"Downton Abbey's" Lady Mary plays a Southern ex-con meth addict in this new drama
It is hard to reckon with the execution of TNT’s “Good Behavior” without fixating, in some disbelief, at what it is trying to do in the first place. To be sure, it is not fair to judge a show entirely by its casting choices, or to evaluate a plot based merely on its premise. But while there is some kind of plot to “Good Behavior,” it is not nearly as fascinating as the question it presents from the very first frame: Why is Lady Mary playing a redneck?
Lady Mary is, of course, British actress Michelle Dockery’s breakout role on the wildly popular period soap “Downton Abbey.” The show captivated American audiences because it was so charmingly British — and in that same vein, Dockery’s performance in it is a marvelous tapestry of icy condescension and repressed self-loathing. Even her eyebrows, so delicately arched and perpetually raised, evoke fox hunts on horseback and tea served in the library.
Naturally, actors want to explore different roles, and Dockery is an adventurous, capable actress. But it is still difficult to understand why a British woman who looks so preternaturally comfortable in a corset is playing North Carolina white trash, complete with a Southern drawl and a meth problem — especially when that accent meanders unconvincingly, and the scrupulously beautiful lead is supposed to be both a meth head and an ex-con. Dockery assiduously applies herself to the drinking and f–king of the lead character, Letty Raines, but the hard-bitten addict still always seems like a British pageant queen dropped into the hinterlands of North Carolina.
As wild as that sounds, that’s a plot that is more comprehensible than most of what “Good Behavior” serves up. The story follows Letty right after her release from prison, as she tries to stay clean, repair her relationship with her mother and her son, and avoid getting tossed into the clink again. This goes awry when she discovers she has the power to save a random stranger’s life. But the show never quite establishes or even decides who Letty is; she’s an ex-con and a con-artist, a self-help nut and an addict jumping off the wagon, a tough cookie and a fragile soul. There’s something frustratingly blurry about her personality and her motivations — almost as frustratingly blurry as her accent.
As a result, Letty is introduced to the audience as a series of character traits and behaviors that do not seem connected to each other or to Dockery’s performance; things just happen, without accruing much significance. The first episode follows her as she cleans toilets, fends off a rape attempt, gets fired from her job, tells her parole officer she’s trying to be a good person, steals a bunch, and then decides on a whim to save a woman’s life. This is followed by a fake date, real sex, a standoff with a shotgun, Toyota 4Runner product placement, and last but not least, smoking meth out of a light bulb. This is a lot of stuff, but it never coheres, and frequently, it feels like the show isn’t trying, content to let the style of the show smooth out the wrinkles in substance.
It almost works. The show does have style in spades, anchored by Letty’s capers on the “job.” What “Good Behavior” is best at is delivering the seedy, sexy, pulpy titillation of forbidden money and temporary relationships. Dockery’s look makes sense when Letty is wearing wigs, sipping martinis, and palming expensive jewelry off of a mark; elsewhere, the drama revels in neon-lit chiaroscuro, choppy addiction montages, and surprisingly on-point musical choices. Letty is both infinitely resourceful and constantly taken advantage of, which doesn’t really make sense from a character perspective, but certainly makes for some great montages.
And though it’s hard to buy Letty’s many contradictions, it is not hard to buy the unstable attraction and revulsion she has for Javier (Juan Diego Botto), a hitman whose primary personality traits are that he’s weirdly polite and soap-opera-star hot. “Good Behavior” should just be a show where the two bicker and run capers, and it kind of wants to be, nudging the two towards a mutually exploitative working relationship. But out of a laudable desire for more complexity, the story seems to trip over itself, juggling heavy material it doesn’t know how to handle with lighter banter that begins to feel uncomfortably out of place. From one perspective, Letty and Javier’s relationship follows the getting-to-know-you arc of dating, with crimes standing in for dinner dates. From another, “Good Behavior” is a story of a woman who can’t quite maneuver her way out of being kidnapped, and eventually begins to enjoy it.
The rest of its problems are more run-of-the-mill. Like too many other cable dramas aiming for grit, “Good Behavior” is a convoluted antihero crime drama, prone to episode bloat and pulpy titillation. Too little vision spread out over too many episodes, the blank spaces of “Good Behavior” throw its limitations — plot, perspective, performance, and a lot of product placement for automotive brands — into sharper relief. “Good Behavior” is playing with some interesting concepts, but it hasn’t found a way to package them into something engrossing. There is something compelling about its erratic journey through style and character, wandering in and out of tropes and settings. But it always feels like “Good Behavior’s” good moments are there by accident, left in the path of a half-baked show trying to do too much.