On TV these days, a “Good Place” is heaven, a “Good Doctor” is autistic and a “Good Fight” is inherently political. We’re up to here in shows with “good” in their titles, perhaps signifying an ongoing quest for virtue. Amazon’s “Good Girls Revolt,” a drama about female journalists taking a stand for workplace equality in the paleolithically misogynistic ’70s, arrived a year too early for the #MeToo wave; its unjust cancellation remains a sore point and a lesson that goodness does not always prevail, even when it’s touted in the name of the show. Circumstances sometimes ask us to be bad.
That’s the basic premise of NBC’s engaging, fed-up-with-sexism crime caper “Good Girls” (premiering Monday), which uses the word “good” in a bluntly equivocal sense, referring to three suburban women (why girls?) who possess the easily ascribed attributes of their natural habitats. In the first episode, they are typified and reduced to basic characteristics so their complications can be saved for later.
The first one, Beth (Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men”), is a devoted wife and stay-at-home mom who has just learned that her car-dealer husband, Dean (Matthew Lillard), has been cheating on her and frittering away their life savings. The second is Beth’s sister, Annie (Mae Whitman of “Parenthood”), a cash-strapped single mom who provides a safe space for her tweenager, Sadie (Izzy Stannard), to explore gender fluidity. The third, Ruby (Retta of “Parks and Recreation”), is a hard-working wife and mother facing the staggering health-care costs of her daughter’s kidney disease.
The women, whose prior idea of a fun get-together was watching “The Bachelor,” hatch a scheme to rob the grocery store where Annie works as a cashier and suffers the torments of a lecherous boss (David Hornsby).
Wearing ski masks and brandishing realistic toy handguns (and summoning the adventurous moxie of everyone from history’s Bonnie Parker and Patty Hearst to cinema’s Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer), the women find the heist remarkably easy and the payoff suspiciously boffo: Instead of the $30,000 Annie expected to be in the storeroom safe, they’ve absconded with a half million.
Agreeing to lie low and let the police investigation die down, each of the women nevertheless splurges in a way that’s straight out of Intro to Philosophy: If you steal money to save a child’s life (in the case of Ruby, who buys her daughter’s way to better doctors and an expensive medication), does the immorality of the crime become relative?
On a show like this (creator Jenna Bans is a Shondaland alum who worked on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal”), the answer is a thousand times yes. Beth saves her house from foreclosure and exercises newfound control over her now-contrite husband (who is exiled to a motel), while Annie focuses on fighting her ex for custody of Sadie.
That would be that, except Annie’s manager recognized her lower-back tattoo during the robbery and is threatening to call the cops unless she submits to his demands for sex. Problems escalate when a counterfeiting cartel, led by a menacing yet handsome thug named Rio (Manny Montana), comes looking for their missing lucre, which was being laundered through the grocery store.
There’s your entire premise, made better by two more eventful episodes shown to critics, in which “Good Girls” nicely exhibits its skill for juggling a story that is dark, funny and touching all at once, faintly reminiscent of the brilliant Jenji Kohan series “Weeds,” which was about a single mom who rediscovers herself as a ruthless marijuana dealer. (If “Good Girls” seems like it has limited plot potential — what, do they become serial robbers? — one need only look to how “Weeds” expanded into a richly imagined eight-season saga of deeper trouble and criminal ambition.)
Hendricks, Retta and Whitman give believably strong and collaborative performances as three people stuck in a dangerous mess. The supporting cast (especially Lillard) also provides a sound base from which the show can broaden its perspectives and subplots.
While the show nimbly mixes action with you-go-girl snark, it occasionally stumbles in its fleeting and nominal nods to a feminist subtext, which should be self-evident and not needing an extra coat of empowerment to make it shine. What’s interesting here is how much a show about women learning to commit crime can share with a show about women trying to find the dreaded work-life balance: The struggle is real, but the more you talk about it and agonize over it, the less impressive it seems. No one asks a morally conflicted male character to explain himself while he’s breaking bad. Should “Good Girls” be any different?
Good Girls (one hour) premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on NBC.