Niecy Nash, nail art, lady crime — these six words should be all you need to know to clack-tap the debut of Claws (June 11) into your phone calendar. As Desna, an aspiring manicure maven and reluctant money launderer, Nash is every bit as warm, hilarious, and instantly relatable as her two Emmy nods and chronic scene-stealing (on shows like Getting On and Reno 911!) would suggest. It’s about time that scripted programming caught up with reality TV in celebrating what painting fingertips can mean for women — as beauty, trade, and entrepreneurship. And after sitting through approximately 36 billion stories about men behaving badly, we should revel in stories about women’s transgressions, especially when they help color in — as Claws does — the concept of female complexity.
Executive produced by Rashida Jones, the TNT series gets pretty close to what it aspires to be: a multiracial Spring Breakers–esque gonzo crime drama starring women over 40 that officially ushers in the summer. Visually, Claws isn’t too far off. Taking in sandy, jewel-toned Palmetto, Florida, the camera is bombarded by boobs and butts and legs and yachts and blood and drugs and guns. Inside her modest, busy store, Desna’s the queen of her domain as the employer of her friends: Dixie Mafia–connected Jennifer (Jenn Lyon), butch bouncer Ann (Judy Reyes), recent parolee Polly (Carrie Preston), and grudgingly-hired temp Virginia (Karrueche Tran). But outside, it’s a man’s world, with a few territories controlled by white women. Desna was promised $20,000 by Roller (Jack Kesy), her mobbed-up, gold-grilled wigger boyfriend, for “cleaning” the profits at the pain clinic across the street. She intended to use the cash as a down payment for a glossy mega-salon that isn’t located in a part of town where squads of Beckys feel the need to ask, “Is it safe over there?”
Nash nails Desna’s middle-aged paradox: the hard-earned authority that comes from taking care of her girls and the scream-suppressing patience she shows her developmentally disabled adult brother (Harold Perrineau) and the vicious brat Roller. “There’s nothing in this world more useless than a useless man,” Desna preaches to her chatty, batty customers, who supply one of the drama’s many sources of sly humor. But there she is, having orgasm-less sex, giving Roller free manscaping services, and watching him pursue the much-younger Virginia on the sly. By the end of the pilot, the dueling women give the callous bruiser what he deserves — and thus begins their game of Lie to Violent Gangsters, Because What Could Go Wrong?
Plotwise, there’s little here that feels new. Desna might as well sigh and say, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Dean Norris (a.k.a. Breaking Bad’s Hank) plays another man who can’t see that the person he’s looking for is right in front of him as Uncle Daddy, the wryly named head of the local Dixie Mafia chapter. We spend too much time mourning Roller, an obvious shitheel, and the spectacle of Norris in a snake-print suit and a dozen blinging chains all vying wildly for attention doesn’t quite make up for the fact that his villain character isn’t wicked in any distinctive way.
But Claws’s flair and friendships more than make up for the story lines’ familiarity. Desna and her friends peacock their wit, confidence, and affection for one another all day long, showing off their party outfits (the series starts on New Year’s Eve) and checking in on the state of each other’s romantic relationships. The actresses share an impressively lived-in chemistry from the start, which makes the potential fissures in their friendships feel all the more urgent. Desna begins lying to her bestie Jen, who’s married to Roller’s older brother. And the group will eventually need to figure out how to deal with prim Polly’s pathological lying. It’s funny when Polly tells a gasping customer that she was married off at 14 to the leader of the Symbionese Liberation Army — and boy, does Preston know how to sell batshit material (see also: True Blood). But it’s a problem when the parolee won’t tell her closest friends why she went to prison — or how she ended up crying in a grocery store late at night.
The friendship to watch is the burgeoning one between Desna and irascible dimwit Virginia, a motherless ex-stripper who needs more taking care of than she’d ever admit. Tran’s a bit green as a performer, but blessed with a knack for comic timing, and she and Nash make for a promising intergenerational comedy duo. Which is why it’s so disappointing that the show throws so much anti-Asian stuff at Virginia. Desna describes her as having a “love-me-long-time cum face” in a fit of anger and calls her “China Doll” in a more tender mood, and the writers don’t seem to understand that such lines — and a couple others in just the first three episodes — make the characters who utter them plainly offensive. We’re supposed to “you go, girl!” Desna when she orders Virginia to kick off her six-inch lucite heels as the two of them drag Roller’s unconscious body into a boat. Uncommented upon — and unremoved — are Desna’s own five-inch stiletto sandals.
At the core of Claws is a fascinating question of how a sisterhood might accommodate another woman who’s nothing at all like the preexisting crew — and who may even threaten the original group’s members and how they value themselves. The older manicurists dress in booty shorts and party at strip clubs, but they see themselves as above someone like Virginia, who doesn’t mind trading favors for blow jobs and is, apparently uncomfortably for them, Asian. The scenes in which Desna explains to Virginia how to survive — and what she doesn’t have to do in order to stay alive — make for some of the most moving moments in these early installments. The talons are a fun enough diversion. But Claws makes itself substantial when it leaves the sharp edges behind.