'Good Girls' should be badder

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Retta, Christina Hendricks, and Mae Whitman in “Good Girls.” (Photo: Danielle Levitt/NBC)

If you’ve got a cast headed up by Christina Hendricks (Mad Men), Retta (Parks and Recreation), and Mae Whitman (Parenthood), you’re well on your way to making something that ought to be entertaining. After all, those are three interesting performers who have an intriguing mix of acting styles. And Good Girls, premiering Monday on NBC, has a clever premise: This trio are working-class women, “good girls” who are financially stressed and pull off a robbery that results in a big mess that threatens their lives. And the whole thing is presented with a light touch, half high-stakes drama, half screwball comedy.

Set in a Detroit suburb, Good Girls gives us Beth (Hendricks), whose car-dealer husband (Matthew Lillard) is cheating on her; Ruby (Retta), whose daughter needs expensive medical treatments; and Annie (Whitman), a store cashier fighting her ex-husband (Zach Gilford) for child custody. Beth and Annie are sisters; Ruby is their pal. Together, they’re a buddy-comedy in action, doing lots of wisecracking, with pauses for poignant moments in which they ponder their gloomy futures. In the premiere episode, they rob the dollar store where Annie works, a small-time theft that backfires big-time when a group of heavily armed thugs targets them. The women plan their solution to this life-threatening situation between scenes of making lasagna and attending their kids’ soccer games.

If you’ve seen NBC’s publicity campaign for this new show in ads that have been airing frequently during the Olympics, you know that the network has absolutely no idea how to promote this thing created by writer Jenna Bans. Bans has worked on Shonda Rhimes shows like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, and Bans is continuing Rhimes’ sisterhood-is-powerful theme in her own show. But where Rhimes’s go-to genre is soap opera, Bans’s is the thriller — she wants to inject some suspense into the domestic scenario. The problem is, the show is unsure how far to take its thriller elements.

Every time the show starts to get close to delving even slightly deeper into the complexities of these women’s strife caused by to economics, sexism, and/or racism, Good Girls scurries back to comedy, as though it’s unnerved by the possibility that its network audience will be turned off by such serious subjects. And that fear is actually well-justified: How many people, after watching two hours of The Voice, are going to want to stay with NBC if this turns out to be a show about women’s oppression?

Tone is everything for a show like Good Girls — it needs a strong, sure narrative pulse. It needs its own variation on the comic-thriller, its own new take on successful serious/humorous TV shows like Nurse Jackie or Weeds or (they wish) Breaking Bad. Note that all those shows were on cable and you’ve got the reason Good Girls ultimately fails: As a network show, it can’t go far enough, deep enough, into these women’s lives to make us root for them with anything like intensity. Good Girls needs to break bad much more badly than it’s allowed to as part of NBC’s lineup.

Good Girls airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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