Summer’s on the horizon, which makes now an excellent time to hop aboard the good ship Claws — a splashy TNT crime drama set in and around a nail salon in Manatee County, Florida. Claws, which launched its second season on Sunday, is a tall, sweaty glass of spiked lemonade, a sweet-tart treat that masks its depth with sugary, guilty-pleasure trimmings.
The formidable Niecy Nash stars as Desna, who runs a strip-mall nail salon and dreams of owning her own business. In the meantime, she’s beholden to a mob family led by Clay “Uncle Daddy” Husser (Dean Norris), for whom she launders the money generated by a medical clinic — nestled in yet another strip mall — that specializes in pushing opioids onto its mangy clientele. Desna is also beholden to Clay’s nephew, Roller (Jack Kesy), an on-again, off-again boyfriend with a penchant for roughing up his women. In the pilot episode, which aired last summer, Desna and Virginia (Karrueche Tran) — Roller’s mistress and a former stripper, whom he insists Desna hire at the salon — kill Roller one evening at his seaside mansion, after he starts choking Virginia during sex.
This dirty deed brings Virginia into Desna’s already tight-knit clan of manicurists, which includes Jennifer (Jenn Lyon), who’s married to Roller’s nice-guy brother, Bryce (Kevin Rankin); Ann (Judy Reyes), a butch lesbian in a baggy t-shirt who guards the salon; and Polly (Carrie Preston), a deceptively demure con artist with big blue eyes and blood-red hair who’s newly freed from prison and sports an ankle bracelet. By the end of that first season, Desna has managed to pry herself out from under Uncle Daddy’s thumb, only to discover that the whole crew is now in debt to the Russian mob. This is a thing that now happens to important American families!
The show’s production designers and costumers clearly revel in Claws’ setting; everything is slightly overdone, Florida-style, right down to the elaborately detailed designs that Desna’s salon specializes in. Nash, who was excellent in her recent role as a palliative care nurse on the muted HBO comedy Getting On, lets Desna’s vulnerability shine through the character’s hard-shelled (and bedazzled; Desna’s elaborate looks consistently slay) exterior.
Claws is a pulpy, blood-soaked thriller that offers consistent surprises. The writers will interrupt the show’s organized-crime plot for a synchronized swimming routine featuring Uncle Daddy’s boy toy in Esther Williams drag, or include a scene in which the ladies break into a choreographed dance set to “Lady Marmalade,” cut with scenes of Bryce committing his first hit job. Those moments have a fizzy, fourth-wall-breaking quality to them that feels straight out of the Shonda Rhimes playbook. At times, Claws also reminds me of Bunheads, a short-lived Amy Sherman-Palladino series set in a small-town ballet studio that also wasn’t afraid to toss risky curveballs into the field of play, like ending one episode with a random dance routine delivered not to any onscreen audience, but straight to the camera.
It’s not incidental that Claws looks like the inside of one of those explosively bright candy stores that charges seven dollars a gummy bear; nothing about the world of this show is black and white. Roller may have had it coming, but he quickly turns into a sympathetic character when it’s revealed, halfway through the first season, that he’s alive and has been rescued by a well-off, reclusive artist who lives in an isolated swamp and keeps Roller — whom she dubs “Mr. Emerson” — chained up as her sex slave, until he finally breaks free. Uncle Daddy is a clichéd Southern-fried kingpin, except he’s also bisexual; Virginia is a clichéd skanky sexpot, until she falls for Desna’s autistic brother, Dean (Harold Perrineau), and what started as a pity fuck turns into a genuine relationship.
Desna may look like a cartoon “badass bitch,” with her elaborately decorated talons, her big-ass hair, and a closetful of dresses and jumpsuits that emphasize her bodacious body. But her quest for independence is rooted in childhood trauma; she and Dean grew up in foster care, the wards of a wealthy but abusive Florida couple who cycled through foster kids to collect cash. They’re con artists, too, but they’re protected by their money and social standing in a way that Desna and her clan aren’t, and may never be. Those women have no illusions about how difficult it is to make money the straight way if you aren’t, in some way or another, born into it.
Polly, with her sadly aspirational pearls and sweater sets, embodies the endless frustration of this stubborn social order. In an attempt to calm her down after the Russian mob boss is gunned down in front of Desna and her crew, the ladies soothe her by describing an imaginary barbecue with all the Kennedys in attendance, and Gore Vidal mixing drinks. “Do they have canapés?” Polly asks. For all its head-spinning left turns, Claws is grounded in the performances of the excellent ensemble, in particular Preston. Her Polly is a cherry bomb thrown into an already volatile situation, a scammer who can’t let go of the feeling that she, too, deserves a piece of that all-American apple pie. In one episode, she convinces a wealthy woman she befriended before she was arrested that she’s only working at the salon to do research for a book; when the lady invites her back to her geriatric husband’s mansion for a massage and, eventually, discovers that her friend is not who she says she is, Polly insists they’re not all that different: “I worked here for your friendship, three years ago, just like you work that grandaddy of a husband you have inside. We’re both con artists! It’s just, only one of us knows it.”
Claws suggests, in big, bold, sequin-encrusted strokes, that the American dream itself may just be a con job; that nobody really bootstraps their way to success. Desna and her girls are simply trying to make it work in a system that is rigged against them. A fingernail may be a small canvas to work with, but they can still turn it into art.
Claws airs Sundays on TNT.
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