“The Cleaning Lady” feels like disparate parts of other series. It certainly feels like a FOX series, with its flashy editing, gritty storyline, and adoration of clubs and opulence. It also feels like numerous other “woeful immigrant” stories about the undocumented having to get into crime in order to find freedom. It’s an overused cliche, so much so that in 2018 a study by the CATO Institute and the Marshall Project showed that over one-third of TV shows situated undocumented people in the criminal lifestyle. It’s a shame because Elodie Yung, making her debut as a TV series lead, is way too good for it.
Yung plays Thony De La Rosa, an undocumented Cambodian immigrant to the U.S. trying to raise her young son. When she witnesses a crime, the only means of looking indispensable is by offering to clean up the corpse and its aftermath. The man doing the murdering, Arman Morales (Adan Canto), finds Thony fascinating and decides to give her a job as the criminal underworld’s cleaning woman.
Within the first five episodes of “The Cleaning Lady,” it’s hard not to wonder when things will take a turn. I mean, this can’t just be about a woman cleaning up after people, can it? Yes and no. Creator Michelle Kwak comes from the world of action, initially starting her career as an actress and stuntperson before becoming a writer and producer. “The Cleaning Lady” plays a lot like something you’d find scrolling Netflix, probably starring Zoe Bell. That’s not a mark against it, but it means you have to give the plot a wide berth.
Thony De La Rosa may say she’s “just a cleaning lady,” but the series positions her as a modern-day Superwoman who, in the pilot, performs a tracheotomy on a man with little more than a straw. As her coworkers stare at her in awe, the obvious question — “Um, how does she know how to do that?” — pops up. Her best friend and sister, Fiona (Martha Millan) responds in awe that Thony “is a doctor.” Yep, this is another series where a person is obviously highly intelligent and successful in another country only to start at the bottom in America. The problem is that within five episodes there’s not really any significant critique there. Thony’s husband is still a doctor in their native country, and while Thony talks about bringing their sweet, sickly son Luca (Sebastien and Valentino LaSalle) to this country for a better life, there’s no real discussion about the bait-and-switch that this notion of the American Dream continues to inspire.
The stakes of typical immigrant storylines are here, particularly that of deportation, which is where “The Cleaning Lady” is actually engaging. Thony and Fiona question every element of their lives around whether ICE or someone similar will spot them. As if that’s not a compelling reason enough, we’re brought back to Luca, who is a precocious small child with a deadly illness that forces him to live like the boy in the plastic bubble. Much of the early episodes focus on Thony’s need to get Luca into a research program to treat his illness. Nearly every episode is akin to having Luca tied to the railroad tracks, needing some type of new illness or he’ll die… before the next commercial break.
The series stacks so many BIG moments in its runtime that it’s almost hard to remember this is about a woman sucked into the criminal underworld. Had it eschewed that latter element entirely it would have been better. Yung and Millan are a compelling pair. You see the history in their relationship and how everything is motivated by their desire to protect each other and the lives they’ve created. Really, the fear shouldn’t be gangsters and murderers, but the American government. It doesn’t help that the government, like an all-pervasive boogeyman, pops ups frequently, whether that’s an actual ICE raid or Oliver Hudson’s agent Garrett Miller reminding Thony what a nice guy he is, but he’ll also deport her without a moment’s hesitation.
That brings us to where the series thinks you’ll be most interested: Thony’s life in the criminal underworld and her double role as a spy for Miller. You want to watch Yung because she’s smart, charismatic, and an intriguing presence. The same can’t be said for the men in power who Thony is stuck orbiting around. Hudson’s smarmy Garrett Miller is the apotheosis of dude who thinks he’s the best, but isn’t. Apparently he’s landed in hot water with his bosses for sleeping with an informant, and it’s difficult not to see where his relationship could develop with Thony. The power dynamics between the two are cringe-inducing, as Miller enjoys smiling and reminding Thony he has no issue with sending her back to Cambodia.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Canto’s Arman Morales. You might recall Canto as the tatted New York-accented boyfriend of Halle Berry’s character in “Bruised” and while he’s not playing the same character here, it still feels like Canto is mired in cliche. He’s a dark-suited murderer with a heart of something a little dingier than gold. He feels like the Christian Gray of this series: a man who has no compunction with shooting someone or dunking their face in boiling water, but also can’t resist helping Thony’s sick son. His plotline involves a series of power struggles with the men above him that feel like something ripped out of “Goodfellas” or any of the numerous “underworld” series you’ve watched in the last decade.
“The Cleaning Lady” has good intentions, but is far too derivative to form a compelling series. Yung is a star, as is Millan, but the two women are smothered by the soapy (pun intended) issues of a criminal underworld that feels like Mafia 101.
“The Cleaning Lady” premiered Monday, January 3 at 9 p.m. ET on Fox. New episodes air weekly.