The Cleaning Lady (U.S.)
Created and Adapted for American Television by Miranda Kwok
Starring: Elodie Yung, Adan Canto, Martha Millan, Oliver Hudson
This show fills many recently expressed needs from television audiences: we need more Southeast Asian representation on TV, we need meaty female characters that have flaws, and we need a network drama with a title that doesn’t have an acronym. So today, instead of FINALLY getting around to watching a show, I’m watching a show that’s FINALLY getting around to these issues.
My mother asked me for TV show recommendations, and I was fresh out. She’d already binged every season of every procedural ever made, so I scrolled Hulu’s new releases and saw this one. I was curious—could a show about serious issues starring underrepresented ethnicities also be a primetime network series that hooked average Americans looking to unwind after a long day?
Thony de la Rosa is a former surgeon who cleans hotels and party venues with her sister-in-law in Las Vegas. She’s in America to get a rare bone-marrow transplant for her dying five-year-old, Luca. Bad news: the donor’s backed out and her visa’s expired. Worse news: her son won’t survive a trip back to Manila.
To earn money for Luca’s immunotherapy, Thony takes an extra shift at an underground fight club and witnesses a mob murder. In order to stay alive, she cleans the body for a crime family underboss. In return, Thony can afford her son’s medical bills. For her son’s health to rise, Thony will have to sink deeper into the criminal underworld.
Yes, the show delivers the goods, but commits some narrative crimes along the way.
Network shows are beholden to the MOST rules and structure of any television programming, so when a network show tries to do something original, the effort is almost always worth applauding. This goes beyond the aforementioned ethnic and gender representation. The Cleaning Lady isn’t an investigative procedural; it smartly uses its serialization format to cumulatively show why someone so caring and virtuous could enter a life of crime. “Just” and “legal” don’t always occupy the same space, and I found myself agreeing with Thony’s justifications more often than not. While not a complex antihero study on the level of Breaking Bad or early Dexter, The Cleaning Lady demands as much from the viewer as it can while remaining a primetime soap.
Therein lies the problem.
Jeez, green font, when’d you minor in sociology?
As mentioned before, The Cleaning Lady can only be as original as network television allows. Each hour must include action-packed, tension-filled climaxes. There’s nothing wrong with having action or tension in a show, but every time The Cleaning Lady tries to explore a serious societal issue or examine a character flaw, runtime dictates that the episode move on to the big gunfight, car chase, or explosion of the episode. To the show’s credit, the writers go out of their way to deliver these tropes in a novel way—the mob boss is Armenian and runs guns, not drugs; the rogue FBI agent gets punished and ostracized for going off book; Thony almost catches feelings for her crime boss, then values her marriage more—but the tropes are still frequent. Twice, I predicted the ending of an episode 30 minutes before it happened. In the age of streaming wars, these flaws are noticeable and significant. Does the show get a pass because it’s “woke?” Should an original idea be championed if the execution is shopworn?
Though everyone has a different tolerance level, I believe this show is deserving of attention in spite of its dramatic conformity. Despite the intermittently hokey dialogue, the cast sells their scenes. Rarely did I doubt Thony or her sister-in-law’s urgency and desires despite the tight dramatic swerves they navigated.
I think the most telling metric of success, however, is that BOTH my mother and I binged the season in a couple of weeks. I was hooked and entertained despite the show’s flaws, and I was impressed with the two leading ladies’ performances.
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