This article contains spoilers for seasons one and two of Claws.
The setting is a Floridian strip mall nail salon that also doubles as a front for a Dixie, and then Russian, Mafia drug ring. Populated by a ragtag group of ethnically diverse ex-cons and down-on-their-luck nail artists, Claws is nearing the end of its second season on Stan – but you’ve most likely never seen it.
Its Breaking Bad-esque premise – matriarch Desna (Niecy Nash) turns from laundering money and (purportedly) murdering her abusive ex in order to strive for a better life for her autistic brother and the women she works with to more morally compromised acts – is initially hidden by its glossy top coat. But Claws’ outlandish, feminised and surface-level fun and frivolity give way to one of the most revolutionary shows on TV.
Claws is peppered by a cast of stellar character actors, such as Carrie Preston (True Blood, The Good Wife) as con artist Polly, Breaking Bad’s own Dean Norris, and Harold Perrineau from Lost.
There are some soap operatics: Desna’s aforementioned ex comes back from the dead, her best friend Jenn (Jenn Lyon) essentially rapes her estranged, comatose husband Bryce (Kevin Rankin) into consciousness in a rare problematic storyline. But the show never uses its working-class backdrop or characters who could easily spill over into caricatures as scapegoats for stereotypes. Nuanced acting and balanced writing make sure Claws is relatable and empathetic even in its most outrageous moments.
Claws Is Not Afraid to Take Storytelling Risks.
The show also experiments with different ways of storytelling. When a character seeks an abortion in an early season two episode, the inevitable gossip and judgement surrounding her decision is portrayed in a Brady Bunch-inspired, talking heads scene that reveals just how many other characters have been faced with a similar choice.
Another recent episode, narrated by the inner monologue of Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes, who you might remember as Carla from Scrubs), explores her estrangement from her seemingly conservative Cuban family, which she believes is due to her homosexuality – but it turns out they’re all gay!
In that same episode, Ann reimagines Jenn’s AA meeting as being set to a country song where Jenn pleads with Bryce to take her back after she cheated on him with her Jewish square dancing partner (!) and Bryce cheated on Jenn with Jenn’s mother (!!).
Claws Doesn’t Dwell on Labelling Its Characters’ Identities or Orientations.
In addition to the nail salon, a good amount of criminal activity emanates from Uncle Daddy’s (Norris) transgender stripper joint She-She’s. Though it takes its name from a transgender slur, this isn’t spelled out to viewers who aren’t familiar with bigoted terms until another character comments on how “progressive” a trans strip club is, and the dancers who work there are not “clocked” by the show as trans.
Uncle Daddy is depicted in love scenes with both men and women, primarily his young lover Toby (Evan Daigle) and his wife Juanda (Dale Dickey), but it’s not until well into the show’s run that the word “bisexual” is said out loud. Toby, too, dances at She-She’s and talks about getting a breast augmentation, but their gender identity is left ambiguous.
Claws Is Sensitive About Disability Representation.
In season two Russian mob boss Zlata (Franka Potente) takes over She-She’s with an all-male revue. Desna’s brother Dean (Perrineau), since displaying a newfound confidence thanks to taking up bodybuilding in season one, wants to try his hand at stripping.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t endorse crip face but Perrineau, who is not on the autism spectrum, portrays Dean expertly, imbuing the character with an agency not normally afforded to disabled characters.
Dean is seen as sexual, lovable and desirable, engaging in a relationship with Virginia (Karrueche Tran).
Claws Allows Its Female Actors to Be More Than Stereotypes.
Speaking of Virginia, her tenderness with Dean is in contrast to the way her character was perceived initially, as materialistic, shallow and a foil to Desna.
In addition to providing a showcase for Tran – who was previously best known as the post-Rihanna partner of Chris Brown – Claws gives roles to actresses of a certain age that they can really sink their, erm, claws into.
Nash as Desna, in particular, straddles the line between feeling the pressures of being the stereotypical black woman caretaker to her brood of manicurists and taking time for herself, which includes running her own business and seeking love and sex.
It feels subversive to see a black woman infiltrating the previously white male-dominated “breaking bad” role.
Nash agrees, telling The Daily Beast that the characters on Claws are “driven, unapologetic, sexual, all of that… I play a 40-something year-old woman, never been married, no children of her own, who has a white lover several years younger than her, and in spite of all of the mayhem and foolishness around her, she purposes to live her best life.”
Plus those jumpsuits are TDF.
Claws is streaming now on Stan.