Entertainment » Television

'Claws,' Starring Niecy Nash, Highlights the Best and Worst of TV

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Saturday Jul 15, 2017

"Claws" is easily the best show of the summer - scratch that. That title actually goes to "Twin Peaks: The Return," but "Claws" is the best conventional show of the summer.

In this era of "Peak TV" there's no excuse for Niecy Nash not to lead a series. One of television's most underrated actresses, Nash has always been exceptional in mostly supporting parts since her breakthrough "Reno 911" role. (For anyone on the Nash Train, please check out HBO's little comedy "Getting On.") On "Claws," Nash is given the chance to shine, playing a complex character with range, clear motives and fleshed out desires.

With another outstanding performance from Nash, "Claws" is also boosted by its other core leads, including Carrie Preston, Jenn Lyon, Karrueche Tran and Judy Reyes. The five women play friends and manicurists who work at Desna's (Nash) nail salon in Manatee County, Florida. Things get complicated when Desna and new girl Virginia (Tran) kill Roller (Jack Kesy), who is a prominent figure in the Dixie Mafia, which is run by his father, Uncle Daddy (Dean Norris).

Initially developed as a half-hour 10-episode series for HBO, "Claws" eventually ended up on TNT - a cable network that's yet to find critical footing in this age of TV - as an hour-long eight episode season. "Claws," however, is the perfect example of the best and worst parts of "Peak TV." When we look back to this era of television, "Claws" will not likely standout among the "Game of Thrones," "Stranger Things" or "The Leftovers" series that dominated the cultural conversation but unpacking this drama explains so much of today's current TV slate.

With so many shows on the air, viewers are often overwhelmed with what to watch. (Not to mention, new shows also have to go up against streaming services that offer countless older series and films.) Given that most people only have a set amount of time in the week to sit on the couch and watch something, what they watch has to be something they enjoy. Not only are there too many programs from which to pick but most of those series are of high quality. This may not sound like a problem but with so many B+ and higher shows, anything below that letter grade may not be worth your time.

(The cast of "Claws." Photo credit: YouTube still)

We can no longer scoff at something like "Claws" just because it airs on TNT - a network known for reruns, sports, and original programing that is rarely capturing the zeitgeist. (USA's "Mr. Robot" and Lifetime's "UnREAL" - both summer shows - have proven any network can broadcast a critical hit.) But making "the case" for "Claws" is a bit difficult.
Earlier this week, TV critics hashed out the "It Gets Good" problem, an article written by longtime TV critic Alan Sepinwall. He argues that today's series take their time to find their voice and establish a clear premise. New York Times' James Poniewozik adds:

The problem (a high-class one, admittedly) is that there's more good TV these days than time to watch it. When you're asked to invest 10 hours in the hope that you'll eventually like a series, it becomes like a rent-versus-buy calculation: Will the equity be worth the down payment?

Of course, that assumes that you watch the entire series. That's what critics do. But what civilians ask me more often lately is: Couldn't I just skip ahead to the good part? My duty as a certified TV professional is to say no. Would you walk into a movie 45 minutes late? A work of art has integrity. Its flaws are as important as its strengths. O.K.? Watch the whole thing!

But yes. Yes, you can totally skip ahead. And it may be the better part of sanity and time management to do it.

(The cast of "Claws." Photo credit: TNT/Turner)

The now-critical darling "The Leftovers" didn't start earning its praise until Season 2, with many urging viewers to skip Season 1 completely (this write says otherwise, however.) How many times have you recommended a show to a friend but warned it doesn't get "good" until episode X or season Y?

For all its brilliant performances, steamy sex scenes and noir elements, "Claws" is the ultimate example of the "It Gets Good" problem. Last week, the drama aired the fifth episode of its eight-episode season. And that episode, called "Batshit," was the show's first truly great episode. After five hours (more than half the season) "Claws" reached its highest point.

Over the course of the season, "Claws" has waned back-and-forth from excellent to fine. For every moment of brilliance came two moments of broad humor or emotionally manipulative/lowest common denominator stakes - the worst part of the show, and perhaps the most problematic, is Desna's autistic brother Dean, played Harold Perrineau, who is not autistic. On top of that, one of its biggest downfalls is its lack of subtext. Outside of the bonds women form with each other, and its queer-adjacent themes (female bonds, creating a non-traditional family and a character who appears to be transitioning) "Claws" doesn't explore anything too deep, opting for plot-driven storytelling. Nevertheless, "Claws" never sinks too low or gets too terrible, thanks to Nash and Preston, who keep the series afloat with their scene-stealing moments.

(The cast of "Claws." Photo credit: Wilson Webb / TNT)

For some, investing that much time and waiting that long to get a payoff isn't worth it. "Claws" is a tough sell - it's a niche show that has the camp turned up to 11 (yes, a character's name is really Uncle Daddy). A brooding anti-hero man isn't the lead and the stories are told from the perspective of women, mostly women of color. It's almost a perfect hybrid of Pedro Almodovar's sensibilities when it comes to female melodramas and Harmony Korine's wild side. (The show doesn't hesitate to wink at his 2012 film "Spring Breakers.")

"Claws" isn't for everyone and has its obvious flaws. It's the poster child for "Peak TV": Well-acted, beautiful to look at, full of raunchy plots but has episodes clocking in at a full 57 minutes. With half-hour series on the rise, "Claws," which was renewed for a second season, could probably benefit from an overhaul; pulling back and reframing the show with its best parts.

The good thing about TV is that showrunners can easily change course with a new season. Recognizing a show's problems and correcting them on another a second go around isn't out of the question for "Claws." It worked for "The Leftovers."


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