It's no exaggeration to say the new NBC series Good Girls has one of the most promising casts a network show has sported in a while. It has Retta, one of the indispensable members of the Parks and Recreation ensemble. It has Mae Whitman, who's been a terrific actress since she was tiny. It has Christina Hendricks, who gave such depth to Joan Holloway Harris on Mad Men. It even has Zach Gilford, who played the still-waters-run-deep quarterback Matt Saracen on Friday Night Lights.
Regrettably, the show can't live up to what the cast promises.
The premise is that Beth (Hendricks), Annie (Whitman) and Ruby (Retta) are friends who have money problems ranging from the more ordinary (Beth's rotten husband has squandered all their assets) to the more extraordinary (Ruby's daughter needs a prescription drug that costs $10,000 a month out of pocket). Therefore, they do the most logical thing they can think of: They rob the grocery store where Annie works. They take guns (which — spoiler alert? — you will know instantly cannot be real guns) and rob the store. Perhaps if this show had been made a few months later than it was, they'd have decided to go with embezzlement or something as the original crime rather than a robbery that leaves legitimately terrified people crawling on the ground and pleading for their lives (...hilariously?) because they don't know they're only experiencing a plot necessity. But here we are.
There's a way to make comedy out of this kind of everything-goes-wrong caper movie involving normal people who go diving into a life of crime and find themselves in way over their heads. And at times, that's what the show seems to be doing. But it takes tight tonal control, and brilliant pacing, to make comedy from this kind of snowballing chaos. It doesn't work well when the chaos is only executed intermittently.
And intermittent comedy is all you get, because Good Girls is also trying to be a sweet story about good mothers, good friends, and women pushing their way out of situations in which they feel helpless. The earnestness of these sequences — between Ruby and her husband (Reno Wilson), between Beth and her kids, between Annie and her ex (Gilford) — doesn't work when it's alternating, rather than blending in a coherent way, with the madcap comedy. Earnest heart-tugging stops absurdity it in its tracks, and when the show tries to go back to madcap, it can't. Increasing levels of desperation lead to increasing bad acts, but Good Girls has a weird tendency to create real fearful situations and suddenly decide they can be played for laughs. (For example, you cannot make an attempted rapist from whom you've wrung genuine terror into comic relief when it's convenient. You just can't.)
You can make good-folks-go-bad work as comedy if you have utter mastery of exactly what show you're trying to make. Good Girls doesn't have anything that feels like that level of confidence.