Five women, multiple secrets, murder and more than a few big little lies.
Female co-conspirators and their tangled web of crime, deceit, bad men and big mansions have captured the zeitgeist of Sunday night TV post-“Game of Thrones.” The series finale of “Big Little Lies” on Sunday means the end of one fraught story, at least for now, but the action is hardly over, thanks to another very different group of ladies and their roller-coaster narrative.
The cable drama “Claws,” TNT’s full-bodied, multiracial, working-class answer to HBO’s affluent, low-carb drama, is midway through its third season. Although the hour-long comedy-drama still hasn’t cracked the cultural conversation or become part of the peak TV buzz like some cable series starring Hollywood’s A-list, it should — it’s the perfect show for our time.
Set in the aging mini-malls of South Florida rather than the scenic cliffs of Monterey, the colorful, smart, wickedly funny series follows five manicurists as they try to beat a class system and economy rigged in favor of the 1%. But like the middle-class folks the show depicts, “Claws” has been overlooked by an entertainment media still enamored with unattainable levels of wealth and zero body fat.
“Oftentimes, you see heroines of stories are women in their 20s or early 30s, but you don’t see women who are in their 40s, women who work in the strip mall that you pass by every day,” says “Claws” showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois, who executive produces the series along with Rashida Jones, Will McCormack and show creator Eliot Laurence. “They are the women at Target finding an amazing outfit, who go out at night with their girls and drink margaritas. They don’t feel like they are the wallpaper of the world. They’re struggling every day to gain power because they feel like they’re going to get a piece of the American dream.”
Starring Niecy Nash (“When They See Us,” “Getting On”), “Claws” has an average audience of 7.6 million viewers per episode, which puts it in the top five among ad-supported dramas. Nash plays Desna, the shop’s owner, and her crew is a diverse mix of misfits, oddballs and individuals most people wouldn’t give a second chance. Perky redhead Polly (Carrie Preston) may look preppy but she’s a con artist and convicted felon. She works in the salon alongside ex-stripper Virginia (Karrueche Tran), tough girl Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes) and Desna’s confidant and childhood friend, Jennifer (Jenn Lyon).
They face the struggles of blue-collar working women — paying rent, childcare, birth control, moving up the economic ladder — until a brush with organized crime sends them down a road of fantastical plot twists.
“This is a series about women who are doing things that would typically be reserved for men,” says Nash, who directed an episode this season for the first time. “And I love that they’re unapologetic about it. Desna represents a lot of women that I know who are on the south side of 40, not married, no children and having sex for their own pleasure. And believe it or not, she’s not a Size 2.”
“Claws” broaches serious subjects such as drug addiction, abortion and domestic abuse inside a larger satire about life below the line. It’s a risky balance that could have come off as a not-so-funny parody of working folks who are barely making it, where exaggerated characters with loud voices and clothing are the joke. The series, however, is an artful balance of real-life problems, absurdly funny situations, emotional depth and the occasional syncopated dance number or water ballet.
Laurence said his intent was to create a show he wanted to see but couldn’t find on TV. “I’m always seeking balance in my work, and I knew ‘Claws’ would only run properly if the stunning nail art [was] balanced with shocking violence… If the deeply heartfelt moments were balanced by wickedness and irreverence,” he said. “‘Claws’ is a tightrope, tonally. Balance is essential to the physics of the show.”
The hot, humid Florida setting, which could not be farther from the cool breezes of Northern California, was inspired by his own time in the state and “… every bad neighborhood I lived in as a struggling artist,” he said. “Even if these neighborhoods looked like a war zone, there was always a nail salon, and business was always booming.”
The lush, creepy and decaying town of Manatee is a character unto itself; according to showrunner Sherman Barrois, bringing that world to life in rich detail was partly influenced by the work of filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar.
“Crazy things happening under the bright sun of Florida: the bright colors and the clothing,” she said. “We work constantly to get the color palette, the brightness, the turquoise and the pinks. And our costume designer, Dolores [Ybarra], is a genius with patterns. When you look at any frame of a ‘Claws,’ you see that it’s very curated in its homage to color. A lot of shows pull away from color. We are desperately on a journey to find it — and find the craziness in that world.”
And looks definitely matter in “Claws.” The nails themselves tell a story with their shapes and designs. Scenes often open or close with nail art setting the tone — Desna’s set is sharpened to deadly points when she’s out for blood; the other women’s are loaded with charms and Swarovski crystals when they’re aiming to slay the competition at nail shows, parties or the casino.
To tell a new story with each episode or scene, the show relies on chief manicurist Morgan Dixon. She brings in nail artisans from around the country, employs local talent and has sets of nails flown in from overseas. All their efforts have resulted in a robust, first #ClawsUp nail competition on Instagram, with themes like “Bling,” “Neon,” “Clear.”
“Claws” represents a vibrant world of big teased hair, expert weaves, feather earrings, furry cheetah print cellphone cases and other electric wardrobe choices that set Twitter alight during each episode. “When the show airs, the beauty community, young influencers and tastemakers, take to Twitter,” noted Sherman Barrois.
Call it frivolous or shallow, but most women do care how they look, and “Claws” is brave enough to go where other shows won’t with their clothing choices.
“I don’t start with how Desna’s feeling,” Nash says of capturing her character’s mood. “I start with how she looks, because that informs me. I go from the outside in. Are these clothes covering something or exposing something? When I created her, at the beginning, she did not have a lot of time and that’s why she wore a lot of jumpsuits. It was a one-stop shop and very monochromatic: denim shoes, purse, jumpsuit. Done. … And in the beginning, she was always eating Lean Cuisine, but we let that go. She’s got too many problems to try and find diet food right now. That ship has sailed.”
It’s easier to eat at the Shrimp Shack when dealing with the complications of the salon, or the problems at the pill mill, or the dangers that come with the Dixie mafia, Russian mobsters, Chinese gangs and the corrupt leadership at the Native American casino.
Desna navigates them all while looking after her developmentally disabled brother, Dean (Harold Perrineau). The show also includes an eccentric cast of characters, including her main squeeze, Roller (Jack Kesy); his Dixie mafia family, Bryce (Kevin Rankin) and Uncle Daddy (Dean Norris); and the nervous drug dispensary physician Dr. Ken Brickman (Jason Antoon).
The ladies, however, are the show. And they are determined to make it no matter what. “You start off doing a bad thing for a good reason… But we’ve come to a point in Season 3 where we start to see that power corrupts. Imagine that,” laughs Nash.
Now it’s time for that power to break through and vanquish the longstanding notion that rich folks’ problems are the only ones worth talking about.
Where: TBS and TNT
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)