Hit or Sh**: TNT’s CLAWS
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
Sorry TNT, but I don’t think too many people will grab the torches and pitchforks if I make the claim that you’re not exactly one of TV’s heavy-hitters in 2017. That’s not to say that the network is entirely without hits: they may be reruns, but nabbing the chance to screen LAW & ORDER, BONES, and SUPERNATURAL at least keeps them somewhat within the popular consciousness. Nevertheless, introducing a new series to grab the attention of American audiences has proven to be a struggle, and while ANIMAL KINGDOM seems to have garnered a fan base, it’s hard to imagine people rushing home on Tuesday nights in order to catch the latest episode as soon as it drops. With CLAWS, I don’t think TNT quite has a “banger” on their hands, but they do have an entertaining, effortlessly diverse, and pleasantly sordid look at the seedy underbelly of Florida crime that’s easily worth a few hours of your time.
CLAWS finds us in beautiful Manatee County, Florida, chock-full of as many drugs, crime bosses, and questionable morality as every “Florida Man” article has led you to believe. Our story centers on the Nail Artisan salon and the women who run it: lady boss Desna (Niecy Nash), the outwardly meek Polly (Carrie Preston), the recently sober Jennifer (Jenn Lyon), the . . . quiet . . . Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes), and new kid on the block Virginia (Karrueche Tran). It’s hard out here for a pimp, but it’s even harder out here for a lady, so Desna has taken up laundering money for a local pain clinic as an underling to the skeezy, mobbed-up Roller (Jack Kesy) and the delightfully named “Uncle Daddy” (BREAKING BAD’s Hank, Dean Norris). Dreaming of opening up her own posh nail salon and needing to continue taking care of her mentally ill brother, Dean (Harold Perrineau), when Uncle Daddy cheats her out of a year-end bonus and Virginia begins making moves on Roller, who she’s romantically involved with, Desna decides to bear down and take matters into her own hands to get what’s hers.
This is my dream
As a pilot, it pulls more cues from BREAKING BAD than just recycling Dean Norris, ultimately gaining thematic depth due to its relatively mundane characters driven to associate with the dangers of crime due to systemic and societal forces working to hold them back. While Desna certainly packs more of an initial punch than Walter White, she’s still driven away from her hopes and dreams due to financial inequities and the need to care for dependent family members. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is another point of comparison being thrown around, but this one is a little harder to latch onto, unless stepping back enough to make a general assessment of the two show’s explorations of intra-female relationships. However, since being in a women’s prison is more of a pressure cooker situation than working in a nail salon in Florida, there’s enough dissemination of tension with other male characters and external conflicts that this one doesn’t float as easily. Nevertheless, there are plenty of potential subplots brewing as to who is looking to topple Desna and her alpha female status, and from what we’ve seen so far, the ladies all share an easy rapport and verisimilitude in terms of their presentation of characters in their respective circumstances.
Similarities to other shows aside, what defines CLAWS as its own show to pay attention to (and what may turn away some potential viewers) is its tone. Although not campy enough to feel like a satire of any sort or tip-toe the line of comedy, it’s hard to argue that having a cocaine-snorting, brashly bisexual, flamboyantly attired character named Uncle Daddy wasn’t an attempt to give things a slightly cartoon-like sheen. Pastel-colored and broiling enough in its seedy portrayal of lower-class, white-trash-leaning suburbia to earn some comparisons to SPRING BREAKERS, for now the tone is working to augment its more straight-laced drama as opposed to tempering it to the point of inefficacy, but on the other hand, it is rather hard to legitimately fear Roller and Uncle Daddy when they’re as quirky as they are. This poses some potential causes for concern in coming episodes.
Nah, never mind, he commands respect
However, what is perhaps most impressive about the show is its diverse cast, and how easy and believable the diversity seems in turn. Setting a show in lower-class Florida is the perfect backdrop for offering no excuses to whitewash and no excuses to scramble to meet diversity quotas simply for the sake of it. Our core cast features a majority of women of color, and we see representations of interracial lesbian romances and disabled people of color that are incorporated as plot points as central to the core of the pilot as they are casual and unassuming. Desna may sleep with Roller and allow him to preen as the one ostensibly in charge, but her immediate shifts into the dominant one when he doesn’t give her the money he owes show that she’s fully aware of her power and femininity the entire time, and the subplot involving her dislike of Virginia show that both women are using Roller for their own sexual needs and career moves without any illusions of submission. The only element that doesn’t feel entirely kosher is Uncle Daddy’s bisexuality; since he’s so overblown and overtop, often used as comic relief, this feels more performative than a genuine desire to try to respectfully portray a mob boss we’re not used to seeing.
All in all, CLAWS is definitely familiar, but is entertaining enough to warrant seeing the runtime through to its end, genuine enough in its portrayal of its characters and their flaws to keep us invested in seeing how they’ll progress, and featuring just enough of a pulpy polish to lacquer its plot like the nails it fetishizes. It has yet to introduce antagonists that manage to feel like worthy counterparts to the inner drive and strength of its female protagonists, but hopefully further episodes will serve to bolster those who oppose Desna and the women of the Nail Artisan salon. Give TNT a chance, they earned it with this one!
CLAWS airs on Sundays on TNT