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NBC's 'Good Girls' aren't bad enough

NBC's 'Good Girls' aren't bad enough
Retta, Christina Hendricks and Mae Whitman play everyday moms who turn to a life of crime in NBC's new scripted series, "Good Girls." (Danielle Levitt / NBC)

Three working-class moms are driven toward a life of crime in NBC's dramedy "Good Girls."

Waitress Ruby (Retta) needs life-saving medication for her daughter, which isn't covered by her or her husband's (Reno Wilson) bottom-end insurance. Mother of four Beth (Christina Hendricks) must fix the financial mess left by her philandering husband (Matthew Lillard) or risk losing their home. Beth's sister Annie (Mae Whitman) has to make enough money to win custody of her daughter against her moneyed ex (Zach Gilford), but that's never going to happen on her minimum wage salary as a grocery store clerk.

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So the trio slip on ski masks and rob a grocery store at (toy) gunpoint. Now that the loot's in the bag, nothing will ever be the same — except for Ruby's lasagna because she froze enough of it to sustain her family in case she winds up in prison.

Part "Breaking Bad" and part "Thelma and Louise," this hour-long series which premieres Monday combines the desperation of those living the vanishing American dream with the fury of the #MeToo movement.

These women want the good life for their children, and they want R-E-S-P-E-C-T. What's clear it they'll never achieve either of those goals by playing by the rules.

The premise is similar to that of "Claws," the TNT series about the working women of a nail salon who struggle to get ahead in a man's world, even as the men themselves are turning to any means necessary to make ends meet. That series, set in the exotic surrounds of central strip-mall Florida, is fueled by sharp and sometimes crass humor, and its cast is a wonderful mix of eccentric personalities.

"Good Girls," which is executive produced by Jenna Bans ("Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal"), doesn't quite stand out in the same way. It's set around Detroit, but the surrounds (at least in the first few episodes available for review) don't contribute much to the story. The writing has promising moments but is more safe than daring, which renders the characters a bit too tame, especially in a narrative where the women's morality is challenged by their increasing levels of desperation.

It begs the question: Would the smooth and middling "Good Girls" be sharper and funnier as a cable or streaming series? Traditional networks are in the impossible position of trying to figure out just who their audience is among the multiple platforms and billion new shows, and that requires appealing to a wide swath of demographics without alienating advertisers. Edges get sanded, rough bits polished.

The networks' comfort zones are sitcoms such as "The Big Bang Theory" and "Modern Family," or police procedurals which follow formats that have worked since the dawn of television.

When the story lines become more complicated, however, that tightrope walk between challenging artistry and mass appeal becomes more precarious. Walter White's crime odyssey and the liberation of Thelma and Louise crossed TV and film boundaries: he was a working-class hero who wasn't exactly heroic, and they grabbed the wheel from the men who'd been driving them mad.

"Good Girls," of course, shouldn't be held to those impossible high standards. But it does need some element of risk to make it pop, and even as the ladies' simple plan of robbery turns into a crime spree that includes kidnapping, bilking a senior, and tangling with prison-tattooed gangsters, there's not a lot of surprises here.

Hendricks isn't the most convincing desperate housewife. The detached demeanor and ambition that made "Mad Men's" Joan a memorable character didn't entirely fade with that period show, and it's hard to reconcile with the freshly woke soccer mom in "Good Girls." One of the best moments for Hendricks' Beth is when she does find her mojo after kicking her cheating husband out of the house.

She spends several episodes trying to master the impossible remote control system to simply turn on cable TV — input, input, power cable, menu (or something like that). The kids are losing confidence in mom. When she finally masters it, it's almost as if the clouds part, and she's showered in a small ray of empowerment.

Retta and Whitman are better suited in their roles, and their characters provide the deepest emotional hooks. When they interact with their kids, you can feel Ruby's powerlessness as she sits in a free clinic begging for the doctors to pay attention to her child's failing kidneys. Impulsive single mom Annie is hopelessly immature. Her tween daughter Sadie (Izzy Stannard), who dresses like a boy, is the grown-up in this relationship. Their family life may look dysfunctional, but they protect each other, and the love between them is palpable. Scenes between these two are as sweet as they are believable.

Women driven to the edge is no doubt a poignant theme in the time of #TimesUp. But as the culture pushes forward into unexplored territory, so too must the characters of TV and film. The "Good Girls" need more than ski masks. They need a challenge.

'Good Girls'

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Where: NBC

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sexual content and violence)

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