Jenna Bans’s Good Girls has the sort of title that can be interpreted as mawkish and demeaning or clever and empowering, depending on who you ask. Hoping that audiences will lean toward the latter, the NBC series opens with a monologue about female empowerment: “Girls today can be anything,” a young girl remarks over Selena Gomez’s bubbly song “Bad Liar.” Bans asserts that the title is ironic, which perhaps explains the character’s next statement: “CEO, Olympic gold medalist, even a Supreme Court justice. We’ve finally broken that glass ceiling, and wow—sure looks good from the top.”
Good Girls’s three protagonists, however, are decidedly not at the top: Ruby (Retta) is struggling to pay for her sick daughter’s costly medical expenses; Annie (Mae Whitman) is being sued by her ex for custody of their daughter; and Beth (Christina Hendricks) is dealing with the fallout of her husband’s philandering. Overwhelmed by their financial burdens, the erstwhile “good girls” decide to start sticking up for themselves by sticking up a grocery store. It’s like Breaking Bad, only set to bouncy pop songs.
Throughout, Good Girls throws out more and more buzzwords—“nasty women,” among them—in order to cement its post-Trump bona fides. “We’re gonna burn this patriarchy down,” exclaims Ruby’s daughter, Sara (Lidya Jewett), during a class presentation. The series wants you to know it is capital-F feminist, and it’s as subtle about it as a bright pink pussy hat.
If Good Girls aims to appeal to discouraged women in Trump’s America, then Ruby, Annie, and Beth are supposed to be our on-screen proxies. They’re burdened with relatable challenges and goals: Ruby must navigate a broken healthcare system while relying on tips at her waitressing job; Annie makes minimum wage as a grocery store cashier; and Annie’s husband’s reckless spending has landed the family in debt. The series is, in some ways, a middle-class spin on Big Little Lies; each show’s women must navigate a world controlled by men, ultimately embracing the concept of “shine theory” by means of criminality. Unfortunately, Good Girls is more heavy-handed in its depiction of feminism and less exploratory of its characters. It’s unclear, for example, how sisters Annie and Beth came to befriend Ruby, and beyond the presence of their families and financial tribulations, we know very little about the three women at the center of the story.
Bans has written for Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, and Scandal, and while Good Girls may not delve into the histories and psychologies of its protagonists as well as those other shows, it does feature the same sort of women. These novice robbers are headstrong, flawed, and as quick to cry as they are to rip a shot of whiskey. But in the show’s first three episodes, Annie, Ruby, and Beth are still acting on the fringes of criminality. They’ve reclaimed some of their power but continue to bumble through their new roles as outlaws, bungling a kidnapping and accidentally shooting a man in the foot.
“[Shonda Rhimes’s shows] explore how much you can know, or tacitly consent to, before you’re part of the disease. In Shondaland, knowledge is sin, and all of her heroines have taken a bite of the apple,” Mark Harris wrote in 2014, tracing the journey of Rhimes’s heroines toward complicity. As a former denizen of Shondaland, Bans appears to be embracing this transformation. The women of Good Girls have begun to reluctantly participate in crime, an act that’s not so much desirable as it is a necessary evil. When their heist doesn’t go quite as planned, the women find themselves implicated in the messy affairs of local gangsters, who wield power over the trio.
One can only hope that these characters wholeheartedly become part of the aforementioned disease and accept their full-fledged entrée into crime—not because they’re being threatened, but out of desire for economic empowerment. In doing so, Good Girls could leave behind the “women down on their luck” narrative, grant its characters full agency over their indiscretions, and become the feminist revenge fantasy that it so longs to be.