This weekend, the queer-inclusive TNT show “Claws,” about the female crew of a Florida nail salon, wraps up its first season. This fabulous — and fabulously entertaining — comedy-drama concerns Desna Simms (Niecy Nash), the salon owner who tries to unhook herself from the clutches of the Dixie Mafia, who are making her launder their pill-mill money.
The show is created, produced and written by the openly gay Eliot Laurence, who said in a recent phone interview that part of his inspiration for the show was “the crazy things that come out of Florida.” In fact, he explained that when he was in talks with TNT about the show, he mentioned that “Manatee County [where ‘Claws’ is set] had three unrelated penis-fighting incidents.” He recalled that the network’s response to that was, “‘Go! Dig deeper.’ They were game for it.”
But it was not just the southern-fried weirdness that appealed to Laurence. He added, “Female empowerment is also a sweet spot for me. I knew I wanted to do a story set in a nail salon, as nail art is such a gigantic industry. It is creative and bizarre, so that was appealing. I knew I had a show when I got the pill-mill clinic idea.”
Laurence further acknowledged that “Claws” has “powerful gay DNA. It owes a lot to great gay dramatists,” citing the Southern Gothic of Tennessee Williams — the Dixie Mafia kingpin is named Uncle Daddy (Dean Norris) — John Waters and Spanish bad boy Pedro Almodóvar, whose films often feature odd groups of women who come together as friends.
As such, Desna is surrounded by her besties Jen (Jenn Lyon), Polly (Carrie Preston) and Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes), the latter a lesbian. The characters all subvert expectations. Desna has a va-va-voom body, but is more maternal than sexual; Polly looks like a good girl, but she has a tracking device on her ankle from her recent stint in prison; and Quiet Ann looks thuggish, but is actually quite the heartbreaker.
Laurence explained his approach to creating his eccentric characters.
“I love peeling away the layers of a character’s onion and being surprised — finding empathy where you didn’t expect it, or the opposite. I like tones that are hard to pin down, things that are sad and funny at the same time. Life is like that. It veers from hilarity to tragedy in five minutes. That’s vivid and makes the work feel alive.”
As for the cast’s diversity, he admitted, “It seems like we were mercenary about it. It can look like a Benetton ad — we have one of everybody! But it wasn’t so linear. It was about grabbing the finest actors we could and adjusting stuff within the character to make it fit. I’m all about having a hugely diverse cast and crew. We got lucky.”
Nevertheless, it took time. Laurence wrote the show in 2012-13, and even after it was approved for production, it took six to seven months to cast everyone. But once “Claws” started up, it has been full-steam ahead. The 10-epsiode season, which is absolutely binge-worthy, has what Laurence described as “novel-like intricacy and depth. There’s a pulpy quality to the show.”
In talking about his decisions regarding the characters and their story arcs, Laurence observed, “Janine [Sherman Barrois, the showrunner] and I wrote the story on our own and assembled the writers. We figured out how the characters and storylines cross and where to heighten them. We talk about the lives, the dreams the characters have, writing down the best stuff and making sure it all makes sense.
“TNT has been so brave with us,” he added. “Some of the stuff we come up with at 3 a.m. doesn’t look as good in the light of day. But Gladys (Jane Adams) is a wild character, and they have been supportive of her and her nuttiness.”
While there are some plot twists worthy of soap operas — one character, presumed dead, came back to life mid-season — Laurence emphasized that he grounds the characters in relatable circumstances. He cited an early episode in which Polly didn’t want the other women in the salon to know she doesn’t have a car. “She tells these outrageous fabrications,” Laurence related, “then you see her walking home, and she is ashamed. We balance the outrageous with the human.”
These qualities are also evident in Desna, who is often seen sacrificing herself, and rarely getting the breaks she deserves. When asked about building the show around such a strong but suffering heroine, Laurence noted, “It’s about me being a mama’s boy and having a great relationship with my mother. It’s about how sacrificing and how tender these women are. It’s an appealing archetype, but the bad mother is fascinating to me as well.”
Fans old and new will get a sense of “that dark motherhood stuff” Laurence promised when “Claws” returns for Season 2 in 2018.