The Cleaning Lady review: Élodie Yung plunges into the undocumented underworld
Thony (Élodie Yung) needs to save her son's life. She's a Cambodian-born citizen of the Philippines, but his stem cell treatment can only happen in Las Vegas, and her visa ran out a year ago. Now she works off the books cleaning hotels, night clubs, and underground female MMA brawls. When she witnesses a murder, a cute gangster (Adan Canto) decides to let her live…if she promises to use her cleaning skills to help bad guys clean up various problems. Now the FBI is closing in. Her son also needs a new liver. And did you know Thony is a brilliant doctor?
The Cleaning Lady (debuting Monday at 9 p.m. on Fox) is one of those end-of-empire broadcast TV shows that tries to be everything: cute as This Is Us, violent as FBI, some medicine for the Good Doctor crowd, yet another good girl breaking bad. The pilot starts with an improvised tracheotomy. By the end, there's an actual explosion. The undocumented setting provides an unexpected power, or maybe just a wider array of thrills. Everything is more tense than it should be. "Don't get pulled over," Thony's sister-in-law Fiona (Martha Millan) warns — because neither of them has a driver's license, and this country is not as kind as it used to be to huddled masses yearning to be free. Fiona has two kids of her own, which means a whole family potentially wrecked if ICE ever comes raiding. And Fiona still considers selling ecstasy as a side hustle. "This is my shot to make real money in a place I'm not ashamed of," she explains. There are worse jobs in Vegas, and after all, America lets drug dealers put their names on museums.
Yung previously played Elektra in the Marvel-Netflix universe, and she was dragged to hell in Gods of Egypt. She's stalwart here and a tad stiff, but she nails a three-jobs quality of tough exhaustion. I've seen five episodes and in basically every one, Thony has to cry about her son's latest near-death experience, then turn right around for more surgery with whatever's handy. "I need a knife and a lighter, and get me some alcohol," she demands at one point. "What are you," responds a baffled criminal, "some kind of doctor or something?" Oh man, wait'll you find out what show you're in!
The aforementioned cute gangster is Arman. He's the pensive lieutenant in an operation that runs illegal guns to Armenians and bribes corrupt politicians with lapdances. He strikes up a friendship (or maybe a more-ship) with Thony, for reasons that are admirably more complicated than just general will-they-won't-they hotness. His Mexican parents left their country to avoid gang violence. So he's another immigrant doing whatever he can. "You and I are both in a country that is not our own," he says. (His mother was a housekeeper, which gives his fixation on Thony a special Freudian whiff.)
I'm making this sound heavy, so I'm failing miserably. Jay Mohr plays a venal politician with a troublesome laptop. Oliver Hudson finds another good use for his very punchable face as a sleazy FBI agent who slept with his last informant and seems to be the last toxic male left in the bureau. The ever-splendid Navid Negahban plays Arman's boss Hayak, an ice-cold killer plotting his own casino-buying American dream. In the second episode, Thony has to clean up Arman's office after murders happen, and she finds a picture of the monstrous Hayak hugging his big white dog. So fuzzy! Don't miss Lou Diamond Phillips, who guest-stars in episode 4 as a preening car salesman with precious bone marrow.
Is The Cleaning Lady ridiculous? Yes, and not always in the good way. Sin City trash whiplashes with mawkish cute-kid sensitivity. Thony's son Luca (Sebastien and Valentino LaSalle) mainly exists to make parents cry once an episode. People keep describing Arman's nightclub as an amazing place full of decadent debauchery; we can see it looks like an 18-and-over soda dungeon with aerial dancers. Still, executive producer Miranda Kwok (who developed the series) and showrunner Melissa Carter have adapted an original Argentine series into a drama with decently complex cultural politics. There is a subplot about a DACA application (the lawyer costs a fortune). Arman's entanglement with Hayak's family revs up the underworld succession counter-plotting. Episode 5 delves into the horrors of an immigrant detention center.
For a twisty soap to work, there has to be at least one completely lovable character, with relatable problems that counterbalance the hysteria. Millan makes Fiona the wild melodrama's lone real person, struggling through tough circumstances with unfussy desperation. She's trying to build a life for her kids right on the edge of poverty or deportation, none of which stops her from trying to have a good time. The show could follow Fiona's lead and deepen its portrait of the everyday trials of undocumented paranoia. Or it could go spinning off the rails faster than you can say "Empire season 2." I'm rooting for it. Frankly, I never expected to see anything like this in my lifetime. Here's a TV series that's pro-immigrant, pro-feminist, pro-stem cell research, anti-racist, and very cheesy. The Cleaning Lady mixes so many different things together, which is how you make a mess. It's also how you make a melting pot. B