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FOX’s The Cleaning Lady is a Melodramatic Mess

The first new drama of the year drops on FOX tonight and it’s a cautionary tale for other TV creators as to how not to deploy manipulative tropes and thinly drawn characters through a potentially engaging thriller. The concept here isn’t bad but the execution is another story as the writers pull out all the stops to manipulate the emotions of their viewers in ways that alternate between annoying and exploitative. I always find it a little cheap when TV writers put kids in jeopardy—it’s an easy way to pull at the heartstrings—and “The Cleaning Lady” doubles down in its first few episodes, presenting us with one who needs a life-saving medical procedure and another who might be deported. Even worse, issues like immigration and social imbalance are treated like window dressing here instead of anything that the writers want to genuinely explore. Only the central performance holds it together at all, but even her notable screen presence can’t clean up the mess that the writers keep throwing at her.

Adapted from an Argentinean drama of the same name, “The Cleaning Lady” stars Elodie Yung as Thony, a single mother living and working in Las Vegas. A doctor in Cambodia, where she was born, Thony struggles to make ends meet in the United States, only here because she needs a breakthrough medical treatment for her son Luca (Valentino and Sebastien LaSalle) while her husband Marco (Ivan Shaw) struggles with getting a visa to join them. She lives with her sister-in-law Fiona (Martha Millan), who has her own issues with being an undocumented worker (and what that might mean for her son’s future).

In the premiere, Thony ends up witnessing a crime and gets entangled with a crime syndicate through one of its power players, Arman (Adan Canto). He basically saves her life by turning her into the cleaning lady for their operation, tending to crime scenes when they get a little messy. Movies and TV shows have a habit of ignoring the practical truth of violence, and so there’s something admittedly clever about centering the kind of functional character that these narratives typically ignore, but the first few episodes of “The Cleaning Lady” fail to define what it is that Arman and his colleagues really even do. The writing here needed a character like Gus Fring from “Breaking Bad,” and that show’s clear definition of its power structure and rules. The writing on “The Cleaning Lady” just isn’t sharp enough to do that.

One of the reasons is that the writing hits one talking point after another with all the subtlety of a hammer. Expect a melodramatic exchange about the health of her child, her former life in Cambodia, and the legal status of the characters every other scene. Nothing here is allowed to breathe in a way that makes it feel genuine, especially not the subplot about an FBI agent named Garrett Miller (Oliver Hudson) who ends up turning Thony way too early. The decision to basically pull Thony in two directions with Garrett and Arman early in the show’s existence takes too much agency away from her, defining her by the men who manipulate her more than any sort of actual character development.

It’s a shame because Yung is an engaging actress who deserves a better show. She’s constantly pushing against the overwritten dialogue here and trying to sell the immediacy of Thony’s predicament, and she acts circles around everyone else. Sadly, that ends up being another one of the program’s issues because one realizes that performers like Canto and Hudson aren’t delivering on the same level. This show needed a rich, complex ensemble. As is, it’s more the tale of an actress who I hope can quickly escape this messy drama and move on to something cleaner.

Three episodes screened for review. Premieres on FOX on January 3rd.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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