As a criticism of the sprawl of suburban development in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1963, Pete Seeger made an appearance on the Top 40 list with a song called “Little Boxes.” The song clearly stated that all of the houses they were building looked like little boxes and, “they all looked just the same.” Written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962, the song was a protest of what she was seeing happen in neighborhoods across America.
Reynolds was a born protester. Her parents opposed U.S. participation in World War I and her high school consequently refused to give her a diploma. She married a labor organizer and took on social causes. But she also had a Ph.D. in English, studied music theory, and was fond of writing children’s songs. All of these factors are important when considering how “Little Boxes” encapsulates the essence of a story of straying away from the beaten path. The song would later become the theme song to the hit Showtime drama “Weeds” more than four decades later.
“Weeds” is an American dark comedy television drama that premiered on Showtime August 7, 2005. The show earned high ratings and two Emmy Awards. The drama centers on the character Nancy Botwin, a recently widowed mother of two boys living in the fictional Los Angeles suburb of Agrestic. After the unexpected death of her husband, Nancy begins selling cannabis to earn money for her family.
As the song plays in the opening credits, viewers get a bird’s eye view of tract houses appearing on a hillside, followed by a montage of the same car repeatedly, the same man jogging repeatedly, another walking out of a coffee shop repeatedly, and the same cars pulling out of driveways all at the same time. These images and the song are stressing the monotony of suburbia. The images are a visualization of Reynolds’ words, showing everything looking “just the same” as she was pointing attention to with the song. This allows the audience to empathize with why someone would write a song protesting the suburbs.
Quickly the show takes us down the rabbit hole of the life of a drug dealer. She meets many higher level drug dealers and does business with Mexican cartels and local gang members. Throughout her drug dealing antics, Nancy also tries to keep her underworld life away from her cookie cutter suburban life she lives with her children and neighbors. Nancy is behaving unethically according to the law and she tries to justify it by keeping her family’s financial interests in mind.
Reynolds’ song mentions how there are “doctors, and lawyers, and business executives, and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.” This is a clear parallel of the American Dream: to get a good job, and live in a nice house, with 2 children, so they can grow up to get good jobs and be just like you. However, Reynolds is not making it sound very appealing. Everything looking the same, and everyone doing the same things mean there is no creativity, no adventure. Nancy’s pursuit is different from that of her neighbors. Instead of finding a job, she opts to sell an illegal substance and put herself in danger.
During the second and third seasons, the opening credits were again accompanied by the Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes”, but sung instead by a different individual or group each time. Artists who provided covers for openers included Elvis Costello, Death Cab for Cutie, Engelbert Humperdinck, Kate McGarrigle and Anna McGarrigle (who sang the song in French), Regina Spektor, Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice, Randy Newman, Angélique Kidjo, Donovan, Billy Bob Thornton, The Shins, Joan Baez, The Decemberists, Linkin Park, and Rise Against.
The change in the performance of the song reflects how Nancy’s life is dramatically changing. As the pressures of her business begin to build up, the different performers in the beginning of every episode remind the viewers that things are not the same as they were in the beginning; the unpredictability of sound of the song is mirrored by the chaos Nancy faces in each episode.
As she gets deeper into the business, she deviates further from her previous ticky-tacky persona. Her attitude begins changing and she becomes wise to some of the realities her new industry. It soon affects her children, uprooting them from their suburban home and taking them to a number of different homes through the latter half of the series. So she literally leaves her ticky-tacky neighborhood as a result of her fall from grace.
I believe the show is saying that straying away from traditional paths may not necessarily make you a bad parent or a bad person. Selling drugs and getting involved with criminal networks may not be the best path to take, but it is easy to fall down rabbit holes when you wander away from society. “Little Boxes” is a criticism of the norm that the series used to represent Nancy’s escape from the pressures of suburbia as she goes down a dark path.
Ethically, Nancy is an antihero. The audience cheers for her because they see she is doing this for for family and her character is witty and enjoyable. However, she has a great deal in common with other “fall from grace” characters from film and television. Walter White from Breaking Bad took a similar path down a dark road from his similarly safe lifestyle when he began cooking crystal meth to save money for his family. He is likable but a streak of bad decisions strays him far away from his typical life.
A pattern of antiheroes leading cable shows can be traced back to Tony Soprano from HBO’s hit drama, The Sopranos. From here, shows such as The Wire and The Shield eventually took over.
Nancy being a woman was another rebellious decision the show made. One could argue that all the antiheroes listed “all look just the same” because they are all men. The female antihero deviates from the norm of dark dramas of the era because she also comes far from the housewife she once was. In the pilot episode Nancy is already established in her neighborhood and the audience watches her progression from that point, so she is never even seen as being a helpless woman.
Women are not specified in the theme song. Reynolds sings, “the boys go into business and marry and raise a family,” but does not mention what the women do, implying they are housewives. She is already rebelling against the lifestyle described in the song by taking lead on this show, rather than being second to a man. This could be the point Reynolds wanted to make, as a woman herself living during the 1960’s.
The pressure Nancy is under in the beginning with the PTA, soccer games, and nosey neighbors all frustrated her more as she became hardened after meeting local gangsters. The show makes many ironic points highlighting this when it shows that Nancy’s main clientele is middle aged, white collar individuals instead of the typical “burnout” more commonly shown smoking weed on television. As she progresses in the story, the team she forms are not typical drug dealers either. Her main dealer is a nerdy, closeted college student with identity issues and her finance man is a crooked accountant and one of her biggest customers. She learns from a grower, Conrad, who is street smart but is also out of his realm because he is working with Nancy in secret. Her business partners are all on their own fall from grace, paralleling Nancy’s.
So are these little boxes made of ticky-tacky a bad thing? Is it wrong that doctors, lawyers, and business executives play golf and drink martinis? Logic would tell us that getting a good job and doing things the legal way is the best way to provide for one’s family, but is it wrong to deviate from the norm? Some people do not want to fit into cookie cutter molds. Some people prefer to live off the land or build alternative forms of housing.
Nancy’s character matches the song because her failure to conform to the suburban life is such a strong theme in the show. She shifted her integrity and fell from the ideal of an ethical person in the society in which she lived. It was not a peaceful protest, but she did break the mold, which is what the song was trying to encourage.
Reichstein, Andreas. “Batman — An American Mr. Hyde?” Amerikastudien / American Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, 1998, pp. 329–350. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41157373.
Nancy is like Batman leading a double life. Here, Batman is compared to Mr. Hyde. I used the same logic to further characterize Nancy throughout.
Poniewozik, James. “The Greatest American Antihero.” Time, vol. 180, no. 3, July 2012, pp. 60–61. EBSCOhost, chaffey.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=77563327&site=ehost-live.
Ingram, David. “‘My Dirty Stream’: Pete Seeger, American Folk Music, and Environmental Protest.” Popular Music & Society, vol. 31, no. 1, Feb. 2008, pp. 21–36. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/03007760601061456.
Kohan, Jenji. “Weeds.” Showtime, 2005-2012.