Monday, February 26, 2018

REVIEW: 'Good Girls' - Beth, Annie and Ruby Run Into Problems After Breaking Bad in 'Pilot'

NBC's Good Girls - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

A trio of desperate suburban moms decide that being good never got them anywhere, and rob a supermarket in order to get a little cash to help them and their families out. Unfortunately, the supermarket is already the territory of a local gang, and the women soon find themselves in hot water.

Good Girls barrels through plot in its opening episode. The first act of the premiere is the day leading up to Beth, Annie and Ruby robbing a supermarket. The show then flashes back a couple weeks to show how this plan first became real to these women and how they only planned for it for about a week. It's a very quick story. The show front loads the plot for the season. The show could have played things out slowly. It could have established the various worlds of these three main characters to make their desperation for money sting to make this robbery a believable act that would seem enticing to all three at this moment in time. The execution here largely just uses their current situations to get into the main story as quickly as possible. That's not inherently bad. It's just more expositional than actual character-based drama. And so, Annie is a struggling single mother who is being sued by her ex for custody of their daughter, Ruby can't afford the proper treatment and drugs her sick daughter needs, and Beth learns that her husband has been having an affair and plummeted the family into debt. These are quick revelations that happen early in this premiere. The show only spends about the first third of this hour really setting up who these characters are before their lives are forever changed by this decision they make. The act of robbery is the premise of the show that truly sets everything else into motion. As such, it's a familiar formula sanded down a little bit for broadcast television. This one decision sets in motion a series of problems that the three of them then have to deal with by doubling down on their illegal actions.

The show also proudly wears its feminist identity on its sleeve. It's a story that opens with a monologue from Ruby's daughter that's essentially about burning down the patriarchy. It's a class report about women needing to stand equally by men and having the same opportunities. That speaks to the inherent story on display here. This is a type of show that has become very formulaic and cliche-driven over the last few years. Good Girls attempts to find a new spin on it by making the protagonists a trio of women. It's a smart move that does make the show more interesting and engaging to watch in the early going. It helps that Christina Hendricks, Retta and Mae Whitman seem game for everything. It's easy to empathize with their economic struggles and the mindset they are in leading up to the robbery. It's also quite amusing to see how each of them acts while the robbery is taking place. They are all in this together. But they don't start to get what they want until Beth becomes the intimidating robber who demands cooperation from her hostages. And yet, she's so instinctively in nurturing mode. She still wants to reassure a frightened little kid. But it's impossible for her to have that identity in this moment because she's the one wielding her power and forcing people to pay attention to her or pay the severe consequences. It doesn't matter that her gun is fake. The threat is still very much real and it's an abuse of power on her part.

However, it's still empowering to see Beth take charge of her life. Her story changes the most over the course of this premiere. She's the one with the perfect family life. She is just a content housewife caring for her four children while her husband goes to work as a car salesman. He's the one making all of the big picture decisions for this family. She's the one just ensuring the happiness and safety of everyone in the home. But she's been too silent and blind to what's been going on lately. She discovers that her husband, Dean, has been too busy cheating on her with his assistant while making some very poor investments. He is not smart at all. This premiere really makes sure that is clear to the audience. There is no reason for anyone to put their trust in what Dean is saying or offering to do. Beth may have loved him at one point. But now, she's ready to take the power and control of their family back. She wants to be the one making all of the decisions. Yes, that does include storming down to the car lot to do some property damage. But it's also to keep another women from falling into Dean's trap believing it will lead to happiness. It's empowering to see her kick him out of her life. That's what makes it so compelling when she is forced to rely on his support once more with the kids after she runs into trouble because of this robbery. Now, he's in the position of being left in the dark about the decisions for this family. It hardly seems like that status quo will last for very long. But it's still entertaining to see it here.

Of course, everything about this premise ultimately revolves around Beth, Annie and Ruby getting away with more money than they were expecting. It was half a million dollars instead of the thirty thousand they were planning on. As such, they each have the temptation to spend it recklessly. They agree they won't do that but all of them eventually do. Beth has a mortgage to pay off while Ruby needs to get her daughter in to see a specialist. Annie's spending choices are a bit more problematic because she just buys luxury items to get her daughter to like her without fearing about financial consequences. They all have to collect the money back up once it's discovered that a local gang was using the supermarket as a place to launder their money. It's a threat that is very real and severe for the core trio. And yet, the show loses some of the power and surprise of that moment because of the amount of comedy on display throughout the rest of the story. All of these performers are quite skilled in both drama and comedy. They can go back and forth with such ease. It just makes it harder to take this threat from Rio and his crew seriously knowing that it's largely just setting up a new premise for the show. And so, Beth, Annie and Ruby are trying to figure out a way to pay him back. He is demanding it back in full but they no longer have the full amount. As such, they believe they'll have to rob again in order to fix everything.

Before the group is able to definitively come up with a plan though, the show takes a shocking twist in the final act that further increases the stakes and criminal activities of the main characters. Boomer is Annie's boss at the supermarket. She hates him and has no problem robbing him of this money. And yet, he's the manager who recognizes her by her lower back tattoo. Early on, he used that as an excuse to judge her as a degenerate. He then takes the robbery as a way to exploit the situation to his benefit. He's a man demanding sexual favors in order to keep quiet to the police about what went on during the robbery. He could ruin everything for Beth, Annie and Ruby. That's why Annie reluctantly agrees to the arrangement. But they are already in trouble from this gang. So, Boomer can't do a whole lot more damage because he would have to deal with Rio as well then. But he still wishes to exploit the situation. It's a turn to the dramatic and traumatizing that the show handles quite well. No sexual assault actually occurs. The first time they are interrupted by Annie's daughter before anything happens. The second time Beth is in the shower ready to pull a gun on Boomer for trying to violate her sister. It's an empowering moment because Beth enjoys lecturing Boomer about the casual toxicity of men. It's a strong moment where Beth has power because of her weapon. Of course, it's not real and Boomer quickly figures that out. That's what makes the ending more morally questionable. Beth does attack Boomer with a vase as soon as he makes his threats clear once more. But he actually trips and falls onto a glass table leaving him likely dead. Beth and Annie don't know for sure. They just know they can't involve the police at all. That's an ominous ending - especially if the show follows through on that final moment and the implications it will have for these women and how far they are willing to go to get what they want.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Jenna Bans and directed by Dean Parisot.
  • The sensible decision Annie should make after getting the money is hiring a lawyer to help her with her custody case. Her ex, Greg, apparently comes from money. His new girlfriend comes from the same socio-economic class too. Annie is always comparing herself to her. That's why she tries buying things to impress her daughter. But it's also just inspiring to see how aware the daughter actually is. That's a unique character who should be seen even more in the future.
  • Conversely, none of Beth or Ruby's children stand out in a memorable way here. Ruby's daughter is important for plot purposes as well. She does have a strong opening speech. But after that, she's just struggling with an unknown illness. Meanwhile, Beth has four children and they are just hurdled together at all times with it being unclear if any have distinct personalities.
  • Things stand in stark contrast with the doctors Ruby gets her daughter to see before and after robbing the supermarket. Before, it's a chaotic mess where she's waiting for hours and the clinic is too understaffed to have a proper filing system. She finds it difficult to have her concerns heard with an ounce of compassion. Afterwards, she's treated with empathy and an eagerness to help.
  • Ruby's marriage seems to be the healthiest on the show at the moment. She is actually still in love with her husband, Stan. And yet, she's keeping it a secret how she can pay for this new treatment for their daughter. But it's more ominous to note that he has applied to the police academy. So, he could be a threat to the core trio's criminal activities as well.
  • That commercial for Dean's car dealership is extremely bad. Like many, I've witnessed plenty of awful local commercials. But the show probably went too far in trying to make this one purposefully bad. It's also just a lame concept that ultimately revolves around the idea of pigs flying. It's just not an idea any smart person would come up with - which matches what we should know about Dean at this point.