Better in concept than execution (and higher in gloss than authenticity), TNT’s drama “Claws,” premiering at 9 p.m. Sunday on TNT, follows the skeevier travails of an ambitious Florida nail-salon owner, Desna Simms (Niecy Nash), who, to finance her dreams of opening a fancier salon across town, helps launder the piles of cash coming out of the shady pain clinic down the way, where opioid addicts gather to easily renew their prescriptions.
Both the clinic and the nail salon are tightly controlled by a man called Uncle Daddy (“Breaking Bad’s” Dean Norris), a petulant, drug-addicted, bisexual owner of a chain of strip clubs. Mired in an abusive relationship with Uncle Daddy’s thuggishly vain nephew and major-domo, Roller (Jack Kesy), Desna undertakes a risky scheme to steal from Uncle Daddy’s criminal empire, a plan that within a few episodes becomes part of an even larger ploy.
With its “Weeds” and “Orange Is the New Black”-like attempt to turn a banal setting and commonplace criminal activity into a darkly comical stage for a grandiose, female-centric saga, “Claws” looks like the kind of show that ought to have much more going on beneath its initial, saucy appeal.
Nash, who transcended typecasting in HBO’s moving dramedy about nurses in “Getting On,” has no problems bringing the sass and swagger to convincingly play the best nail technician in Manatee County. To add a dose of empathy, the show gives Desna a virtuous motivation, caring for her autistic adult brother, Dean (“Lost’s” Harold Perrineau).
In the salon, Nash’s character is joined by a vividly acrylic sisterhood: Carrie Preston (“The Good Wife,” “True Blood”) plays Polly, a recently paroled prisoner whose preppy demeanor conceals her addiction to identity theft and telling big whoppers; and Jenn Lyon (“Justified”) as Jennifer, who has married Roller’s brother, Bryce (Kevin Rankin), a motivational speaker who lacks resolve.
The shop is faithfully guarded by Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes), a soft-spoken ex-convict who stands ready to protect Desna and the others. Karrueche Tran plays problem employee Virginia, a distrustful presence installed at the salon by Uncle Daddy and Roller who nevertheless becomes a tenuous ally in Desna’s scheme.
With its crowded field of producers (including Rashida Jones), “Claws” has a difficult time with coherence, feeling like a half-hour show that learned way too late that it was going to be a one-hour show.
The Florida setting, which is always ripe for cheap laughs, comes off more cartoonish than contextual, and the overall violent milieu of the show is more of a drag than a believable backdrop. This seems like a missed opportunity, given that American audiences should be more than ready to engage with a drama that has the opioid trade as a central plot point and offers the multicultural richness of daily life inside a nail salon. As Uncle Daddy, Norris is unfortunately more clownsome than fearsome, and, bereft of better writing, Nash leans too heavily on stereotype as a way to give her character a little more life.
There’s also a sense that “Claws” is in too much of a hurry to create a necessary sense of anxiety and worry that Desna will get caught. The show is too eager to imitate other cable crime dramas, missing a chance to become a story about a group of morally complicated people who have a lot to gain and/or lose. To make an exquisitely ambivalent character-driven drama takes patience. You’ve got to blow on these things a little and let that top coat dry.