tv review

Good Behavior Is a Not-Quite-There Show

Good Behavior - PilotTNTPh: Brownie Harris
Michelle Dockery as Letty. Photo: Brownie Harris/TNT

Good Behavior is an ironic title.

Michelle Dockery, a.k.a. Lady Mary from Downton Abbey, plays Letty Raines, the antiheroine of this new TNT series based on Blake Crouch’s novels. She’s an ex-convict, a talented burglar and con artist, a recovering drug addict and hard drinker. She’s not to be trifled with. In fact you had best not even think of trifling with her. The pilot introduces Letty working a counter at a North Carolina greasy spoon, fending off the unwanted advances of a predatory customer; she dispatches him so decisively that I’d rather not give all the details here, then torches the meager life she’s built and hits the road. You instantly size her up as the representative of a particular pop-culture subspecies, the ass-kicking femme fatale, a creature of fathomless (though channeled) appetite.

These sorts of characters are usually a bit opaque even when they’re taking prideful pleasure in narrow escapes and elaborate con jobs, and that’s definitely the case here, and then some. The hint of blankness serves double duty on this show: It sells the idea that Letty is a master performer on life’s stage — a woman who can deceive other characters, even very smart ones — and it keeps us from inspecting Dockery’s performance and the writing of Letty’s character too closely. That’s a very smart play because, like Mr. Robot and Westworld, Good Behavior is a twist-generating machine that’s so determined to outsmart its audience that it doesn’t have much time left to give Letty or the other characters (including her parole officer, played by Terry Kinney) a rich interior life.

Can Letty feel anything at all? Sure. We get a hint of authentic (though suppressed) feeling, plus a hint of heart, in an anguished phone conversation between Letty and an unseen character who means something to her. And there’s a promise of personal redemption in the elaborate murder-for-hire plot that Letty stumbles into. But this is a strangely not-quite-there show, one that has assembled all the elements of a classic but settles for being watchable.

Dockery is a problem, I’m sorry to say. She’s impressive, but the performance’s impressiveness comes from overcoming typecasting and dazzling the viewer with technique, not from an intuitive emotional connection with the character, who seems about as authentically American as one of the robots from Westworld. Letty has two modes: rattlesnake-poised and melting down (she has a secret vulnerability that she can’t share with others). Dockery is a fearsome physical performer, at times scarily focused. In standout scenes, you can tell that series creators Crouch and Chad Hodge have seen The Last Seduction and Gone Girl more than a few times. She’s at her best executing multilayered challenges (as in an episode-two sequence that requires her to impersonate an upper-middle-class woman and sing a song at a party) or bits of physical business (filching a wallet or watch, power-walking through a supermarket while gathering items on a shopping list). But the character isn’t as electrifyingly mysterious as the best poker-faced bad girls of film noir and urban thrillers, nor does the writing or the performance give us any emotional or intellectual compensations that might make us see Letty as more than the center of a whirling plot vortex. There were many moments in the first three episodes where my reaction to Letty was to think, “Wow, I had no idea Michelle Dockery could do that,” which is not the same thing as bringing a character to life.

It doesn’t help that the show has filled the key role of Letty’s hate-crush Javier, a hit man, with Juan Diego Botto, who’s preposterously handsome but not terribly charismatic, like Antonio Banderas without the sense of hammy delight that Banderas often brings. His scary moments aren’t scary enough, and he doesn’t have the gravity to put across the idea that Javier is strong enough to cow Letty into doing as he commands. Their pairing amounts to a union of ellipses, when what the show needed was at least one exclamation point.

None of this should indicate that Good Behavior is a bad show. It’s tightly scripted and confident, often letting scenes play out in very long takes so that you can judge the heroine’s progress through a cleanly mapped-out space as she steals something or escapes a foe who thinks he’s smarter than he is. It’s exciting, in its way. But the hard-boiled dialogue doesn’t have the corrosive wit and rubber-band snap that hard-boiled dialogue needs. The show keeps threatening to go full Elmore Leonard, and at times, it seems like it’s about be simultaneously cool and warm, badass and humane, but frustratingly, it never gets there.

Good Behavior Is a Not-Quite-There Show