Sealed up inside the pastel pulp and bedazzled seediness of Claws, a better show about plucky ladies chasing and suffering their upscale dreams tries to scrape free. Can it? The new TNT drama centers on four women — friends, colleagues, and partners in crime — who make their living at a strip mall nail shop in Palmetto, Fla. Desna (Niecy Nash) is the boss, a vibrant lioness who looks after her own and aspires to open a bigger, fancier salon in a better, classier part of town. Her right-hand woman is Jennifer (Jenn Lyon), a mother of two and recovering addict, and her enforcer is Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes), a mostly silent lesbian with cornrow brows and jocular charisma. In the spirited opening scene, the three of them begin their workday by strutting toward the door as if working a catwalk, delighting in each other’s individuality, signaling the glam-mag good-life fantasies they wish to make true. An even better scene comes soon after when they welcome back the void in their quartet, Polly (Carrie Preston), a seemingly genteel Southern miss (actually a grifter) newly sprung from prison for identity theft; her biggest piece of bling is a blinking ankle monitor.
It makes for a strong, hooking start. I immediately fell for these well-cast characters and their effortless, warm chemistry. The show made me interested in the biz and artistry of manicurist auteurism and captivated me with a richly realized world embellished with the phosphorescent pop of brightly colored lipstick, tight-pants, dyed hair, and all those glittering, ornate, customized nails. Yet there’s depth here, too. It’s a world of forlorn longing, as the characters reside on the far side of the Gulf Coast’s posh hotels and beaches. The closest we get to the sand is the discount seafood joint next door to Desna’s shop. “WE SELL BIG SHRIMPS.”
Desna cares for an autistic brother, Dean (Harold Perrineau); he spends his days drawing plans for the nicer house they’ll have when she starts making bank with her posh salon. Other times, performance, setting, and unfussy filmmaking tells you everything you need to know about the sadness and stakes without saying anything. In one scene, Polly opts out of a ride home so she can keep her current circumstances secret from her friends, not wanting to burden them with her need or feel her shame. We watch her walk a lonely stretch of highway at night to a cheap roadside motel. She turns on the TV, pops open a can of something, and charges up a vibrator, readying herself for a typical night of her new life with blasé defeat.
I could watch a salty-sweet soapy dramedy that exists to unpack the pains and dreams of these women and explore themes of class, race, and gender with inspired, character-driven storytelling. But my enthusiasm for Claws began to subside halfway through the premiere as familiar tropes and premises take over. You quickly come to discover that Desna is in business — and having no-obligation sex — with a hard-bodied, grill-wearing redneck thug named Roller (Jack Kesy), favored son of a Dixie Mafia underworld boss named Uncle Daddy (Dean Norris), who runs his operation from the back of a strip club, as cable TV underworld bosses do. When she isn’t getting banged by Roller — or fulfilling his desire to get choked out by him — she’s laundering drug money for his family, and what she gets in exchange, or what she’s been promised, is a big payday that’ll help her buy her new salon. Their rapport begins to fray when Roller fails to deliver on his promises and begins a sexual relationship with the new girl in Desna’s employ, Virginia (Karrueche Tran), a haughty young thing with issues who taps into the insecurities and jealousies of the older women around her.
The premiere quickly gives itself over to the crime side of the show, allowing its overbearing men and their boring brand of ugliness to have too much presence. The pivot point is a long scene with Uncle Daddy and his boys cavorting at the club, and their dumb decadence is so ridiculous that I’m tempted to be charitable and praise it as satire. But I won’t. The sequence is meant to establish their characters, but it also overstates their sleaziness so that we’ll accept and even approve of the extreme action taken at the end of premiere, a spoiler that sets in motion the concerns of the season’s early episodes, and perhaps all of them (TNT only made three episodes available).
I must admit, I got a kick out of seeing Desna use the tools of her trade as weapons of liberation, thus fulfilling the double meaning of the title. And I think there’s something quite valuable in a cable crime-time show from a female perspective, specifically the female archetypes who support and suffer the hideous men who dominate them. And yet, my fatigue with the genre — a fatigue that the show itself might be bemoaning — saps my interest. I worry the characters are trapped in/smothered by a pulp plot that limits their potential to be as compelling as they could and should be. I want the Mad Men version of this show, not the Breaking Bad version. Claws gives you sharp, jagged women to care about. I wish I cared more about the show itself.
Claws premieres Sunday, June 11 at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.