A major downside to the Peak TV era, and the countless new shows that pop up seemingly every hour, is that it’s much easier for the smaller shows — especially those that aren’t on major networks — to slip through the cracks, no matter how good they may be. One of the most notable casualties of this is TNT’s Claws, which premiered its second season last night to little fanfare, despite it being one of the most fun and juicy dramas currently airing.
Claws, created by Eliot Laurence and with Rashida Jones serving as an Executive Producer, is about five diverse women who work at a nail salon in sticky, swampy Florida. The first thing that jumps out are the colors: impeccably-done rainbow manicures, purple lipsticks, green neon signs, pink chairs. But the colorful nature of the show switches from warm to garish; the women, it turns out, are finding themselves plunged deeper and deeper into organized crime. It’s a neat twist, a bait-and-switch barely promoted by the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hint on the posters.
The first season — currently streaming on Hulu — is quick and addictive, filled with the twists and turns that are typical of crime dramas but, occasionally, subverted so they become genuine surprising. The characters, too, are surprising subversions: there’s always something deeper there. Desna (a resplendent Niecy Nash) owns the Nail Artisans salon and is the de facto leader, along with her vague boyfriend/criminal Roller (Jack Kesy). She’s the woman who keeps everyone together, even when the shit hits the fan — and it frequently does.
Niecy Nash’s performance, in which she deftly delivers the comedy and the tears, is worth it alone. Also at the salon are Polly (Carrie Preston), a fiercely loyal con artist back from a stint in prison; Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes), a butch lesbian who barely talks but provides the muscle; Jennifer (Jenn Lyon), a mother of two who is married to Roller’s brother and is sick of the crime business; and Virginia (Karrueche Tran), a former sex worker and the outlier of the group, originally thrown into the mix to fill Polly’s temporary absence. She quickly makes herself a necessary member of the crew.
The quality of the series depends entirely on these women, and the writers have done fantastic work creating multi-dimensional characters who go far beyond their on-paper descriptions. Claws is set in the male-dominated business of organized crime (even male-dominated on television; basically every early review mentions Breaking Bad) which provides some of the series’ best plots. It hinges on the frustrations of being a woman in the crime world, which is just a microcosm of the larger world: getting paid less, being taken advantage of, constantly talked over and ignored, viewed as stupid, disposable, and less than.
Throughout the first season (spoilers ahead), Claws takes these relatable frustrations and ramps them up with a mix of righteous anger, straight-forward humor, and more violence than you’d expect. In the pilot, Desna learns that not only have Roller and Uncle Daddy (the crime boss played by Dean Norris) screwed her over with money, but Roller has also been sleeping with Virginia. Claws eschews the typical love triangle that would drive most dramas. Instead, sick of being treated like shit, Desna clocks Roller over the head and drowns him in his lavish pool. When the drowning doesn’t take, and Roller pops back up and begins horrifically beating Desna, Virginia reappears to shoot him — and to save Desna’s life, despite their obvious distaste for each other. Claws isn’t subtle about the theme of female solidarity. It isn’t subtle about anything.
As the first season goes on, Claws relishes in bloody murders, agonizing cliffhangers, and truly heartbreaking reveals. It carefully deploys details about the women that make us grow to love them. Desna cares for her autistic brother Dean (Harold Perrineau) after a childhood spent in abusive foster homes. Polly’s only a pathological liar because she wants to be someone, anyone, other than herself, but a young girl in trouble helps her find some self-acceptance. Even Quiet Ann talks long enough to fall in love with a detective investigating her friends, creating a dire inner conflict. At the same time, the stakes (and bodies) ramp up: the presumed-dead pop up again, relationships begin and end, boyfriends aren’t what they seem, Desna faces almost-certain death numerous times, and the simple money laundering turns into doing business for the Russian mob. Season two, which remains stellar in its first two episodes, largely revolves around the women adjusting to their new Russian bosses — who may be even worse — and a number of absurd, infectious plot points.
Indeed, Claws includes a wealth of ridiculous plots that stretch believability and a number of fantastical (and fantastically fun) scenes. At one point, Uncle Daddy — a married bisexual man with a boy toy on the side — lounges by the pool watching synchronized swimming set to Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” In another episode, the five main women celebrate good news with a choreographed dance to “Lady Marmalade” — juxtaposed with a gruesome murder.
There’s no logical reason why most of these characters are still alive, and it’s unfathomable that the cops are this clueless, but that doesn’t really matter. Sure, some parts of Claws require you to stretch your imagination, but that’s part of the fun. After all, we’ve had plenty of ridiculously-plotted, male-driven crime shows on television — isn’t it time for the women to have some fun?