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‘Claws’ Is Perfect, Pulpy, Extra-Floridian Summer TV

The TNT drama is a much-needed respite from heavier prestige fare

(TNT)
(TNT)

After a three-month streak of post-apocalyptic dirges, dystopian thrillers, and cerebral sex farces aimed straight at the Emmys, viewers — even fans of the dark and dismal — are in the mood for TV on the lighter side. Something like Hank from Breaking Bad as an Oxy-slinging Dixie Mafia don named Uncle Daddy. Or Elsbeth Tascioni from The Good Wife as a con artist in head-to-toe Lilly Pulitzer. Or Niecy Nash, at long last in a starring role after years of playing well-loved characters in little-watched series, doing a pimp strut through a South Florida parking lot.

Summer TV has never been more needed than it is in 2017, and starting with Sunday’s premiere, Claws is here to give it to you.

Executive produced by Rashida Jones and created by Eliot Laurence, screenwriter of the 2014 Kristen Wiig vehicle Welcome to Me, the glitzy TNT drama fills Peak TV’s biggest gap: pure, well-crafted escapism. Nash plays Desna, the owner of a Gulf Coast nail salon (her bedazzled vanity plate reads NAILDIT) and den mother of the ragtag crew of misfits who make up its staff. Jennifer (Jenn Lyon) is the best friend who shares Desna’s taste for hairspray and form-fitting bodysuits; Polly (Carrie Preston) is the newly released white-collar criminal who rocks an ankle bracelet along with her khakis; Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes) is the taciturn enforcer who looks her happiest when she’s either seducing a customer or standing in front of a door with her arms crossed. Desna’s gotten everyone mixed up in money laundering for the Uncle Daddy–operated “pain clinic” — read: opiate dispensary — a few doors down in the strip mall in the hopes of raising capital for a salon far away from addict meccas and Jews for Jesus meeting halls. Claws is a crime romp that’s all the more delightful for being so straightforward.

Claws was initially developed as a half-hour comedy at HBO before TNT picked the show up and doubled its running time. The premium roots show, mostly in the aesthetic — it looks fantastic. (The pilot is directed by Nicole Kassell, lately of visual stunners like The Americans, The Leftovers, and Better Call Saul.) Every frame is saturated with a sensibility best described as “Florida-core,” reminiscent of Spring Breakers, American Honey, and Magic Mike. It’s the telos of tacky: half-empty McMansions and all-neon everything. You can practically smell the heady mix of stale, fetid swamp fumes and freshly printed money. This is the kind of show that, had it stayed at HBO, might get accused of looking like a music video — all style, no substance. On blue-skies basic cable, that’s a compliment. Claws has all of HBO’s glamour and none of its pretension.

The plot of Claws is mostly routine. There’s a murder that draws criminal dilettantes deeper into the seedy underbelly of Manatee County. There’s an unlikely partnership between two women who can’t stand each other: Desna and Virginia (Karrueche Tran), the ditzy social climber who’s been filling in for Polly while she does her time. And there’s the cover-up, which proves far more complicated — and funnier — than the crime. The whole thing plays like a Ghostbusters-style all-female reboot of the sweat-stained pulp fiction that temporarily took over TV this time last year: Hap & Leonard, The Night Manager, Queen of the South, and TNT’s own Animal Kingdom. As with each of those series, the predictability becomes a selling point: a signal to unwind in front of your TV set, preferably with iced alcoholic beverage in hand, rather than remain on your toes.

At its best, Claws is mindless without being brainless. At its worst, it’s self-conscious about what a blast it can be. There are needlessly sentimental touches, and Claws can sometimes veer too far toward black comedy, treating its subjects with the mocking derision that any part-satire, part-ethnography flirts with. (At one point, the agony of grieving parents is played for laughs.) Claws succeeds when it leans into its nihilistic pleasures instead of hedging against them.

Besides, Claws saves its sneers for the antagonists. Desna herself is never trivialized: As fans of the dearly departed Getting On or even the first season of Scream Queens know, Nash is a force, selling her character’s ambition and excess with equal conviction. She’s easy to laugh with and easier to root for. And it’s worth noting that, even six seasons into Scandal, it’s still remarkable to see a black actress previously relegated to supporting roles given the responsibility, not to mention complexity, of fronting her own show.

Claws arrives in the all-important interregnum between spring and fall, when TV goes through a parallel version of blockbuster season at the box office. The network shows have all aired their finales; the prestige series’ race to air at least half their seasons before the Academy’s June 21 deadline is over, apart from a handful of streaming series. That clears the space for an 800-pound gorilla like Game of Thrones, a frequently thoughtful series that most of its massive audience watches for surprise beheadings and dragon roastings, and less omnipresent but equally entertaining distractions to pass the time until real life resumes in September. USA knows what it’s doing by dropping Suits in July: giving the people the low-key, high-contrast fun they want.

Claws fits right into a season when heat-exhausted, barbecue-sated viewers come home, even in these TV boom times, to an irritatingly empty DVR. Steamy and flashy, loud and proud, Claws is the kind of show it only feels right to watch with the AC cranked up.