The very structure of Netflix’s new drama “Maid” means it will always threaten to drift into melodrama, the kind of clichéd series that pulls at the heartstrings in a way that feels manipulative, but it always comes back to its realistic, moving center because of two words: Margaret Qualley. The young star of “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” has been on the verge of a breakthrough for years, and that moment is here. This is the kind of revelatory, phenomenal performance that should run through awards season, much like “The Queen’s Gambit” did from around this time last year through its recent Emmy wins. Qualley is grounded and brilliant, finding grace notes of beauty that center everything around her in this series that I suspect will garner a loyal, tear-filled audience. Those tears are earned.
TV vet John Wells (“ER,” “Southland”) works with a production team that includes creator Molly Smith Metzler and Margot Robbie to adapt Stephanie Land’s bestselling Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. Working from a memoir gives “Maid” a sense of lived-in believability that a lot of projects like this fail to achieve. Land lived a lot of this story, and it’s a production that clearly sought to recreate that truth.
Her surrogate in the TV version is Alex (Qualley), a young woman with a toddler who decides to leave her abusive husband Sean (Nick Robinson) in the middle of the night. With only $18 to her name, she’s really just trying to get to the next day, to scrape together enough money for housing, food, and safety for her and her daughter. Her journey leads her to a maid service run by Yolanda (Tracy Vilar) and back into the lives of her bipolar mother Paula (Andie MacDowell, who is Qualley’s actual mother, which adds another layer of realism) and her estranged father Hank (an effective Billy Burke). She also crosses paths with a high maintenance homeowner named Regina (an incredible Anika Noni Rose), who ends up being much more than she first appears in the premiere.
All of “Maid” ends up being much more than it first appears. My concern that this would be sheer miserabilism, watching someone flirt with the edge of homelessness for ten hours, was quickly abated by the rich characters and the show’s willingness to provide sharp flashes of humor and joy. The supporting cast here is much richer than a typical soap opera as people like Sean, Regina, and Hank are given complex back stories. But the show belongs to Qualley, who anchors almost every single scene as a woman whose fight for survival is never exploitative or cheaply earned. You come to quickly care about Alex, so that every small act of kindness she finds or every reach for stability feels genuine, and every setback hits you in the chest.
“Maid” improves as Qualley and the rest of the supporting cast are allowed to reveal the layers of this character drama. At first, it can seem like the show that it mostly avoids becoming, sometimes leaning into some dialogue and narrative cliches about poverty in those first couple episodes. The fact that Metzler, Qualley, and company subvert the tropes that they get close to during those first few episodes are what makes it such a strong show overall. It really won me over around episode five as Alex ends up cleaning the home of a notorious burglar and ends up drawing parallels from his past to hers, along with what it says about the struggles of her present. I also loved how much the show often employs an episodic structure, telling one continuous story but also providing hours that standalone in their own way like chapter five. (More shows need to ditch the “divided movie” form and embrace episodic television—it works.)
Especially in the first half of the season, MacDowell’s Paula can sometimes be a bit too broadly drawn—supporting characters with mental illnesses that ebb and flow in a manner designed mostly as plot devices for the protagonist’s journey bug me—but it’s never a problem that lingers for too long. What I most admire about “Maid” is the manner in which Qualley hides her acting process. She always seems like she’s genuinely responding, feeling, and acting on what’s in front of her, making mistakes along the way as she cleans up the mess that people keep leaving in her life.
Whole series screened for review.