During her six seasons on Downton Abbey as Lady Mary Crawley, Michelle Dockery represented ideas of feminism and change in post-Edwardian, class-structured England, while always frocked in resplendent fashion. Her performance made her a star — and minted an image. She tries to blow it up on Good Behavior, a contemporary neo-noir that explores themes of gender and transformation through a pulp-pop lens. Dockery plays Letty Raines, a drinking, drugging ex-con doing a terrible job of rehabbing her life. Think Lady Mary in America, breaking bad. Her fraught effort at reinvention mirrors Dockery’s spunky bid to stretch, but she also embodies a show whose most fascinating quality is its uncertain identity. After three episodes, I am unclear of what it wants to be, or if it can be any good.
We meet Letty trying to stay straight and sober by working as a waitress, listening to self-improvement tapes in South Carolina. Struggling to keep her on a road to redemption is parole officer Christian Woodhill (Oz‘s Terry Kinney), though Letty has given him the loaded nickname “Christian Stalker.” Alas, she’s quickly subverted by a culture hostile to women and felons, and soon she’s back to feeding her demons with her go-to grift, robbing hotel rooms for cash and minibar booze, using her looks, wiggy wardrobe, and gift for (and addiction to) make-believe. It all plays lightly allegorical about any number of things. Good Behavior presents a fallen woman reduced to exploitation and degrading role-play to survive, trapped in a broken society that limits her options.
The pilot is a twisty setup. During a looting, Letty eavesdrops on an unhappy husband hiring a hitman: Javier, one of those sexy, total-pro killer types, played by Spanish actor Juan Diego Botto. It’s a suspenseful scene that recalls the voyeurism and conundrums of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Should Letty intervene and save the wife? What entices her more: proving to herself she can be good, or rubbing up against Javier, whose moral chaos speaks to her own? Her choices backfire, and by the end, Javier has blackmailed Letty into servitude, forcing her to become his partner in crime.
Don’t draw too many conclusions from my summary, or even the first three episodes. The second models what could be called an assassination-of-the-week plot. It also pushes the queasiness of Letty’s predicament — and its metaphor for abusive marriage — to the max. There’s a sex scene with Javier that escalates from hot to horrifying, in which Letty gives herself over to kinky fantasy, only to be reminded that she’s property. But episode 3 is an admirably meandering, possibly self-aware story that puts the stars in an electric vehicle that runs out of power. It also readjusts the Letty-Javier relationship and upends your expectation for what the show might be each week.
Created by Chad Hodge (Wayward Pines) and Blake Crouch, based on Crouch’s Letty Dobesh novellas, Good Behavior could wind up being basic-cable interesting or basic-cable bland; episode 4 should settle that. It’ll need zestier storytelling to keep me tuning in. Dockery is appealing, but not entirely convincing at the grungy, tortured-soul stuff. Still, Letty’s evolving rapport with Javier is intriguing, and Dockery and Botto generate sufficient chemistry. Good Behavior is good enough. Whether it can be something better is a story to be told. B-
TNT’s Good Behavior debuts Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 9 p.m. ET in a two-episode event, but you can watch the first episode in the YouTube video below.