Inside the Surreal Feminist Fantasy of ‘Claws’
Niecy Nash, Karrueche Tran and the cast and creators of TNT’s breakout show ‘Claws’ take us inside the nail salon—and their efforts to do justice to its flawed, funny women.
In the fourth episode of Claws, the TNT show about nail artists who also commit crimes, a married Dixie Mafia boss sits by the pool watching his boyfriend put on a water ballet.
The ruthless Uncle Daddy’s (Dean Norris) sexual orientation, like his unique name and the water ballet itself, goes largely unexplained throughout the series. Suffice to say, Uncle Daddy has a wife, Juanda (Dale Dickey), and a lover, Toby (Evan Daigle), and at this moment, Toby is wearing a beautiful blue pin-up one piece and cutting through the water, a whole team of never-before-seen water ballerinas by his side.
Somewhere in central Florida, we’re meant to believe, a cruel and capricious gangster is probably sitting by a pool just like this one, rings glinting on his fingers, purple robe open to his belly button, hands lovingly outstretched to his side piece. Toby rises from the pool like Venus against a cotton candy afternoon sky—under the water, as Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” accompanies, he writhes and feels up his curves.
And then the music stops.
Jenn (Jenn Lyon), whose husband was just promoted to an official role within the Husser crime family by Uncle Daddy, wants to have a word with the big boss. The dancers are left to mill around, bored, in the shallow end, while Jenn and Uncle Daddy talk business. At one point, Toby interrupts to tell Jenn that he’s picked out his new titties.
The scene, directed by Victoria Mahoney, is one of many quintessential Claws moments. Others include a parody modern art piece made entirely of pubic hair; Niecy Nash walking purposefully with a pom pom hanging off of her manicure; and a full-out, on the desk, back of the nail salon sex scene that occurs roughly five minutes into the series premiere. Much like its titular nails, Claws favors excess. It’s a Florida noir stuffed with surrealist touches, loud characters, rollercoaster plot lines, bloody showdowns, and press-ons so transcendently lacquered that it hurts to look at them too long. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if a scene is actually happening, or if it’s just the brain-addled fantasy of a character who stared at the sun for too long (or stole too many drugs from a vaguely legal pain clinic).
But for all of the kooky chaos, Claws always manages to scratch below the stripper-strewn surface, taking on issues from sexual assault and child abuse to autism and addiction. Its outer audaciousness—brash aesthetics, shiny plastic accessories, sharp claws—is just packaging for a truly bold, unapologetic story: a group of female friends, fucked by all manner of systems, men, and authorities, fighting for a piece of the proverbial pie that’s always just out of reach.
Claws has more diversity in its pinky finger than most scripted shows do in their entire runs. Literally: at one point, Desna’s team at Nail Artisan of Manatee Country constructs an acrylic tribute to Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis and Rosa Parks. Pan out, and you’ll see that their salon set features classic Patrick Nagel posters but with a twist, altering the images to showcase women of color. For executive producer/showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois, it’s about portraying relatable, underrepresented characters.
“A lot of times, you see shows and you go, ‘I don’t know that woman. I aspire to be her, but I don’t know her,’” Barrois explains. “I think people know these women.” Claws’ efforts extend to their writing room, crew, and directors. While the original script was written racially nondescript, Barrois thinks that the diverse cast they wound up with is both true to the spirit of the project and true to life. For many of the stars of the show, it’s a totally new working environment. Carrie Preston recalls “how sad” she was when she realized just how different it felt to be working on such an inclusive set, surrounded by women—“Because I've been doing this for a long time.”
Niecy Nash, who plays Desna, fierce salon leader and part-time money launderer, remembers being struck by the uniqueness of the project from the get-go. “You had women, and I’m gonna use air quotes when I say it, of a ‘certain age’, who were so well written on the page. They were just full characters. Driven, unapologetic, sexual, all of that. And I thought, this is going to be so fun to play. I’ve played a lot of characters in my life, but never one like this…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.”
“And normally in this world you would see men leading the charge,” she continues. “You think of The Sopranos or the Breaking Bads of the world. There are guys doing these things. But here you have five badass, rag-tag manicurists working their way in this world, figuring it out.” Plus, she adds, “I love the fact that when you turn on the television it’s like the United Colors of Benetton.”
Dedicating a show to an art form that’s been historically under-appreciated and appropriated makes a statement—as does hiring a rotating cast of real nail artists to construct concepts for every scene. Watch Claws at hand-level, and you’ll see work that reflects the mood of each character, or even a larger plot line. Key nail stylist Morgan Dixon has designed a Faberge egg set for Russian mob family member Zlata (Franka Potente), and a Juanda tribute nail for Uncle Daddy.
This attention to detail is evident all over the set of Claws, a New Orleans strip mall that’s been repurposed for the fictional Nail Artisan of Manatee County Salon and their next-door neighbors, the Messianic Jewish Cafeteria and Internet Center (did I mention this show is funny?).
Claws is based in New Orleans but it’s more than managed to bring Manatee County, Florida to Louisiana. Apparently, the salon looks so realistic that drivers often pull over for a pedicure, instead finding themselves on a TV set. Inside, it’s like Palm Springs but pinker. There are faux Grecian statues, a dolphin clock, and all the turquoise accents you could ever dream of. There are also shelves and shelves of polish, a full price list (25 and up for a full set, FYI), and even an appointment book behind the desk; entries include “Bridal Party,” “Nail Palm Registration,” and a relatable reminder to “sign up for Groupon.”
When they’re working at the salon, Desna and her crew—best friend Jenn, pathological liar Polly (Carrie Preston), outsider Virginia (Karrueche Tran) and Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes)—are in charge. Tapping into a tradition as old as time, they listen to their customers complain about men, and laugh at the all-around uselessness of the other gender.
This is yet another way that Claws attempts to reflect its audience back to them, says Barrois: “Whereas a lot of people pay for therapy, a lot of people go to their beauticians, they go to their manicurists, they go to their waxers, and they open their souls. And that’s what you see on this show, this is a place where women come and they tell their stories, and there’s a fidelity there and a safety there.”
But once they leave the strip mall, Desna and the others re-enter a gendered (and often racialized) power imbalance that’s all too real. Like the moment when Desna, fed up with her ex, Roller Husser (Jack Kesy), who refuses to give her the money that she’s earned, tries to kill him only to get badly beaten. At the last minute Virginia saves her boss by shooting Roller, instantly binding the women together through the attempted murder of a man who slept with, and abused, them both.
For Nash, scenes like this one take a personal toll.
“It’s always hard for me especially to play a character who has a gun pulled on her,” she explains. “I’ve seen my mother have a gun pulled on her, I’ve seen my mother shot by a man she was dating for many years, and any time I have to be in a situation where I have to play a character where there’s violence towards me, something in my real self has to either press the reset button or kind of disconnect in a way. Because it is a harsh reality, so you don’t want to shy away from it, but it costs you something. But sometimes I just lean in to what it is. And I feel the pain that I felt watching my mother go through what she went through.”
“But the good thing about these women,” she continues, gesturing at her co-stars, “Is that even in those times when you play those hard scenes, when you come out of it, they’re right there to catch you.”
Reyes, who plays the salon’s nearly silent, butch security guard/pedicurist, describes the experience of filming Claws as “risky and terrifying”—a feeling that just doesn’t come around often enough.
“It hasn't felt like that for a long time, as an actor,” Reyes says. “And I've been extremely successful. So it's invigorating to be fucking freaked out. Like, I hope this doesn't suck!” She describes the positive feedback she’s been getting from the LGBTQ community as “my biggest pride.”
And then there’s Karrueche Tran, for whom Claws was simultaneously her big break and a chance to change the conversation. Before the show, Tran was best known in the tabloids for having an infamous ex-boyfriend. “One thing I always try to portray is like, if I can fucking do this shit, y'all can do it,” Tran insists. “I’ve been dragged through the fucking dirt. I've seen big celebrities saying the nastiest fucking things about me. I went in to an audition before, and this lady—this was years ago—she was like, ‘I know you from somewhere…From TMZ!’ And I was like...Lord knows what the fuck they were saying about me on TMZ!”
Despite the negative press—and the reality TV offers—Tran kept working toward her dream. “It's such a great feeling to know I had an interest, I had a vision, that I went after it, and I worked hard,” she says. “And I did the background, and I worked with different teachers, and I'm on a fucking hit TNT show, and this is our second season!”
“You gotta go above and beyond. That's the most important thing—if you're serious. If you want that longevity. If you want that reality TV, boom, go and do it!” She laughs. “But I’d be a mess.”
Claws predicted Me Too and Time’s Up in more ways than one; in addition to tackling sexual assault and domestic abuse head on, it balances a feminist fantasy of taking power back with the harsh realities of daily life under the patriarchy and/or your local, hyper-masculine crime family. “This is such a huge year for women—#TimesUp, #MeToo, and there are a lot of moments within the show that are relevant to current events,” Tran notes, “But we're trying to portray reality. We don't live in a fairy tale world.”
Reyes emphasizes that the show was dealing with these themes before “shit hit the fan,” if only “because most regular people don’t function like that; they just sort of hit it, like roadkill. It becomes a part of their life. There’s no way to avoid it. There’s always going to be somebody either trying to sneak shit away from you, or get in your way or take it back.” By the end of the first season, the events set in motion by Desna and Virginia’s attempted murder culminate in a takeover by the Russian mob, led by Riva (Andrea Sooch), who’d rather work with Desna than any of the Husser men.
The ensuing backlash to women rising, as well as the general notion of a Russian presence on American soil, arrives right on time. “The Dixie Mafia is having a hard time taking instruction from me,” says Nash. “They are not having it.”
Reyes elaborates, “In this world, the underworld of pill peddling and all kinds of other drugs and shit like that, whenever you have a little bit of power that's not under their thumb, they're like, ‘No.’ Like, ‘You were cool when you were listening to me, but now that you wanna take it yourself, that's not happening.’”
It’s worth noting that I’m talking to the cast of Claws about gender dynamics, representation and female empowerment on the set of the strip club formerly known as She She’s. It’s undergone a major transformation for the upcoming season, but still retains its semi-seedy charm. Seated at one of the many small tables surrounding the empty platform, strobe lights trained on unused poles, Jenn Lyon explains why this gig is “the fucking coolest”: “The fact that I get to live here, and work with these women, on these issues…When I think of the alternative, when I think about beating the street, looking for auditions and shit…” she trails off. “I mean, we talk about reproductive rights, love, family, legislation, all in one show. It's a dream.”
Claws also disrupts the canon of stereotypes of under-developed Southern belles, Lyon says. It’s not afraid to look deeply beneath the surface and find a complicated woman, or even a criminal. “Well, we see that all the time with men, right?” says Preston, whose character was first introduced to audiences straight out of prison. “I mean, every TV show! You have these complicated men who are doing morally questionable things and our women are supposed to be perfect, and we're supposed to just be their arm candy and we're supposed to be these pillars of morality. So it's nice to flip the script on that.”
Barrois adds, “I also think so often women think that they have to play by the rules, and they don’t. They can do what men have done for ages, and that’s play a little dirty.”
Claws Season 2 premieres Sunday at 9/8c on TNT.