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The Cleaning Lady packs a ton of plot into its pilot. The drama’s title character is a Cambodian doctor living as an undocumented immigrant in Las Vegas, raising a young son with a rare and dangerous immunodeficiency disease while working first as a cleaning lady for events — and then, reluctantly, as a literal cleaner for the mob, which in turn attracts the interest of the FBI.
Yet for all the bloody twists and tear-jerking turns that concept dishes out, the show itself feels oddly sedate. Too restrained to be properly soapy and too silly to be convincingly gritty, The Cleaning Lady winds up in that inhospitable middle ground of shows that are not so much hateable as just plain forgettable.
The Cleaning Lady
Airdate: Monday, Jan. 3
Cast: Élodie Yung, Adan Canto, Martha Millan, Oliver Hudson, Sebastien LaSalle, Valentino LaSalle, Faith Bryant, Sean Lew
Creator: Miranda Kwok
Both the show’s strengths and its shortcomings are evident in protagonist Thony, played by Élodie Yung. It’s hard to root against her: Competent and compassionate, she is an exemplary employee, mother and friend. Yung plays steely as well as she does soft or scared, and her chemistry with Adan Canto (who plays Arman, her mob handler) and Martha Millan (who plays Fiona, her Filipino sister-in-law and best friend) breathe some life into flatly written relationships.
But … shouldn’t it be a little easier to root against her? Even as Thony finds herself pushed into increasingly tight corners by the mob, by the FBI, by the threat of ICE, by her son’s medical needs, The Cleaning Lady demonstrates little interest in questioning her choices, sitting with their consequences or examining her conscience. Yung is given only a few notes to play, all of them broadly sympathetic. When she’s not gazing tenderly at her son Luca (Sebastien and Valentino LaSalle), she’s in full-blown crisis mode about his health. When she’s not pleading for mercy, she’s pushing back like the mama bear she is. Lather, rinse, repeat, with no long-term character development detectable in the five hourlong episodes I’ve seen so far of the series.
Meanwhile, both the criminal and medical aspects of the storyline — that is, the meat of the show — register as oddly perfunctory. The mob plot beats feel borrowed from a hundred other mob dramas before it. Here comes the hotheaded failson (Deniz Akdeniz) shooting people he’s not supposed to; there goes the slinky Lady Macbeth figure (Eva De Dominici) whispering dangerous words into Arman’s ear. Luca’s health struggles simmer in the background until Thony’s criminal and legal entanglements require a dramatic twist or an emotional display, and some of the biggest developments are dispatched with in passing dialogue.
With the exception of Thony and her family (Luca, Fiona and Fiona’s adolescent kids), it’s difficult to tell precisely what we’re meant to think of most of these characters. Generously, it’s possible to see this as a purposeful choice to make them seem more complex; Garrett the FBI agent (Oliver Hudson) is probably more intriguing as a suspicious sleazeball than the outright villain he has the potential to become. But bland writing makes it seem equally possible that the show is still calibrating the right combination of romantic smolder and simmering violence for Arman, or waffling on exactly how much of an asshole mob boss Hayak (Navid Negahban) should be.
The Cleaning Lady is thankfully on more solid footing with the immigration thread of its narrative. Its emotions are grounded in thoughtful details, like how a stray flashlight beam can send Thony and Fiona hurtling into terror because it could be an ICE agent hunting them down to deport them. Even the language the family uses is telling — Fiona calls herself a “TNT,” Filipino slang for an undocumented person. A detour into an ICE facility in episode five feels pointed and purposeful (if not at all subtle) in a way that all the scenes following Arman around a luxurious but generic casino bar do not. It makes for the most compelling installment so far, and left me hoping the series would go further down that road in future episodes.
As all the talk of Fiona in the previous paragraph may have suggested, Millan’s performance is instrumental in making this side of the series click. Sidelined from the gloom of the criminal and medical storylines, she gets to demonstrate playfulness and warmth; freed from the burden of playing a heroic lead, she’s allowed to be flawed and uncertain in ways that Thony is not. Consequently, she’s the only character who comes across like a living, breathing human being rather than a screenwriter’s outline of one. And when she’s faced with the cruel indignities of a life spent half in hiding, I felt my blood boil for her.
If the show’s various through lines are tied together by a single theme, it’s this one articulated by Arman after hearing of Thony’s woes: “There’s nothing I hate more than people in power screwing over people in need.” The idea resonates not just with Thony’s explicit disenfranchisement but with characters like Arman, who’s frustrated working for a boss who still sees him as “the help.”
The Cleaning Lady deserves credit for trying to give a bit of power back to those who have too little of it — whatever the show’s flaws, it’s worth appreciating how rare is for a series to unfold through the eyes of a poor, undocumented Southeast Asian woman protagonist. If only what we got to see through them had more sparks of life.
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