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In 'Weeds,' puffs of promise ultimately go up in smoke

The idea of ''Weeds" is wonderfully perverse. To solve her money woes, a widowed mother deals pot to the upper-middle-class stoners in her California town. She slips them rolled-up baggies at soccer matches and bakes resinated treats so they can get baked at their poker games. She's Little Mary Jane Sunshine, spreading THC to the PTA on the QT. The Showtime dramedy, which premieres tomorrow night at 11, aims to light up the American suburban myth, to be a sort of ''Desperate Housewives" with roach clips and bongs.

Think of the great potential for moral dodge and dart. Nancy Botwin is a good mother, just as Tony Soprano is a caring father. She's a woman with no skills who'll do anything to keep her family living in the manner to which they're accustomed, even breaking the law. And she claims to have ethical parameters -- no sales to kids, for example. She's also sympathetic as a grieving wife whose husband, whom we see in home videos, was a family man. The title of the series refers to her tragedy as much as to her merchandise, since some cultures require widows to wear ''weeds" -- mourning dresses -- for long stretches.

And most promising of all, ''Weeds" features Mary-Louise Parker as Nancy. Parker is an unusual actress because she can fill the screen with a sweetly recessive presence. She can transform ordinariness into Ordinariness, something iconic and engaging. And underneath her cautious facade, waves of cynicism and irony set her eyes to rolling. She's perfectly cast as the sane one in the ''Weeds" neighborhood of uninhibited nuts, who include Kevin Nealon as her ever-stoned financial adviser and Elizabeth Perkins as her rabidly superficial best friend.

And yet, and yet. ''Weeds" doesn't pull it off. It's a fresh idea cast with good actors that doesn't quite jell into much of anything, at least in the five episodes available for preview. Despite its unique premise, the show delivers little more than network sitcom material tarted up with cable raciness.

It's also disjointed. Creator Jenji Kohan and her writers don't seem to know where to go with the scenario, as the narrative lurches unevenly, dropping characters and subplots as it picks up new ones. Pot does lend unity to the show, but mostly just as an oft-repeated joke, as in ''Look at Nancy chatting about low-carb diets while weighing ounces of marijuana."

Nancy's two sons are integral to ''Weeds," but they're given painfully familiar WB-style plotlines. Will teenager Silas (Hunter Parrish) have sex with his girlfriend? Meanwhile, younger brother Shane (Alexander Gould) misses his dad and gets picked on by bullies. Like too many TV children, both boys talk suspiciously like adults, particularly Shane as he psychoanalyzes his own misbehavior to the school principal. The makers of ''Weeds" don't seem to have a vision for these kids, or whether they'll ever know the secret ingredient in Mom's recipes.

Perkins's Celia, too, doesn't get an engaging plotline, as she learns her husband is having an affair and seethes. Perkins is great fun to watch, stealing scenes as a critical monster of a mother who badgers her daughter to lose weight, even going so far as to replace her chocolate bars with Ex-Lax. She is forever scandalizing the dull folks in the show's town of Agrestic. But after a few episodes, the writers mistakenly try to make Celia sympathetic, and they wind up making her pathetic, saddling her with a third-rate soap opera twist.

Nealon clearly enjoys his role as one of Nancy's more feckless customers, but he's relegated to redundant comic relief. Same goes for Nancy's supplier, a black family that walks the line between stereotypical and endearing. These folks -- including Heylia (Tonye Patano) and Conrad (Romany Malco) -- live in the inner city and do nothing but package pot in the kitchen and ignore gunshots on the street. They're annoyed by the white lady, but also amused by her, with Heylia calling Nancy ''Betty Cracker" after she learns how to cook pot treats.

The show relies on the shock value of pot, but weed makes appearances all over the pop culture world these days, with rock stars chatting openly about using it in Rolling Stone and ongoing riffs about it on TV shows such as ''Arrested Development" and ''Six Feet Under." ''Weeds" needs a richer story line and consistent writing to be more than a drawn-out old novelty. It needs to aim higher.

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