Thursday, July 02, 2009

Weeds Vs. Californication: Learning From Jenji Kohan

Weeds is back -- it just started again on Showtime -- and it's as wild and crazy and compulsively watchable as ever. I love this show. But what makes it so much fun?

I started thinking about that question during my MFA workshops. So many of the stories we had to critique shared a flaw I came to think of as "Fear of Narrative". Pages full of lovely description and elilptical conversation would trundle by, but notthing would actually happen. People in the stories would remember things that had already happened, or contemplate making things happen in the future, but the writers struggled with a kind of inertia about real time events. Events have consequences. Trying to deal with those consequences causes more unpredictable things to occur. If you're not careful, causes and effects can start to cascade, like an avalanche ... with characters and relationships swept helplessly into the accelerating chaos, tumbling toward new catastrophes. Yikes!

But here's what Jenji Kohan, the sublime and magisterial guiding genius of Weeds understands that my fellow students never did: the avalanche is good. In fact it's the mainstay of Western literature. It even has a technical name, a single syllable whispered in the higher conclaves of the masters of fine arts. One word that the mandarins of prose -- from Shakespeare to Faulkner to Ian McEwan, speak with wary reverence:


Jenji Kohan understands plot. More happens in one half hour of Weeds than in all the stories I read at Vermont College put together. Terrible things happen, people over-react and even worse consquences crash down on them ... and they respond, and the response makes things even more awful ... and on and on. You wonder sometimes ... how can more disasters and calamities descend on poor Nancy Botwin? For instance ... she's been sleeping with a Mexican drug lord, and the police know her bridal store is a conduit for Mexican drugs, they've cornered her and she's ratted out her lover and he knows it and he's brought her to his house to show her the photograph of her with the FBI agent and kill her. What can she do? How about ... show him her own photograph: the ultrasound of his baby inside her. So now she's pregnant with the drug lord's kid and her own kids are running away from home and starting their own drug businesses and her brother-in-law is in love with her and her best friend Celia Hodes has been kidnapped and no one has the slightest interest in paying the ransom ...Well, that's the first half hour. God knows what will happen next, but you can sure something will. In fact you can be sure that A TREMENDOUS amount will happen, week in and week out. Because Jenji Kohan understands that's what makes for good story telling.

But this is the deeper secret she embraces: you have to be cruel to your characters. You have to hurt them and abuse them and make them suffer. I saw the lady herself in a little post-Weeds premiere interview. "I feel kind of bad for Celia," she gloated.You could tell she actually enjoyed torturing Elizabeth Perkins' character. All writers could benefit from a study of this fearless narative sadism and its effects.

One writer who might benefit more than most from such a schooling is Jenji's colleagueTom Kaponis, the head writer and creator of Showtime's Californication. He spent the entire first season building a narrative bomb, and then refused to set it off. We watch blocked writer Hank Moody trying to get back together with his ex-girlfriend Karen while he deals with the appalling Mia -- the daughter of Karen's new lover, Bill. Hank actually winds up working for Bill and sleeping with Mia. He has no idea she's only sixteen, or that she's Bill's daughter; he just thinks she's one more bookstore pick-up. Later he writes a short novel about the experience. Mia steals it and plagiarizes it.

Clearly the elephant wired with explosives in this room is the fact that Karen would drop Hank like a turd she mistook for a tootsie roll if she ever guessed about the statutory rape. The threat of this revelation hangs over the first season, but the bomb never quite goes off. Hank wins Karen back -- right in the middle of her wedding, no less. Everything seems perfect. What could wreck this idyll. Hmmm ... Hank sleeping around? Hank hanging out with a sleazy music producer and ghost-writing his autobiography? Really? Is that the best you could come up with, Tom? That's all you could find in the Californication room?Nothing else? No elephants strapped with dynamite anywhere? Honestly? Because, think about it: Hank has A VERY DISTINCT PROSE STYLE. He's famous for it. His agent recognizes it instantly when he reads "Mia's" book. Karen USED TO EDIT HIS WORK. No one knows Hank's writing better than she does. Doesn't this seem like the most obvious avalanche ever, just waiting to happen? As soon as Karen reads the book she'll know everything. Then what will she do? And what will Hank do? These are the kind of questions that matter to the audience -- and to Jenji Kohan.

But apparently not to Tom Kaponis. Sounds like Fear of Narrative to me.

Because you know what Jenji would have done in season two of Californication. In THE FIRST EPISODE Karen would have read the book and figured out that Hank wrote it, and figured out that he slept with a sixteen year old girl, and left him flat, and the scandal would have broken and Hank would have been arrested for stautory rape, and Bill would have fired him, and his daughter would stopped speaking to him, and ... and ... and then what? I have no idea, and you probably have no idea either -- and Tom Kaponis clearly has no idea.

But I'll bet you my MFA degree and all the money I paid for it that Jenji Kohan does. She would have blown up that elephant. She would have charged forward, made the worst things happen, tormented her characters, forced them to react, worked out the jumble of dire consequences on the fly, with a wink and a smile, as always.

I just wish she had gotten the chance, because Hank Moody deserves to have his real story told, with all its disgrace and loss and humiliation, however harrowing and crazy it might be.

And I'd really like to watch it.


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