Claws — the new TNT drama created by Eliot Laurence (director of the film Welcome to Me) and executive produced by Rashida Jones — depicts criminal activity and the complex reasons why capable women find themselves mired in it. Tonally, it’s a little bit Orange Is the New Black and a tad Breaking Bad, dressed up in clothes a Real Housewife might wear if she were strapped for cash.
Perhaps the best thing about the show, aside from its excellent cast, is its insistence on revealing the humanity and nuance in flawed female characters struggling on society’s lower economic rungs. The worst things about it? A tendency to succumb to crime drama clichés and engage in tonal change-ups that sometimes make it difficult to know whether to laugh at Claws, laugh with it, or not laugh at all.
The multitalented Niecy Nash stars as Desna, the owner of a Palmetto, Florida, nail salon who’s looking to move to a new location in more upscale Sarasota. To reach that goal and ensure she can continue to take care of her autistic brother (Harold Perrineau), she’s laundering money from a pain clinic a few strip-mall stores down, but just long enough to get the extra cash she needs. Then, she’s out. (People on shows like this always say they’re only going to engage in shady activity for a little while, and then they’re out. They are never out.)
As the pilot, which airs Sunday at 9 p.m., initially unfolds, things seem to be looking up for Desna. Roller (Jack Kesy), her greasy gangster boyfriend and overseer of the pain-clinic operation, has promised that she’s about to get her long-awaited bonus; she’s found the perfect, sleek location for her new salon; and one of the key members of her squad, Polly (Carrie Preston), has returned to her nail-painting post after a lengthy sabbatical. (Read: She was doing jail time for stealing the identities of senior citizens in St. Petersburg.) That means the whole salon gang — Desna; Polly; fellow cuticle-shaping artist Jennifer (Jenn Lyon), who’s also Roller’s sister-in-law; and the salon’s unofficial security guard Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes) — is now back together again, with one outlier: Virginia (Karrueche Tran), a new manicurist whom Desna is not sure she can trust.
Thanks to Virginia, Roller, and Desna’s money issues, things don’t look up for too long. By the time the second episode begins, she’s up to her neck in hotter water than she’s ever dipped her polished toes into before.
The imagery in Claws alternates between the garishly colorful and the downright skeazy. Not surprisingly, the show has a bit of a manicure fetish, showing frequent close-ups of freshly done nails that are long, lacquered, and sometimes so thick with gel and bedazzlements that they look like ornate, sparkly blades of steel. Those nails — feminine, showy, and capable of making deep cuts if properly deployed — are emblematic not only of the show’s vibe, but of its primary characters, who tend to be as flashy and capable of drawing blood as their blinged-out talons.
In the initial three episodes made available for review, Desna and Polly stand out as the most interesting and layered of the lot. Nash, who demonstrated her dramatic range in HBO’s Getting On, shows off that range again here, playing Desna as bossy and ballsy, but also, especially in her scenes with Perrineau, maternal, mentally exhausted, and at her wit’s end. As a woman devoted to putting an attractive gloss on women, Desna keeps adding more and more coats to her facade, determined to make sure nothing cracks.
Polly, on the other hand, looks like she stepped off the pages of a Land’s End catalogue but, as her ankle monitor attests, obviously has a darker, ethically challenged side. There’s a great scene in episode two in which, while logging some community service hours, Polly regales a group of teenagers with the “true” story of what she did to end up in jail. As she quickly concocts a tale about running a celebrity prostitution ring, Preston wipes away all traces of the character’s Southern accent and drops her vocals into a knowing, Lauren Bacall octave. Polly is not an identity thief because she wants to steal other people’s money or property, Preston’s performance tells us. She genuinely relishes the idea of becoming someone other than herself.
As previously noted, there is a thick layer of swampy Florida scum on the surface of Claws that often inspires the urge to shower at the end of each episode, if not sooner. Many of the people who populate this particular west coast pocket of the Sunshine State — an area that’s nearly the polar opposite of the privileged, though just as corrupt, Islamorada of Bloodline — would probably even describe themselves as seedy: They do business in strip clubs, beg for oxy at the pain clinic, or take orders from the Dixie Mafia–connected boss, Roller’s uncle with the paradoxical, “only in Florida” name Uncle Daddy. It’s never clear whether we’re supposed to find Uncle Daddy, played with gusto by Breaking Bad and Under the Dome alum Dean Norris, legitimately threatening or a parody of other bad guys we’ve seen in other movies and TV shows. It’s possible he’s both.
Drenched in gold chains and snorting coke from the second we meet him, he’s a bisexual ball of machismo with a voice as rough as a gravelly back road and an inability to control his aggression. In a show rich with characters and details that could rightly be described as over the top, he’s so far over it at times that he’s distracting.
Other details in Claws fall in that category, too. One character’s funeral procession includes a flatbed filled with pole dancers twerking their bare butts mere feet behind the casket. This may have intended to be exaggerated and absurd, but it reads more as cheap and crass.
For the sake of spoilers, I won’t say too much about what happens to Desna, but some of the narrative developments surrounding her plight test the bounds of believability and, occasionally, insult the viewer’s intelligence. When she receives an envelope that she expects will be filled with thousands upon thousands of dollars, she peers inside and immediately looks stricken and confused. Her expression clearly conveys that all the dough isn’t there, which makes it extra unnecessary when Desna says, out loud to no one in particular, “That’s it? Where’s the rest?”
Still, there’s a twist at the end of the third episode, the last one made available to critics, that, along with the fine performances and the welcome focus on female solidarity, will keep me coming back to this series, at least for a few more episodes. The polish on Claws has some noticeable chips in it. But I don’t want to remove it, not just yet.