Now here’s an interesting, illuminating example of what’s going on right now in the TV racket: a series called Good Girls.
The show, an odd hybrid of comedy and drama, debuted on NBC last January. Not much fanfare, but reasonable ratings. It’s a one-hour show and both networks and audiences tend to struggle with one-hour shows that are genre-benders. First, it feels like a sitcom and then it seems to be a drama. And with the necessary insertion of commercial breaks, the pacing is very tricky.
Now, Good Girls is streaming on Netflix this month and it’s definitely a hit. At 10 episodes and with each lasting about 45 minutes (since there are no ad-breaks), it’s a perfect summer binge show. More important, the merits of the series become crystal clear on Netflix.
At first glance, the premise looks middling-interesting. Three suburban moms, all under financial strain, take a desperate leap and rob a grocery store. Then things go awry. A store manager recognizes one of them, the haul of cash is huge, not the thirty grand they expected, which means somebody is definitely going to want the money back. These women are in way, way over their heads.
The core cast is excellent. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) plays Beth, who’s married to a doofus who runs a used-car business and is busy having a midlife crisis. Retta (from Parks and Recreation) plays Ruby, a hardworking waitress with a young daughter who needs expensive medication for a failing kidney, something that she and her husband, a security guard, can’t afford. Mae Whitman (Parenthood) is Annie, Beth’s younger sister, a single mom toiling at a store checkout and worried that her ex-husband, who has remarried rich, will get custody of her son.
NBC pitched it as a cross between Thelma and Louise and Breaking Bad. That sort of tagline indicates desperation about the difficulty of actually nailing down the show and its appeal.
It is in fact a dark comedy, a very difficult genre to shape and deliver with style and substance. It’s also an acidly feminist story, one that came out of NBC’s “Female Forward” initiative, aimed at employing more female directors and showrunners. Such initiatives live or die on the strength of what emerges creatively. It’s not enough to have a laudable effort.
With Good Girls, the result is a special kind of triumph. Even if things didn’t go exactly as planned for NBC. When NBC presented the show to TV critics in January in Los Angeles, we had seen only the pilot and it was hard to know what to make of it. Creator and producer Jenna Bans talked about “our little unique tone and little unique space we sort of carved out for ourselves in the network field.”
Hendricks talked about the shift from playing Joan on Mad Men to this contemporary enraged but calculating wife who breezes into criminality. “I think Joan’s situation was very specific, of its time, and it was sort of a one-and-done kind of thing for me. Beth has decided, ‘This kind of makes me feel good. I like the adrenaline. I like the power.’ So it’s really quite different.”
The upshot is that Good Girls asks a lot of the three actors. There are many comedy high jinks and there is a dark undertow that isn’t disguised as comedy.
This a series that opens with Ruby’s daughter giving a presentation at school. Her schoolgirl rage rises to a crescendo and she shouts: “We’re gonna burn this patriarchy down!” This is played for laughs but minutes later the three suburban moms are robbing a supermarket. That too is presented as a lark but it very quickly turns into something more sinister.
A deftly done strand of realism comes to the surface regularly. Beth’s ignorance of her husband’s financial situation is, dramatically, more important than her discovery that he’s having an affair with a comely young co-worker. Annie is hit on by the lecherous manager at her job but there’s a subtlety to that storyline which makes it transcend comedy about the hopeless, leering co-worker and aim, eventually, at something far more serious about rape culture. Like I said, dark comedy is very, very hard, but when it works well, it soars.
This show soars on Netflix, not NBC because the full flavour of it emerges when experienced in multiple episodes as a slow-burning fire of drollery and tough drama. For all the slapstick and zingers, it’s still a drama about three suburban Detroit mothers having a hard time trying to make ends meet.