Graphic: Josh Stringer (NBC)

Good Girls is being touted as “Breaking Bad meets Thelma And Louise.” It’s a questionable description at best, given the network television setting. It’s also a description that hurts the series more than it helps, as it automatically puts such heavy weight on a relatively light show. And no matter how good something is, if it’s not up to certain comparative quality levels, it can easily be considered a failure or a rip-off. That’s been the major case going into Good Girls; just look at Gwen Ihnat’s pre-air review of the series. If a suburban parent gets into a life of crime, it’s because of Breaking Bad, right? Even if their story and approach to it has more in common with Sugar & Spice than it does a serious AMC drama.

And if we are going to compare Good Girls to a cable series—because it does feel like it belongs on cable at times—it’s wrong not to acknowledge Weeds. But perhaps that speaks more to how far off the rails that series went, to the point where people either want to avoid comparisons (to give Good Girls somewhat of a fighting chance) or its drastic decline in quality led to a loss of pop culture currency. (Desperate Housewives, another series I’d compare Good Girls to, suffered the same fate.)

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Good Girls is a network procedural approach to a crime series, which means it’s committed to its characters committing a crime-of-the-week, not just focusing on the one big crime that happens here in the pilot. That first big crime is a grocery store robbery, one that is actually pulled off with a surprising amount of acumen. That is, until Mae Whitman’s Annie—technically the brains of this first operation, as the inside woman—accidentally blows her cover. Like Icarus, she flew too close to the sun, meaning “she tried too hard to make her asshole boss suffer for his sins.” The promotion for Good Girls has hinged on this robbery, as it’s the main characters’ entry into the world of crime. A world they end up finding pretty inconvenient, considering their other issues.

So how exactly does one (on NBC) tackle a tale about crime and suburban struggles? Good Girls has its own approach, but the question is if it’s the right one. It’s a crime drama set in Detroit but not exactly the image one sees when they think “crime drama set in Detroit”—which appears to be the point creator Jenna Bans wants to get across. It’s not just the NBC show sheen; it’s the fact that these three main characters have no business being part of a crime drama set in Detroit.

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It’s easy to find yourself ranking just who has it the hardest in this world, who has the “best” excuse for turning to a life (even if it was just supposed to be a one-time thing) of crime. Christina Hendricks’ Beth probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s list, as she’s the one who most fits the bill of a lead who doesn’t have it as hard as she thinks she does. She’s a mother of four in a 20 year marriage, and her otherwise perfect world comes crashing down when she learns her husband Dean (Matthew Lillard) has been cheating on her with his airhead employee Amber (Sara Paxton). And has left them in financial shambles. That’s definitely the stuff of “don’t get mad, get everything” motivation, but compared to her sister Annie’s and her best friend Ruby’s (Retta) situations, it’s like she’s in a more flattering version of HBO’s Divorce. One where she gets into crime instead of just getting a divorce.

In a true competition of “Who has it hardest?” Annie is second place (in theory) to Ruby simply because Annie’s clearly in a state of arrested development. Sure, the episode makes it clear to the audience that—despite what her wealthy ex Gregg (Zach Gilford) says—she’s not a negligent mother. She’s willing to fight for her gender non-conforming daughter Sadie (Izzy Stannard) just as much as Ruby is for her sick daughter Sara (Lidya Jewett). But Annie is also the type of character who suggests they solve their gang problem by robbing another place. (Sure, it’s a suggestion that’s probably a good one, in terms of them being them able to keep any of the spoils of their crime... but she has no actual plan beyond it.) Yes, she’s the one who has the idea and plan to rob the Fine & Frugal in the first place, but that only works because of her intimate knowledge of the store. Once they get past that, Annie falls fully into the role of the typical spontaneous character with the bad plans… except for the moments when the character’s tasked with acquiescing to sex with her lecherous boss Boomer (David Hornsby) in exchange for his silence and almost being raped by him. Despite working mostly as the main source of comedic relief here, she is simultaneously given the most traumatic personal story of the bunch, and Mae Whitman nails both of these roles.

Outside of the Breaking Bad comparisons, the other major talking point is the series’ timeliness when it comes to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. There’s the very obvious connection when it comes to the Annie/Boomer story, but you also have the lying, cheating husband and just the fact that the women’s backs are against the wall because of some very bad men. So it makes sense that these conversations are happening about the show. However, it slightly ignores that Good Girls also feels like a show that could have existed even before now. The only difference would just be the level of “GIRL POWER!” (Every version of this show would have the immensely cathartic moment of Beth literally smashing the the patriarchy in the form of Boomer.) At times, this pilot so loudly proclaims “LADIES!” (or “HEY LADIES”) and “GIRL POWER!” that no one should be surprised if a Spice Girls song or two eventually appears on the show. The weakest version of this is the voiceover (which ends up being part of Sara’s speech) at the beginning, letting us know that “girls today can be anything.” On its own, it’s cutesy in a way the rest of the episode isn’t, even though this is an episode where feminist subtext is really just outright text. The rest of that bluntness works though, whether it’s militantly (but adorably) recited by Sara in school or coolly tossed out by Beth to Amber at the car dealership.

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And just to be clear, not every man here is the bad boy to the show’s good girls: Ruby’s husband Stan (Reno Wilson) is a loving man who appears to be every bit the partner she could want. In fact, Ruby is the one character who doesn’t have the constant point of men holding her back as part of her existence, even with scenes like her praising her daughter for wanting to burn down the patriarchy or when she’s struggling with the male doctor at the free clinic who just won’t listen to her. But by the end of the episode, Stan reveals he’s been accepted into the police academy, becoming a potential roadblock in Ruby and the girls’ path simply by doing something good.

Plot-wise, the biggest hurdles here have to be explained away in order to move things along. Like the question the ladies should ask but don’t, which is how Rio (Manny Montana) knew they were the ones who robbed the grocery store. We know how Boomer knows, but there’s no indication that he tipped them off or has any connection to them. The other big hurdle is one that especially sticks out because of the timing of this series, which is the fact that Beth would even allow her kids to have toy guns. Especially toy guns that can easily pass-ish for real ones. While this makes for a good reason why Good Girls could have easily existed ages before 2017/2018, it certainly does stick out in this particular time frame.

A toy gun in TV and movies now isn’t going to have the same accetpance as a toy gun in TV and movies in the ‘90s and before. Honestly, it was even still kind of acceptable in the early 2000s. (The teenage girls in 2001’s Sugar & Spice had real guns, which is a whole other discussion.) But as a plot point now, it’s also a weak one because of the end result: Boomer sees the fake gun’s orange tip. The tip that was previously colored in. None of this is discounting the genuine stress that’s created in that final scene, but it’s an iffy plot point that leads to a bizarre instance of dark humor (with Boomer calling it out for being a fake gun, to Beth’s failed denial) in an episode that otherwise succeeds.

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And it succeeds despite the fact that it will apparently have to do a reset of sorts every week. That’s a strange choice, given the premise, but here we have these women pull off a heist and fix their problems... only to have to give the money back. It’s the type of episodic structure that can hinder the show, as actual stakes may be this show’s biggest issue. The Boomer parts—the legitimately upsetting parts—are so atonal to everything else in this episode, and he’s the biggest facilitator of stakes so far. (It’s atonal in a good way, but by the end, it’s so much different than everything else in the pilot.) Sure, Rio is a very bad guy, but he’s more charming than scary in his introduction, despite being a gang leader who threatens the women’s lives.

One of my biggest questions about this series, especially upon learning that it’s supposed to be more drama than comedy, is if it will start to lean in more to the comedy side of things to allow it to work better. With a reliance mostly on comedy, it’s easier to absolve these characters of selfish—or even simply idiotic—behavior. And if it becomes too comedic, then what? The balancing act is necessary for the series, but the good news is that it has a cast that’s capable of doing either whenever needed.

Good Girls is the platonic ideal of a series about “normal” people who become criminals. It’s a likable and even fun show, which is especially hard when it comes to a show where people are clearly doing Bad Things. It can’t be stated enough that Christina Hendricks, Mae Whitman, and Retta are the driving forces of this series, with a supporting cast that thankfully keeps up. These good girls are the selling point, and just from this pilot—uneven and familiar as it is—they sell it pretty well.

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Stray observations

  • Despite my love of Mad Men and Christina Hendricks in Mad Men, I can’t see her in anything these days without thinking: “You should be called Chair.”
  • I spent a good portion watching this episode and thinking, “You have to kill him.” re: Boomer. This is where the network vs. cable differences come in, because they probably would have killed him had this been cable.
  • While Dean doesn’t seem all that guilty when he’s alone in his office with Amber, the earlier moment when he turns off the TV at home as soon as he sees the commercial at least backs up his defense that he does feel bad about what he’s doing.
  • Sadie is the one child character so far who really gets to be a character, and it’s nice to see—especially with the single mother/daughter bond going on—she’s not just some precocious kid. It’s also nice to see that both of her parents support her gender non-conformity, though Gregg has his little moment when he mentions getting her therapy.
  • I think most of the jokes and references in this episode land, original or not, but the “Deadpool” line from Ruby to Beth definitely does not. And so far, Rio’s smoothness is more about how he carries himself than his entire “casual” stove talk.
  • Just so you know: Mae Whitman has had Luke Cafferty, Jason Street, and now Matt Saracen. But Tim Riggins continues to elude the ultimate rally girl.

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