Sunday, June 11, 2017

REVIEW: 'Claws' - Desna Hits Her Breaking Point in Her Destructive Relationship with Roller in 'Tirana'

TNT's Claws - Episode 1.01 "Tirana"

Desna and her girls take pride in doing nails at the Nail Artisans of Manatee County, but amidst painting hooves and dreaming of a better life, she finds herself entangled in a money laundering scheme with the Dixie Mafia. As New Year's Eve approaches, Desna's promise of getting out and going clean is complicated when things go south with Roller, leading her and newcomer Virginia to take matters into their own hands, changing their lives forever.

TNT is still trying to figure out its new brand after moving away from blue sky procedurals. Last year Animal Kingdom and Good Behavior were their prestige plays. They were different types of shows for the network in the hopes of bringing more critical acclaim and appreciation to the network - just like what Mr. Robot did to USA. And now, Claws is something completely different. It plays towards something more over-the-top ridiculous while still being grounded in something very dramatic. Dramedies have become more and more popular over the years. The lines have gotten increasingly blurred. So, it's not surprising that TNT is trying to find its voice in this tone as well. It should just be interesting if it works. The cast of Claws is absolutely stacked with some incredible acting talent - Niecy Nash, Carrie Preston, Dean Norris and Judy Reyes. All of them have resumes in both comedy and drama. So, they seem well equipped to straddle the line in this show. This opening hour though is largely just setting up the tone of this world while building to the actual event that will define the narrative stakes moving forward. As such, the performances don't stand out that much because there's so much storytelling ground to cover up. Perhaps this pace will continue in the future. But it would sure be nice to slow down and learn more about these five very distinct women.

Niecy Nash's Desna is the clear lead of the show. It's still so fascinating to see her as a dramatic actress considering how reliably funny she is in every show she is on. And she is playing things completely serious in this opening episode. She's the one who has the weight of the world on her shoulders. She got into this money laundering scheme because of her horrible boyfriend, Roller. She did it in order to finance her dream of opening up a massive nail salon in a better part of town. Of course, that doesn't actually happen. She expected to be paid a certain amount of money after a year's work. Instead, she only gets a fraction of it and the various men she confronts tell her she's getting too greedy and selfish. It's absolutely infuriating to listen to the men in Desna's life tell her what to do. They are just so condescending and manipulative of her. They see her as a sexual object who is good in bed and smart enough to handle this operation. But they don't see her as any more than that. The show though sees her as the lead who is struggling to keep her life together as she chases what she wants while dealing with all the new problems that arise. It's a formulaic idea for a character but it's still very effective in this medium.

Plus, the core relationship of the show seems to be between the five woman. Four of them have a friendship that goes back years. They are all incredibly close and supportive of one another. They are a crew that will proudly stand by one another. It's inspiring to watch. The chemistry between the four of them is strong as well. The personal stories for Polly, Jennifer and Quiet Ann are only briefly teased in this opening episode though. Desna's story is more important because of the explosive ending. Meanwhile, Polly's is significant as well. She's fresh out of jail for identity theft. She fits right back into the salon environment. But she is a changed person because she's broke. She's living a sad life in a crummy apartment. It's exciting for her to go out for a night of fun with her friends. But that can only mask the depressing state of her life for so long. She can't hide it from her friends. At first, it seems like she's going to do just that. Pretend that everything is fine when it isn't. Because she's not able to do that, the bond amongst the four of them seems genuine and real. They can't keep secrets from each other for very long. Nor do they turn on each other once they learn the truth. Instead, they support each other even when others would run away. Desna stands by Polly even when her Dixie Mafia contacts worry about her ankle bracelet being a hindrance for business.

However, the show is about five manicurists and not just four. The odd woman out is Virginia. She's much younger than the other four. As such, she's a little more entitled and careless. She shows up late for work and thinks she's better than everyone else. She even seduces Roller too. That's an intriguing twist. Desna's relationship with Roller isn't setup as a healthy dynamic. They are literally choking each other during their sex scene. And yet, Desna still punches Virginia in the face after learning the truth. That sequence of the girls throwing Virginia out of the saloon is quite fine while also showing how cruel these women are capable of being. It shows that female friendships don't just have to be empowering or uplifting. Nor do they all get reduced to basic cat fights either. The women turn on Virginia for a reason. She's just not like the rest of them. It is a form of bullying that is really oppressive. Virginia deserved to be taken down a peg. But Desna and her girls may have gone too far as well. They pushed her right back to Roller who immediately put her into a very dangerous situation because she got in over her head very quickly.

Desna knows how to push back against Roller. She gets pleasure out of their sexual relationship even though she largely just puts up with his kinks. Meanwhile, Virginia doesn't know what to do when she's getting choked out. She's actually getting hurt. It's horrifying to see. Plus, Desna is so casual about it. She does put a stop to it. But not because she cares about Virginia. She just wants to get to her own plan with Roller. It's a little ambiguous whether or not she went over to his place to steal his money, kill him or both. But she ultimately does try to kill him because he still wants to put her on a leash. He wants to put her in her place and go back on their original deal. It's a good situation for him but not for her. He's too selfish to see that. After spending an hour with him, it's easy to understand the urge to kill him. Desna actually tries to do it though. She drowns him in his new pool. It's an action that can't be taken back. She'll now forever be seen as a murderer who did whatever it took to get what she wanted. And yet, her actions don't kill him. Instead, it's a bullet from the gun Virginia picks up that finishes him off. So now whether they like it or not, Desna and Virginia are in this together. Just because they'll carry this around with them forever, doesn't mean they'll suddenly like or respect each other though. So there are a million different ways that this could go wrong for them. This action was about taking back their power. But now, what are they going to do with it? It's unclear because the aftermath could go in any number of directions.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Tirana" was written by Eliot Laurence and directed by Nicole Kassell.
  • Jack Kesy is listed as a series regular but his character is seemingly killed off by the end of the premiere. So, is this a bait-and-switch thing where the actor's contract is used against audience expectations? Or does he somehow survive getting drowned and shot? If so, will he remember what Desna and Virginia did to him?
  • Dean Norris plays a man called Uncle Daddy. That is just so absolutely ridiculous. He's acting on a completely different show than everyone else. He is effective when he's asked to be the threatening crime boss in charge of this operation. But it's hard to watch when he's the over-the-top flamboyant guy with a thick accent and flirting with absolutely everyone. It's a lot to take and probably is too much.
  • In addition to everything going on with the salon and with the money laundering, Desna is also caring for her brother who appears to be on the autism spectrum in some way. It's a pretty one note character so far with Desna needing to treat this adult man as a child. It could be a way to ground her in this extraordinary world. But her friendship with the other girls largely does that already. So this seems a little unnecessary.
  • Jennifer is the mom of the group. She has a husband - who I believe is also the brother of Roller - and two children. Things seem pretty stable for her right now. She isn't really given a dramatic storyline in this premiere. That will probably change pretty soon.
  • Quiet Ann is such a fascinating character. Words are so important in sharing who a character is. And yet, a character who doesn't speak a whole lot is significant as well. When she does, it's for something very important. She still feels like one of the girls too who cares about the rest of the crew. Meanwhile, she's also having sex with a married woman. That will probably go awry at some point.
  • The criminal operation isn't even going smoothly at the moment either. Russian rivals have staked out the doctor's office where the mafia is selling its product. Desna is able to chase them away. But that only reveals that they are working for someone who was also getting her nails done at the salon by Desna.