people have these sacred cows, my urge is to tip them,” she said. Indeed, “Weeds” routinely deals with many of the most provocative, controversial themes on television. Any given season has its share of lawlessness, illicit relationships and an astonishing Freudian subtext (in one episode, Nancy catches her youngest son masturbating to a nude photograph of her). But, in fact, Kohan’s own life seems to conform to far more traditional standards: She is happily married to freelance journalist Christopher Noxon, with whom she has three children. And although Noxon isn’t Jewish, and doesn’t plan to convert, the couple made the choice to raise their children Jewish. Yet, Kohan says her conventional domestic life often propels her into the darker corners of storytelling. She’s attracted to seedier material because, as she puts it, “This is my rebellion, this is my fun.”
Just don’t expect her to care about what it all means. She is, above all, an entertainer. She hates the thought of using her work to impose her values on other people. And she’s equally irked at the notion that, as a Jew, she bears some special responsibility for dispensing polite and polished Jewish characters. “Why should a Jew be portrayed in some special light, as opposed to anyone else?” she grumbled. “I don’t look to improve the image, I look to creating complicated, complex, interesting characters with flaws, warts and all. I don’t necessarily concern myself so much with, ‘Is it good for women? Is it good for the Jews?’ — these big macro concepts. I’m much more interested in the humanness of the people I’m creating.”
Season four introduced Nancy’s Jewish relatives. The Botwins flee the smoldering burbs and hide at “Bubbe’s house” where, upon arrival, they discover 95-year-old Bubbe Botwin, comatose and hooked up to a ventilator. The only person looking after Bubbe is her son, Lenny (Nancy’s former father-in-law, played by Albert Brooks), a reckless gambling addict who feels the need to remind his grandkids that they are, genetically, spoiled gentiles. In addition to hating all non-Jews everywhere, Lenny is money obsessed and self-interested in all the worst ways — after he gives the green light to kill Bubbe, he plays the concentration camp numbers tattooed on her arm in the lotto, enlisting Nancy’s top client Doug (Kevin Nealon) to buy the ticket as a “shiva goy.”
Lenny is “religious,” but morally deficient. He’s a character most Jews wouldn’t want to know, let alone be associated with. Some have argued that Lenny is the most despicable character in “Weeds,” because his offensiveness seems specific to his Jewishness, funny on the show, but not at all flattering. He doesn’t defy stereotypes, so much as panders to them. It’s a kind of Jewish-centric worldview that is not spiritually engaged.
Talking to his grandson Shane about genocide, Lenny urges, “Genocide can happen again if we’re not vigilant.” Shane tells him that it has happened again — in Rwanda, Cambodia and Bosnia. Lenny scoffs, “No, no. It must never happen again to Jews. What do I give a s—- about the other places?”
For her own part, Jenji Kohan’s refusal to limit herself in her show’s creative content has made moral ambiguity a “Weeds” trademark. No topic is too grim, no character too depraved, “No one is allowed to be politically correct,” she said. Even some Jews have a place growing among the weeds.
“I think everything is available for laughs, no matter how tragic,” Kohan said about pushing the limits of entertainment.
Probe for questions, mine for humor and go deeper. It’s exactly how she likes her Judaism.
“For me, the essence of my Judaism is to ask questions — ask why, ask more. And in a way, the show allows me to follow that path of Judaism,” she said.