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‘Good Girls’ Review: Mae Whitman Is Better Than Good in a Busted NBC Drama Undercut by Its Comedy

...or its comedy is undercut by its drama — either way, the verified talents of Retta and Christina Hendricks are almost entirely wasted, and that's the real crime here.

GOOD GIRLS -- "Mo Money Mo Problems" Episode 102 -- Pictured: (l-r) Retta as Ruby Hill, Mae Whitman as Annie Marks, Christina Hendricks as Beth Boland -- (Photo by Steve Dietl/NBC)

Steve Dietl/NBC

Good Girls” gets a lot of things right on paper and almost as many things wrong in execution. The hourlong “comedy-infused drama” focuses on three moms who are backed against a wall and see no other viable option to provide for their families than less-than-legal means. Like Walter White cooking meth to give his wife and son a nest egg after his death, Beth (Christina Hendricks), Annie (Mae Whitman), and Ruby (Retta) decide to rob a grocery store in order to keep a roof over their kids’ heads, maintain custody, or literally save a child’s life.

While one could complain that we’ve seen this kind of story before, in “Breaking Bad,” “Ozark,” and even the lady-led “Weeds,” that’s far from the top problem facing “Good Girls” moving forward. (Really, it’s not a problem at all, given how many far-more-familiar male antihero stories we’ve sat through over the years.) There’s room — demand, even — for an empowering antihero drama on network TV that breaks bad from a woman’s point of view, but Jenna Bans’ attempt to speak to the reckoning’s frustrated and furious cultural climate is too uneven and unpolished to get the job done.

GOOD GIRLS -- "Pilot" Episode 101 -- Pictured: Christina Hendricks as Beth Boland -- (Photo by Steve Dietl/NBC)

Worse yet, it largely wastes its excellent ensemble cast. Hendricks plays Beth, a housewife and mother of four who discovers her husband (Matthew Lillard) isn’t just cheating on her, but he’s buried them in debt. The six-time Emmy nominee for “Mad Men” gets plenty of opportunities to stare daggers and breathe fire — a delightful, established talent of hers — but her sly comedic sensibilities are ignored in favor of big switches between a fierce, law-breaking figure and a sweet, relatable mother. The swings aren’t written that well, and Hendricks does what she can with them, but they don’t serve her character, especially when she takes a turn in later episodes.

Retta’s Ruby is even less developed, and given fewer opportunities for the “Parks and Rec” star to strut her stuff. With a sick kid and an angelic husband, Ruby is often called on for big emotional moments, which would be fine if they weren’t largely earned by other people. When Ruby can’t enjoy her kid’s soccer game because she’s worried about her newfound life of crime, Stan (Reno Wilson) gets far more to do in bringing her out of her funk than she does for living in the now. He’s charming, understanding, and clever, and — no disrespect to Wilson’s solid turn — but why don’t we get to see Retta make a similar impression? Repeatedly, Ruby is the sad sack who can’t confide in her husband. When she’s with her friends, she’s a little more out there — cracking a couple of jokes and leaning into aptly extreme reactions — but Retta has also proven herself capable of doing so much more than what’s in these scripts.

GOOD GIRLS "Pilot" Episode 101 -- Pictured: Mae Whitman as Annie Marks -- (Photo by: Josh Stringer/NBC)

Then there’s Whitman, who’s almost given too much to do. Annie has a salty relationship with her boss, Boomer (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s” David Hornsby) and a playful dynamic with her daughter, Sadie (Izzy Stannard). At work she’s talking shit to her awful employer — in scenes both moving and amusing — while at home she’s using a bad accent to make her kid laugh — and audiences, too. Whitman, who showed an impressive range in “Parenthood” (and throughout her career), handles each shift beautifully. She’s always present with her co-stars and aware of the scene she’s in beyond what’s on the page. Whitman quickly creates a character who’s a little lost, a little scared, and a little angry, but always pushing for what she believes in, even though the show betrays her efforts from time-to-time with clunky cuts and tonal issues.

It’s exciting to see Whitman in such a prime role, but it’s a problem that she’s the only actress whose talents are being fully utilized. “Good Girls” can’t quite figure out what it wants to be: Even NBC’s official description of the show, calling it a “comedy-infused drama,” hints at the identity crisis it suffers from throughout the first three episodes. This needs to be a fun, heartfelt comedy or a dark glimpse into three women who enjoy living on the edge (possibly because society has pushed them there). As is, it’s more of a dark comedy that can’t be dark enough to earn the drama or sharp enough to work as a comedy. It tries to be everything, but moves too quickly between genres to fit into a 44-minute cut.

“Good Girls” could develop into the show its premise and cast deserve, but it needs to pick a lane and come to terms with its title. Are these characters good people who made a mistake? Are they good people who are being tempted to go down a bad road? Or are they good people who’ve been hurt, and are just now coming to terms with how badly they need to break bad? For now “good” isn’t good enough — nor is it an accurate assessment of the end result.

Grade: C

“Good Girls” premieres Monday, Feb. 26 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.

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