Aesthetically, “Claws” is magnificent. In the nail salon where much of the action takes place, the show’s palette pops with teal and pink and coral. The manicurists create bright, patterned and often bejeweled confections for their clients’ nails — and they dress themselves following the same philosophy. Everything is eye-catching and attention-grabbing, form-fitting and asset-enhancing. The looks are finished off with ambitious shoes, statement purses, fluorescent lipstick, and chunky jewelry. “Claws” is a show about manicurists dabbling in mild-to-moderate mob activity on the Gulf Coast of Florida. So the polyester jumpsuits and gilded sunglasses see some unconventional use. Early in the second episode, a character tries to drag a bloody corpse from one place to another in Lucite platform heels. In the pilot, one character gets roughed up by getting her face slammed into a rack of candy-colored nailpolishes.
“Claws” is a story about petty criminals, but it stands out because it portrays a culture that most television uses only as a cipher. A character in a network drama who walked in with inch-long acrylics and knee-high lace-up boots would likely be treated in a very specific way. Reality television similarly leans heavily on these style signifiers when creating narrative arcs for its “characters.” In “Claws,” the style is not shorthand for something else, it is the story. The characters are engaged in the art of crafting and distributing an element of that style: They own it. And because they are so proud of and attuned to their own aesthetic, they are practically strutting in their own reality show.
Like “Orange Is the New Black,” “Claws” is impressive primarily for how genuinely it engages with a disenfranchised underclass (without making it feel as boring or academic as that sounds). Desna (Niecy Nash), who owns the salon, has ambitions to get out of this hand-to-mouth life. Ex-con Polly (Carrie Preston) has an ankle bracelet monitoring her movements and likes to invent stories about why she went to prison. Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes) is a butch lesbian with messy cornrows and a man’s swagger, guarding the front door with a baseball bat. And Jen (Jenn Lyon) is an ex-addict and mother of two girls from two previous ex-boyfriends. On the outside of their crew, but desperate to get in, is pretty young thing Virginia (Karrueche Tran). There’s a bit of “Steel Magnolias”-esque small-town closeness in the crew’s tight-knit dynamic and beauty parlor gossip. But perhaps because of the emptiness of exurban Florida, there’s a desperation keeping them all together, too: Without each other and the life preserver of the salon, it would be so easy to drown.
The manicurists are almost all ex-strippers or sex workers, now hustling for tips in their 40s. They’re in the thrall of the petty crime lord that owns the strip club and launder money for the oxycodone clinic at the other end of the strip mall. They seem to have ended up in Manatee County, Fla., because no one else would take them. But even here, they’re treated like the underclass. There’s a subtle violence in the way their boyfriends, bosses, and husbands talk to them — in the way clients and patrons shrug off their protestations. The premiere shows us Desna’s long-simmering frustration at being sidelined by the men who rely on her and then shut her out of success. It’s not long before she acts on her anger, but of course, that has a long tail of consequences.
The characters of “Claws” inhabit that paradox of space outside both leftist intellectualism and conservative “family values” — they’re not self-consciously political in their language, but are mostly by necessity in one of the most vibrantly diverse communities in America. It creates interesting, unconventional storytelling scenarios. Virginia is repeatedly subject to a racist barrage of language about her Asian features, mostly from Desna — only to find Desna the only person willing to help her following a crisis. Other moments offer glimpses of this life: Jen’s two children appear to be completely different races, despite their shared mom; Ann’s specialty is getting “straight” women to hook up with her; and the “Dixie Mafia” is headed by strip-club owner Uncle Daddy (Dean Norris), who is both very bisexual and very Catholic.
As a vehicle for exploring this world, “Claws” is fascinating. As a storytelling machine, it’s a little less so. The primary story driver is that Desna is trying to invest in a new nail salon in a different neighborhood. But there’s so much thrown in the way — mobsters of various stripes, a quack with marital problems, Desna’s autistic brother Dean (Harold Perrineau), and the actual art and craft of manicures — that frequently it feels like “Claws” is over-embellishing its own fingertips. And though “Claws” admirably avoids judging this world, it still struggles with tone. The drama can’t quite decide how funny, smart, or pathetic it wants to be, and that can make for a jarring viewing experience. Desna’s relationship with wannabe mobster Roller (Jack Kesy) is where this problem is at its most pronounced. (This may be entirely because Roller is an amorous lover with a grill (the teeth kind), a grill (the barbecue kind), and penchant for manscaping. It’s hard to know how to feel about anything he does.)
There is something uniquely and pervasively raw about Floridian life — whether that is the alarming number of strip clubs per capita, the unrelentingly hot sun, or the population’s odd obsession with alligators. “Claws” gloms onto the landscape with surprising ease, riffing on Florida’s self-conscious trashiness (“WE SELL BIG SHRIMPS,” reads a sign outside the salon) and its gloriously unlikely cultural mashups. For its unique details alone, it’s thrilling. Jen ends up square dancing on a weekday morning at the “Messianic Jewish Cafeteria and Internet Center.” We’re deep in the slew of content that comprises Peak TV — but that’s not a moment you’ll find on any other show.