I am not the first person, nor will I be the last, to note that Good Girls, a new hour-long “comedy-infused drama” (the network’s words, not mine) that premiered this week on NBC, shares a lot of its DNA with Breaking Bad. It begins with that old, tried and true television premise: that a “normal” person, when pushed into an impossible situation, might commit a crime. It hails from the “caged animal” school of drama, which features regular folk just trying their best until the world clamps down, and suddenly they must turn primal and protective, rabid and frothing as they gnaw their way out of a hopeless corner.
These stories allow for a lot of armchair philosophizing: What we would do if it all got dire overnight? Would we cook the meth? Launch a million-dollar hydroponic weed racket? Join the mob? Clasp hands and drive a convertible over the cliff? These shows quickly become glossy case studies in the ethicist Lisa Tessman’s theory of moral failure: Sometimes, when presented with two bad options, there is really no correct choice to make. As Tessman wrote in her 2015 book on the subject, sometimes life simply presents “unavoidable moral failures from which there can be no recovery and in which there is no redeeming value.”
With Walter White, the morality question was a bit less amorphous—it would clearly have been the correct decision for him to have accepted his cancer diagnosis, living out his remaining days with his family as a kind and loving, if nebbishy and depressive, man. Launching a methamphetamine empire that led to countless deaths and the emotional ruin of nearly everyone who came in contact with him was obviously the lesser of his options. But clear choices don’t make for good TV. Vince Gilligan’s genius, or perhaps his curse, was that he presented Walter White’s love affair with crime as an ethical gray area, so that fans could slide past any lingering questions and begin to root for him from their living rooms. “I am the one who knocks” became a rallying cry, rather than a repugnant threat growled by a man physically threatening his wife (for more on this, you can read Emily Nussbaum’s excellent essay grappling with the show’s “bad fans”). You can still buy T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase—and they cannot all be ironic references to moral failure and insurmountable tragedy.
And yet, we are now living in a radically different landscape than the one that birthed Breaking Bad. The men who knock no longer feel fictional nor glamorous: ICE is deporting parents at school drop-offs, teenagers are leading the fight for gun control. After the snowballing dialogues of #Metoo and #TimesUp it is impossible to re-watch the scene in which Walter torments Skylar without recoiling from its menacing violence. And yet, people still want to see good people go bad; it is always going to be alluring for viewers to cross moral boundaries from the safety of their living rooms.
Enter Good Girls. The show, created by Jenna Bans (a former writer for Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and Scandal, and creator of the network dramas Off the Map and The Family), takes the Gilligan formula and attempts to bring it up to date. This time, the protagonists are three women living in suburban Detroit who decide to enter lives of crime in order to provide for and defend their families, mama bears you do not want to cross paths with in the woods.
When we meet these women, they are all in desperation mode, each in her own mini-vortex of crisis. Beth (Christina Hendricks) is a mother of four who finds out that her car salesman husband of 20 years (Matthew Lillard) is cheating on her with his blonde secretary and that he has also left the family in dire financial straits after a series of botched investments and defaulted mortgages. Beth’s younger sister Annie (Mae Whitman) is more rebellious (we know because she wears liberal amounts of kohl eyeliner), and works a numbing, minimum-wage job as the cashier at a supermarket to support her gender-nonconforming daughter (Izzy Stanard), who is bullied in middle-school. Annie’s ex-husband (Zach Gilford) is wealthy and suing her for custody, a battle she cannot afford to fight. The sisters join up with their friend Ruby (Retta), whose daughter has a life-threatening renal disease and who needs an expensive, experimental medication that costs $10,000 out of pocket to cure it.
All three women have crises that can be solved with cash, and no quick or easy way to get it. So, out of options, they decide to rob the supermarket where Annie works. After a week spent casing the joint, they pull on balaclavas and stride into the store with toy guns (a scene that, even using fake revolvers, feels slightly tone-deaf given recent events) and demand the stash from the vault. The store’s manager, a slimy salamander type named Boomer who consistently harasses Annie at work, gives into their demands, but also notices Annie’s lower-back tattoo during the heist and realizes who he is dealing with.
The women walk away from the job with much more loot than they bargained for—they thought the store had $30,000 in the back room, but they leave with half a million dollars—and as they say, the hijinks unspool from there. Turns out, Boomer has been laundering cash for a local gang; he also shows up at Annie’s apartment and tries to blackmail her into sexual favors. When he shows up a second time, he tries to rape Annie on her kitchen counter while Beth is in the shower; when Beth emerges, she knocks him sideways with a whiskey bottle and he stumbles over a coffee table and loses consciousness. Now, instead of just being burglars, the women find themselves with a hostage.
Good Girls would not work without its leading ladies. It is a true ensemble piece, built around Hendricks’s seething grace, Whitman’s sardonic tenderness, and Retta’s impeccable ability to weave between biting one-liners and and weepy vulnerability. And yet, because these women are so charming, and so fully in the right from the beginning—we crave justice for them like we do for Jean Valjean merely stealing bread to feed a starving child—Good Girls is in danger of falling into the Breaking Bad trap all over again.
This is network TV, so the consequences of the women’s actions are less severe than what one might see over on cable; there is a bit of cartoon sparkle in their mischief, and a shellac of bouncy jokes and visual gags that overrides their nagging qualms about spiraling out of control. Of course, when Beth knocks Boomer to the ground, the moment feels triumphant. But how celebratory should we feel when a person has no choice? It was violence either way; it was survival, it was gnawing oneself out of the trap. Good Girls tries to play this catch-22 for comedy—and in this political moment for a dose of female empowerment—but it can be difficult to giggle through a situation so underwritten with pain.
Good Girls cannot decide whether it is a comedy or a drama. Perhaps, as time goes on, it will evolve into a cohesive whole. For now, it tries to have its cake (women fighting back in the age of #metoo, a sharp critique of health care and poor labor practices) and eat it too (the promise of a daffy Thelma and Louise-style romp). Although the actresses leading the show are strong, right now Good Girls backs its own viewers into a corner: Do you watch it to cheer on women who are taking on the system (no medication should cost $10,000!) or to cringe as they become more and more enamored with criminality as a universal solution to life’s troubles?
As the trio is robbing the store, Beth attempts to bond with a small child shivering in her mother’s arms by asking her if she watches Doc McStuffins. Of course, the child is not assuaged; she is traumatized. There is nothing silly about what these women are up to, and yet we are supposed to laugh at the concept of Hendricks in a face mask, her sparkling blue eyes radiating out from the eyeholes. So, how to react? There may be no right choice here, and perhaps, that’s the point.