'Weeds' creator Jenji Kohan talks about whether Season 7 is the last and life as a showrunner
"Weeds" begins its seventh season Monday night, and rumor has it that it may be the show's last. Jenji Kohan, who created the series, says she doesn't know yet if this will be the last gasp for drug dealer Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker) -- newly out of prison -- who flees California this season for the anonymity of New York City.
Kohan is a child of showbiz. Her father, Buz Kohan, was an Emmy-winning TV writer and her brother David co-created "Will & Grace." But she says she hasn't always had the easiest time making her way in the industry. She took time from writing and filming the rest of the season to discuss the dark dramedy and her career as a showrunner.
Is this the final season of "Weeds"?
I don’t know. My deal’s up in January and I haven’t heard anything yet from the network or the studio, so I honestly couldn’t tell you.
Are you writing as if it's the end?
I’ve got two plans [laughs]. My favorite thing is having options.
So you're creating two sets of endings depending on whether it gets renewed?
It is not easy. But I don’t want to get caught with my pants down, I want to do [the ending] right.
Did you start out wanting to be a TV writer?
My impetus was vengeance, initially. I had an ex-boyfriend who said I had a better chance of getting elected to Congress than getting on the staff of a television show. I don't like to be told I can't do something. So I quit my day jobs -- I had three -- and I moved in with a friend studying for her medical boards. I'd watch tapes of shows and write my spec scripts and she would study anatomy. Now she heals people ... and I'm still doing the exact same thing.
What shows were you watching then?
At that time, it was "Roseanne" and "Seinfeld." I’d grown up on comedies like "Cheers" and "Cosby" and "The Life and Times of Molly Dodd." ... I really was influenced by ["Molly Dodd"]. I found it whimsical and smart, it was one of my favorite shows. And one of my first internships was with Jay Tarses [creator of "Molly Dodd"]. I thought, 'I'm going to sit at his knee and learn the secrets of brilliant television. But instead I was mixing dressing into salads and buying capuccinos for a crew -- this was before Starbucks!
What was your first writing job?
My first job was "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." ... My ex-sister-in-law's father gave my specs in an elevator to an agent who lived in his building. I got very lucky. I came from a family that worked in this business, but when I expressed my interest they were like, "Go to law school."
Before creating "Weeds," you worked on several shows with women at their center, including "Tracey Takes On," starring Tracey Ullman, and "Gilmore Girls."
"Tracey" was a huge turning point for me. What I learned on "Tracey" was how to run a healthy show, where everyone was good at what they do and kind to one another and when they're done, they go home. Not to mention that I had someone running the room who I could hand a piece off to who would immediately perform it and let me know how it was. I also learned I am not a performer. We'd turn in our drafts and the whole room would take parts and read them out and perform them for Tracey -- but I was quickly relegated to reading stage directions. I was the joke slayer. I hear it all in my head but it just doesn't come out of my mouth right.
I wish I had. There were people who taught me what to do and not to do. I was very influenced by Tracey, I was influenced by Peter Tolan. ... He was one of the first times that, when I got rewritten, it was better. And he allowed me to slip out of the room to breast-feed, which was really kind.
You wrote for some big shows, but why did it take so long to settle into a series?
I'm a big personality, shall we say? I realized early on my path it would be easier if I were in charge. Right after "The Fresh Prince," I wrote my first pilot. "Weeds" was my 17th. I thought, if I have to climb the ranks, it's just a lifetime of being fired. I need to find a side door! Every season I would write between one and three pilots hoping to win that lottery. It’s not only that I don’t play well with others -- I can. [But] I wanted children, I wanted to call the shots in my professional life. It’s hard to do that on staff because you serve at the will of the king. So after "Fresh Prince" I wrote a pilot that was similar to "Friends," and that got me onto "Friends." Then I got fired from "Friends." So I went to Nepal and quit showbiz -- but then I wrote a "Frasier" spec in the Himalayas. That made me realize, maybe I'm not quite done.
Eventually "Weeds" got picked up.
I had one shot for ABC, I had 10 for CBS. After toiling in fields of network for a long time, I reached a point where I decided I was willing to trade money for freedom. Which brought me to cable! And it was worth it. It was about creating my own universe both in terms of the workings of the show and what you see on the air.
"Weeds" has shifted direction more than any other show I can recall -- from a somewhat realistic suburban dramedy to this almost absurd, dark humored series. Was that always the intention?
It was never the plan. The real shift came when I found the writers were getting antsy and talking about projects they wanted to write in the off-season. And I got a little jealous. I said, What do we have to do here to bring all the creative energy back into the room? And they basically said, We're sick of suburbia. So I said, Let’s burn it down!
How far ahead did you plan the narrative? You keep pushing things further and further.
Everything was a year at a time. We write ourselves into a corner, we all go away and relax and then we come back and say, how do we get ourselves out of this mess that we made?
You said you have two endings in mind. Are you ready to wrap it up after 7 seasons?
I know how hard it is to get here. I’ve been doing this for a really, really long time and I know how good I’ve got it. It’s very hard to let go of that.
Are you working on other projects?
We talked about mentors: I really dont feel like I had that but I want my writers to feel like they did. So I’ve gone out on a bunch of projects with writers and hoping something hits. I have two pilots at Showtime that I’ve cowritten with two of my writers, one is with Mathew Salsberg and one is with Stephen Falk. I sold a show at Comedy Central with Dave Holstein, another one of my writers. ... I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. I want to set up all of my writers because they can all run a show, every single one of them. And I hope in my old age they’ll hire me.
-- Joy Press
Photo: Jenji Kohan. Credit: Showtime