Good Girls Arrives at the Right Cultural Moment

Mad women: Mae Whitman, Christina Hendricks, and Retta in Good Girls. Photo: NBC

A promising mix of drama and black comedy, Good Girls arrives on NBC tonight with a Time’s Up pin affixed to its suburban mom sweater and a trio of female protagonists ready to reclaim their time, or at least the money they feel they’ve got coming to them.

Creator Jenna Bans, former writer for Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and creator of the Joan Allen series The Family, has built this series around Annie (Mae Whitman), her sister Beth (Christina Hendricks), and their friend Ruby (Retta), all decent women driven to commit criminal behavior because of actions taken by men: husbands who cheat and mishandle the family funds (in Beth’s case), ex-husbands suing for custody of a daughter (in Annie’s case), and inattentive doctors who don’t seem to care about Ruby’s daughter’s kidney disease. All three women legitimately need an influx of cash, so when Annie suggests sticking up the grocery store where she works and splitting the money in the backroom safe three ways, it sounds like a relatively easy way to solve their problems. But naturally, it only causes new ones, especially once they realize that the store is actually a money-laundering operation.

Good Girls immediately calls to mind shows like Breaking Bad and Weeds, in which seemingly upstanding American parents engage in clandestine illegal endeavors. People of a certain age may also look at Good Girls and see hints of two movies, both released in 1980, about trios of fed-up women: 9 to 5, in which three office workers get revenge on their misogynistic boss, and How to Beat the High Cost of Living, a comedy about financially strapped friends who hatch a plan to steal prize money from a local shopping mall. (Weirdly, Dabney Coleman appeared in both of these films.) Thirty-eight years later, apparently women are still just as ticked-off, cash poor, and willing to go to extremes to do something about it.

Good Girls may not be exploring entirely new storytelling terrain, but it’s refreshing to see the role of TV anti-hero being filled by not just one, but three women, in a major network series. The show relies heavily on the strength of those three principals, and it has chosen wisely in Hendricks, Whitman, and Retta.

In their respective roles on Mad Men and Parenthood, Hendricks and Whitman proved they have an innate understanding of how to portray conflicted, stubborn, and determined women. As Beth, Hendricks is a firebrand who’s been dressed in stay-at-home mom clothing for too long. She may struggle to operate the overcomplicated TV remote in her family room, but she is remarkably adept at lying her way in and out of tough spots, a skill she may have developed while lying to herself about her less-than-ideal marriage to Dean (Matthew Lillard). Whitman is totally believable as both a screw-up and an understanding mother to her gender-fluid daughter, Sadie (Izzy Stannard). In certain ways, she’s assuming a mom role akin to the one Lauren Graham took on as Whitman’s mother on Parenthood. Annie is the parent, but she also treats her child like a peer. Whitman’s a natural at sliding up and down that relationship spectrum, and also a natural at letting her frustration fly, particularly at her ex-husband, played by Zach Gilford of Friday Night Lights. (For those keeping score at home, this is the third football player from Dillon, Texas, to whom Whitman has been romantically linked on an NBC series.)

But it’s Retta’s performance that stands out as the most revelatory, especially for those who know her mainly as Donna “Treat Yo Self” Meagle from Parks and Recreation. On Good Girls, Retta still gets to have her way with sarcastic one-liners. (“We’re not at Lilith Fair right now,” Ruby reminds Annie when she sings “Closer to Fine” while waiting for Beth to pick up a shady delivery.) But as a concerned mother of an ailing child, she also handles serious and emotional moments in an understated, truthful way that never leans too far toward the sentimental. The fact that Ruby has a healthy marriage also makes her story line more complicated and interesting, especially when her husband (Reno Wilson) announces his plans to become a cop.

In the initial three episodes of Good Girls that were shared with critics, Beth, Annie, and Ruby keep finding ways to get in deeper and deeper trouble, which allows each hour to raise the stakes by another few notches. Because Good Girls also operates like a character-driven family drama, the more tension-building aspects of the plot sometimes feels like they’re coming at you too fast. There are other glitches in the matrix, too, including the one-dimensional members of the gang funneling their money through the grocery store, who look like the first-draft versions of villains from Breaking Bad. Our anti-heroines also have a tendency to make stupid errors that are either intentional examples of how lousy they are at the whole crime thing, or the result of misjudgments in the writing. It’s never clear which one, but I do know it drives me crazy when they make multiple phone calls that can easily be traced or leave their fingerprints all over an apartment they have no business visiting. Still, there’s certainly enough verve, suspense, and strong acting in Good Girls to make it easy to give its flaws a pass.

There have been a lot of “bad moms” in pop culture lately, but usually they are only “bad” within a certain context: they drink too much or curse like Boston Red Sox fans on a bender after losing to the Yankees. Truly reprehensible behavior, especially on TV, has generally been left for dads like Tony Soprano and Don Draper to handle.

Good Girls not only flips that gender script, it does so by cleverly subverting the trappings we associate with stereotypical American motherhood. Instead of merely going grocery shopping, these mothers take money from the grocery store. These moms don’t just put their kids’ play guns back in the toy box. They hold onto them and wield them as weapons — albeit completely non-dangerous ones — during a holdup. Sometimes they do it in even more fraught situations.

In a scene in the first episode, Annie’s boss shows up at  her apartment and attempts to force himself on her. It’s clear that she’s about to be raped, until Beth bursts in, pointing one of those plastic rifles squarely at her sister’s assailant. When he has the audacity to tell Beth not to be “upset,” she loses it.

“Why would I be upset?” Beth asks, rage spewing from every pore. “Because every man in the world thinks he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants?”

This is the Thelma and Louise moment of the Good Girls pilot, and it serves as confirmation that this is a show meeting a cultural groundswell at just the right time. Like so many women in America, Beth is not simply a “good girl.” She’s a lady. She is a member of the PTA. And she is pissed.

Good Girls Arrives at the Right Cultural Moment