'Good Girls': TV Review

The girls don't break bad enough.
2/26/2018

NBC's new girls-gone-bad dramedy is probably a little too light and soft, but Mae Whitman, Christina Hendricks and Retta make it worth watching.

Is Distribution Platform Bias a real thing?

Would my enthusiasm for the new hourlong dramedy Good Girls be slightly higher if the series were airing on Showtime or AMC rather than premiering on NBC, simply because of the ingrained bias that cable is doing edgier stuff than network? Or would Good Girls actually be a better show if it were able to be just a bit rougher, just a bit less polished, just a bit more adult than a broadcast network would ever allow?

I suspect the latter. Good Girls feels like a cable show squished into a network-shaped box, but it's still generally more than watchable thanks to a trio of leading ladies — Christina Hendricks, Retta and Mae Whitman — who appear to be having a tremendous time playing funny, badass characters who are the focus of the show and not just wives or girlfriends.

As created by Jenna Bans, Beth (Hendricks), Ruby (Retta) and Annie (Whitman) are still wives, girlfriends and mothers. As we see very quickly in the pilot, though, they're struggling breadwinners, frantic household managers and also masked bandits. To be more specific, Ruby is married to an aspiring police officer (Reno Wilson) and trying to figure out how to pay for treatments for her ailing daughter. Anne is fighting her ex (Zach Gilford) for custody of their daughter (Izzy Stannard) and trying to make a living wage at a big-box store managed by the gross Boomer (David Hornby). And Beth is struggling to be a perfect housewife, even as she's realizing her marriage to an insecure car dealer (Matthew Lillard) is falling apart.

Pushed to the brink of economic disaster and family ruin, Beth, Ruby and Annie are about to learn what Walter White and so many others learned before them, that sometimes you have to make some moral and legal compromises to achieve the American Dream in 2018. They also discover that it's never as simple as just one heist, as they encounter Manny Montana's Rio, a threatening-but-refined thug in the mode of half of the supporting characters on Breaking Bad.

Breaking Bad is just one of many citations in Bans' initial script and the darkly funny tone-hopping direction in the first two installments from Dean Parisot. Some are vague, in that way that many "Everyman/woman resorts to crime" stories will be similar. Some are very direct, to the point that the best line in the first three episodes sent to critics is a paraphrased lift from Thelma & Louise that goes unattributed and I can't tell if, 27 years after the release of that landmark feminist classic, Bans and company are assuming that everybody will get the reference instinctively or nobody would get the reference at all. The show is generally pretty pop-culture savvy, and the references in early episodes swing wildly from Doc McStuffins to Deadpool to Locked Up Abroad to Ocean's Eleven to The Bachelorette. The show covers a lot of ground.

Plotwise, Good Girls covers a ridiculous amount of ground, too. The table-setting, heist-planning and aftermath depicted in the pilot could, with a different approach, have been spread over four or five episodes, a haste that's evident in NBC's upcoming Rise as well. The plot churn has the unfortunate result of pushing the stakes to become increasingly elevated in a show that can only take on a very gentle version of "extreme." There's torture, blackmail and gun-waving, all of a very PG variety, and after a few character-sparing or logic-defying cop-outs in the early episodes, the tension has already been diffused entirely. The three-episode journey has already gone from "Oh, fun, they're robbing a store!" to "I look forward to enjoying the interactions between these three women and ignoring whatever illicit hijinks they get up to this week."

The latter response, while rendering the actual plot moot, is a perfectly worthwhile way to enjoy Good Girls, as all three actresses have juicy and fun roles to play and the actors opposite them provide real supporting value as well.

In the role designed to show the most character growth, this is likely to be treated as Hendricks' Mad Men follow-up even though she was just super on the first season of Hap & Leonard. Hendricks continues to show a great gift for switching between sweetly docile and convincingly authoritative — I think it's a voice she wields effectively as either girlish or viper-sharp — and finding the comic beats in-between. Lillard, continuing his recent resurgence as a man whose buffoonishness obscures at least a little sweetness, has some good scenes with Hendricks.

Whitman, who probably could have spent an eternity playing high school students, is completely and perhaps unexpectedly convincing as the mother of a teen, and there's real sweetness that she has with Stannard. The actress' manic comic side is put to great use and whether wildly pantomiming or tossing out questionable accent work, she generated most of my laughs so far.

Retta presents more of a problem for Good Girls, since she's possessed of a personality so large it sometimes engulfs everything around her, which made her smooth weaving into the Parks and Recreation ensemble so remarkable. Here, she definitely makes it hard for Wilson or her onscreen kids to get the spotlight, but her blending with Hendricks and Whitman is much better and she's so great at going expressive and big that it lends her quiet moments real power.

Just as the stakes get softened as Good Girls progresses, its feminism becomes a softer, jokier thing, which probably makes it the perfect NBC show for this #MeToo moment. That this same cast might have shined brighter in a darker, more scathing cable version of the show is probably not worth lamenting. Light as it is, Good Girls deserves credit for the showcase it still gives Whitman, Hendricks and Retta.

Cast: Christina Hendricks, Retta, Mae Whitman, Matthew Lillard, Reno Wilson, Manny Montana, Izzy Stannard
Creator: Jenna Bans
Premieres: Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)