What makes Nancy Botwin, in a strange kind of way, a sympathetic character, as she is a weed-dealing mom that has no control over her two kids who experiment with drugs and sex at an age that Pokémon cards are still cool. She sleeps around, has criminal friends, sets her own house ablaze, smoothers her grandma, and has no problem setting up a bakery (season 1) or a maternity clothes store (season 4) as a ‘front’ for white washing drugs money. Is it that sometimes she breaks down and we witness her struggle to keep coming up for air since her loving husband was struck dead by a heart attack? Is it that she has moral limits too: no drugs for kids (!), and when drugs dealing leads to frontier running she betrays her Mexican boss, who she is romantically involved with…It is not that all is without consequences, people end up in jail, get beaten up, are tortured and even die. But life in the suburbs is undisturbed, as the opening credits of each episode make all to clear.
It is fiction you might say, but research into the importance of realism on emotional response shows that whether it is fiction or real does not explain variance in enjoyment. Also voyeurism, peeking into someone else life, does not differentiate reality show that much from fictional shows. So, something else must be going on. Maybe it has, among other things, to do with emotional involvement. Emotional involvement covers a wide range of responses from detachment strategies to empathy and identification. The detachment strategies are very similar to coping strategies found in stress research: looking away, denial, intellectualism et cetera. Maybe this sounds familiar when watching a horror movie or a bloody scene on the news. On the positive side their are empathy, feeling close to the other, and identification, being the other. Maybe the strength of the show is that there are hardly any scenes that might trigger detachment strategies, whereas there are several scenes in every episode that put a smile on your face or that show the sympathetic struggle of Nancy: she is tired and wants to take a bath, she doesn’t understand her kids, she blames herself for acting stupid, and she misses her dead husband. ‘Weeds’ drives us straight into the arms of empathy. So when Nancy discovers a hidden tunnel running from her store to the other side of the border in Mexico, we all lip sync with her: ‘What the F’.