The third season of the NBC comedy-drama struggles to find a tone, but excels in depicting the every day issues of the working class.
Good Girls, which begins its third season this Sunday, has drifted from its “just one heist” beginnings. Gone is the sense that if the trio Beth (Christina Hendricks), Ruby (Retta), and Annie (Mae Whitman) can just get past the grocery store robbery investigation, they’ll be fine. The chief “every day” antagonists of Mary Pat (Allison Tolman) and Boomer (David Hornsby) have been put in the rearview mirror. The three women are criminals, full stop.
However, to the Jenna Bans created and run show’s benefit, Girls still concerns itself how thin the differences between criminal and suburban banality are. The show is at its strongest when focusing more on how thoroughly work — be it felonious or retail — has asserted itself well beyond the hours when you punch the clock. Beth’s husband Dean (Matthew Lillard) attends customer dinners at restaurants fancy enough to offer valet parking exclusively in a khakis and a polo embroidered with the logo of his employer. Beth manages to strong-arm not by threatening force, but by complaining to his manager at his straight 9 to 5 job. The message is clear: work is no longer something we do, it is who we are.
The secondary message of that gets elucidated pretty clearly as well. Not only has work become who we are, but it is still not enough. It wants more and it will take it if you let it. Girls is shot through with these examples as well. One character finds opportunities dry up when they choose faithfulness over a workplace affair. Another finds themselves under constant surveillance everywhere they go.
Finally, the show stresses, not only will work never be satisfied and keep taking up more and more of one’s life, but the money generated will never be enough. The trio’s one heist did not save them from still dwelling on the edge of financial chaos and/or ruin. Acting as money launderers did not either. Now, in season 3, they have a new scheme and things remain just as precarious. Multiple incomes, multiple jobs, and the quick money of cash is still not enough to keep these families afloat. It’s not that they’re living upon their means. It’s that there’s nearly no level of means to be lived at that cannot be disrupted by a bad month of sales, some healthcare bills, or the need to take some days off from a job that doesn’t offer sick time.
The show is at its strongest when focusing more on how thoroughly work — be it felonious or retail — has asserted itself well beyond the hours when you punch the clock.
This reality is best articulated by Beth’s less than welcome mother-in-law (Jessica Walter). Telling the story of her own time as a working mom and why she stopped, the older Mrs. Boland explains that women never could have it all. The show’s response, left unstated by affirmed again and again, is things have gotten far darker. Women can’t have it all. Men can’t have it all. But they all still have to do it all, while knowing it’s a failing effort.
Where the show still struggles is balancing its tone. It’s intended to be a black comedy, and at times it fulfills this. In the last three screened episodes, there’s a running gag about the fate of the Boland family fish that works nicely. Similarly, a discussion of the proper way to take pictures of a pet bird that imply it’s in imminent danger hits.
However, when things get very dark, the show can’t find its footing. Its attempts at humor in those moments feel silly and hamfisted. Its not a lack of nerve. The show goes very dark, especially in episode 5, and does so without blinking. There’s something fundamentally too decent at its core to make the jokes get as nasty as you’d need to fit though. Good Girls is a show that has no problem whistling past the graveyard, but struggles to maintain the tune while dismantling the body. The show would be better served to keeping jokes about dead fish and cutting the attempts at jokes about dead friends.
The first two episodes of the set of the five screened for critics is also a bit too much in a hurry to get the new status quo in place. Season 2 ended with several events that promised significant personal or in-group upheaval. The one or two that even get mentioned at the start of Season 3, however, get rapidly addressed by circumstance. This results in the loss of what could have been some truly interesting character growth. While it remains possible the show may eventually swing back around to these ideas, those first two episodes make it highly unlikely.
This is why Good Girls does not quite get to being a great show. At times you can feel the show struggle with itself. Whether it is when to make jokes and when to bite its tongue as noted earlier or rushing past its strong previous setups to get to new stories it wants to tell RIGHT NOW, the show can’t help but derail itself sometimes.
Just because it isn’t great, however, does not preclude it from being very good. The performances remain strong. Retta is season 3’s early MVP and Lillard continues to get better and better as the increasingly vulnerable Dean. The direction and cinematography are never showy but it well captures the sense of scale to these characters’ lives. The fact that it sometimes feels like it is filmed on a backlot actually works to its advantage. It adds to the sensation that all we can see is all the characters can imagine for themselves. They are fighting so hard to hold onto their homes and their small strips of yard because to them, they’re really is nothing else out there. As said above, Good Girls is never better than when it grounds itself in the increasingly frantic and vulnerable reality of suburban life.
Season 3 of Good Girls premieres February 16th.