In the opening scene of TNT’s new drama Good Behavior, Michelle Dockery serves a greasy burger to a greasier man in a diner, plunges a toilet, and gets herself fired after fending off a sexual predator in the bathroom. It’s a far cry from the drawing-room drama that made Dockery famous as a coldly aristocratic heiress on Downton Abbey, and Good Behavior knows it: On Twitter, the network is promoting the show as our chance to see Lady Mary unbuttoned. Although Dockery gamely throws herself into the role, the British actress is hard to swallow as a poor ex-offender from North Carolina recovering from a meth habit. Good Behavior, which premieres tonight with two back-to-back episodes, is entertaining despite the mismatch between the actress and the character, not because of it.
Dockery plays Letty, a petty criminal who has just been released from prison when the show begins. Letty has a ten-year-old son whom her mother refuses to let her see, and a booze-and-drugs habit that she’s trying, with varying degrees of success, to shake. The one sympathetic figure in her life is her parole officer, Christian (Terry Kinney), a fellow recovering alcoholic. When Letty loses her waitress job, she ends up leaning back on her thievin’ ways, which leads her to discover a secret that upends her already fragile post-prison life.
There’s not much point trying to make sense of the show’s highly implausible if well-executed premise: Working under the directive of a vague cabal of petty thieves, Letty dons an assortment of wigs and stylish outfits and uses a master key to slip in and out of the rooms at a chic hotel. When two men walk into a room unexpectedly, she hides in the closet, and overhears one man arranging for the other to kill his wife. She decides to take it upon herself to stop the hit.
It’s an admittedly silly inciting incident, but Good Behavior is a smooth ride despite the vaulted heights from which you need to suspend your disbelief. In the first episode, Letty seduces the hit man, Javier (Spanish actor Juan Diego Botto), to get information on his soon-to-be victim, and the two end up entangled in a bigger mess than either of them anticipated.
Soon, Letty and Javier wind up on the run, which is exactly where these two belong: In a hotel room somewhere in middle America, having hot role-play sex right after a night pretending to be husband and wife. The chemistry between Dockery and Botto is the engine driving this show, which meanders slightly over the course of its first three episodes but maintains tension through the relationship between these two steely survivors. Javier is pretty benign as far as contract killers go; the show plays on the knife’s edge between his made-for-TV bad-boy image and his legitimately menacing profession, but you never feel like Letty is in any more danger from him than she is from herself.
That Javier effectively kidnaps Letty when she interferes with his hit could easily become fodder for macho-man fantasies of total dominance. But Letty is a slippery target, a woman who’s used to getting by on sheer chutzpah; she doesn’t take kindly to any perceived rescue attempts, and her and Javier’s partnership gradually becomes more equal as they dig themselves an ever-deeper hole. Throughout their runaway journey, it becomes clear that Letty and Javier are two lonely people on the fringes of society, and their unorthodox meet-cute soon gives way to moments of real connection and compassion.
Good Behavior benefits from swift pacing and high stakes — if she wants to avoid jail time and ever see her son again, Letty needs to return home to visit her parole officer before long. But what really sustains the drama is the sly, sexy interplay between its two solitary leads, united by the desperation of circumstances that they can only transcend together.
The first two episodes of Good Behavior premiere tonight at 9 p.m. on TNT.