At first blush, “Good Girls” is the kind of show that looks like it belongs on cable. It’s a sleek, propulsive drama starring three misbehaving women lugging around stacks of cash and the occasional firearm; the cool criminality of it recalls TNT’s “Good Behavior” or USA’s “Queen of the South,” where the messy business of breaking the law is sweetened with a set of swanky shades and red lipstick. But “Good Girls” isn’t just wish fulfillment; if anything, it reads as a kind of cautionary tale, mixed with moments of droll humor. Desperate housewives make for terrible criminals, and the missteps of the three leads are both tragic and hilarious, in a tonal cocktail that is heady when balanced right and distasteful when misapplied. “Good Girls” doesn’t always find the balance, but thanks to remarkable performances from its leads and a daring streak of risky storytelling, it’s a welcome addition to the procedural-heavy world of network drama.
Creator and showrunner Jenna Bans comes to NBC after working on soapy, female-centric dramas like “Desperate Housewives” and “Scandal” on ABC; “Good Girls” could be called “Desperate Housewives,” except that the desperation is vastly more interesting and the housewifery is kept to a minimum. The three women — sisters Beth (Christina Hendricks) and Annie (Mae Whitman) and their friend Ruby (Retta) — are all driven to crime by separate, searing domestic concerns: Beth’s mortgage is in default, Annie’s about to lose custody of her kid, and Retta’s daughter needs expensive out-of-pocket healthcare. (The details of their anxiety are some of the most refreshingly honest on TV.) But behind the economic concerns lurk the needs of three dissatisfied women; what really drives them to crime is Beth’s realization, in the premiere, that her husband Dean (Matthew Lillard) is cheating on her. Annie, Beth’s poorer, scrappier younger sister, suggests they rob the grocery store she works at — not least because her manager Boomer (David Hornsby) won’t stop his unsavory advances.
It’s a terrible idea, of course. The three women have no idea how to perform a robbery, and almost immediately, they run into six different kinds of trouble — from the criminal organization that launders money through the store; from Boomer, who figures out who committed the crime; from their families, who don’t understand where all the extra cash came from. “Good Girls,” from then on, is about trying to stuff the toothpaste back inside the tube. When mobster Rio (Manny Montana) shows up, brandishing guns and demanding his money back, the women panic — and every time they think they’ve tied off the last loose end, another one hits them in the face. As pressure mounts, through one plot twist or another, they become even worse criminals. In one celebratory scene at a restaurant happy hour, Annie blurts out the full specifics of their crime, out of some combination of guilt and adrenaline. In another, while trying to escape a parking lot undetected, the trio sets off not just one car alarm but every car alarm.
It’s not just panic, though, that’s driving them. Like “Breaking Bad,” which “Good Girls” consciously nods to in its promotional materials, the women are enticed by the allure of criminal success. Largely, it’s Beth, who is the de facto head of the trio. Hendricks is wonderfully controlled in the role as the once-wealthy mother of four, commanding a scene with silent, tense grace. The brush with crime reveals something to her — and the audience observes her try to understand this depth of emotion, which is about a lot more than a stopgap solution or a flare of revenge. Lillard, in his second role in 12 months as a philandering husband, is an always-welcome presence on-screen, and the two present a rich marriage dynamic. The downside is that sometimes Hendricks and Lillard seem as if they are in a completely different show from Retta and Whitman, whose characters go in very different directions. Whitman’s Annie is a wisecracking chronic underachiever, the show’s go-to for comic relief and tragic blows; Retta’s Ruby, the weakest character, is torn between the truly wrenching burden of a sick child and the sass that defines the actress’ persona. When the three are together, their chemistry is obvious, and those moments are when the show is at its best. When they’re apart, “Good Girls” almost doesn’t hold together.
Almost. For now, “Good Girls” works, thanks to audacious plotting that presents a seemingly unsustainable path forward for the three leads. Each subsequent episode, of the three provided to critics, offers a new impossible task — whether that is a character forced to talk her way out of a gun pointed at her head, or another frozen in horror as the police search her car for the contraband she stashed. It’s a suspense that will be very difficult to maintain, because it requires walking a fine line between sympathetic characters, emotional manipulation, and plausible plot twists. “Good Girls,” as a story, feels like a ticking time bomb — but a fun one, so long as it succeeds. The show, like the characters — like most moms! — is making it up as it goes along.