NBC’s Good Girls is the type of drama that’s become very familiar in the age of the anti-hero, filled with well-meaning people who make one bad decision, then have to make two more to deal with the unexpected consequences of that first one, then more and more and more, until the story exhausts itself. It’s a quicksand drama, where the more people fight their predicament, the deeper they sink into it.
Through the series’ first three episodes (it debuts Monday night at 10), Good Girls itself winds up facing the same dilemma as its three title characters, fighting against the implications of actions it hasn’t entirely thought through, with plot choices often creating more problems than they solve. It’s fun at times, and has three strong performances by stars Christina Hendricks, Mae Whitman, and Retta, but it’s also kind of a mess.
The leads play three moms in rough financial situations: Hendricks’ Beth discovers that her husband Dean (Matthew Lillard, the go-to guy for playing inherently untrustworthy manchildren) is keeping big secrets from her, Whitman’s Annie is a cashier in a custody fight with her wealthy ex (Zach Gilford, having a busy spring between this show and Sundance Now’s This Close), and Retta’s Ruby is a waitress struggling to get her ailing daughter the expensive medical care she needs. Annie suggests robbing the supermarket where she works, but what’s intended as a one-time heist to generate emergency cash instead gets worse and worse as the women discover who really owns the money they stole, and what they’ll have to do to forgive this new debt.
The prime instinct of the series, created by Shondaland alum Jenna Bans (previously the mind behind ABC’s short-lived Off the Map and The Family), is to keep things relatively light, breezy, and relatable. During the robbery, for instance, Beth can’t resist trying to calm down a frightened little girl she’s temporarily holding hostage by talking about Doc McStuffins, while all three women instantly violate the promise they make to each other about sitting on the money for a bit, making absurdly big purchases when they should be avoiding police attention. Each lead is given a sympathetic reason for veering into a life of crime, with the subplot about Ruby’s daughter — particularly a pair of scenes contrasting the type of doctor she can see before and after her mom’s illicit new fortune — successfully pushing all the desired emotional buttons. (You’ll know you’re being manipulated, but good luck resisting.)
But in order to make this an ongoing series rather than a one-shot, Bans has to keep piling on complications and make some of them dark enough to explain why Beth, Annie, and Ruby don’t simply divvy up the loot and walk away. And what’s necessary to keep the story moving is often wildly at odds with the tone of the rest of the show. One minute, there’s a wacky subplot about Ruby trying to prevent a single woman at church from making a move on her husband Stan (Reno Wilson); the next, guns are being pointed at the women’s heads as they sob and plead for their lives. There’s an attempted rape scene late in the pilot, played with the appropriate level of gravitas and rage, but then the attacker is kept around as broad comic relief. A lot of individual pieces succeed, in part due to the versatility and appeal of the three leads — Whitman’s spent her whole career zipping back and forth between laughs (Arrested Development) and tears (Parenthood), and Hendricks (Mad Men) and Retta (Parks and Recreation) have both on their resumés, too — but too many scenes are at odds with one another. It’s hard to take the threats completely seriously because there were just four jokes, and the jokes in turn are often less funny than intended because of the danger involved.
It’s far from unprecedented to marry comedy and drama in this kind of show. Breaking Bad, the most famous and influential example of it, was often among the funniest shows of its era, as well as the most tragic. But that series was palpably committed to the full dramatic weight of its premise, so that when the punchlines came, they felt only like temporary respite. Good Girls’ heart, on the other hand, seems more in the absurdity of these friends trying to become master criminals, and that’s a more difficult end of the spectrum to lean on while still asking to be taken seriously when necessary.
The stars are strong enough that a lot of it’s more effective than it should be. Bans and her directors understand, for instance, how gifted Hendricks is at conveying information without speaking, and some of the show’s best scenes involve just watching Beth try to think her way out of the latest jam. And the timing for the show feels absolutely right for the #MeToo moment: the attempted rape is later undercut by the need for jokes, but the scene itself is fire, particularly a moment where the retreating attacker tells one of the women not to get upset, to which she indignantly replies, “Oh, do I look upset? Why would I be upset? ‘Cause every man in the world thinks he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants?”
Good Girls is timely enough, and has been promoted enough during the Winter Olympics, that I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s an instant hit — which will hopefully give the creative team enough time to figure out exactly what kind of show they want it to be, and how to make the individual components fit together better than they do early on.