Her Life Will Never Not Be Messy
The Cleaning Lady is a Refreshing Breeze on Network TV
When I saw the ads for Fox’s The Cleaning Lady last January, I have to admit the idea intrigued me. The idea of a Cambodian immigrant who, while trying to earn money to get her son a kidney transplant, becomes involved with a New Mexico crime family was certainly different from so many of the procedurals and reboots that make up most of network TV today. But I’d been down this road with Fox before, first with Filthy Rich in 2020 and The Big Leap in 2021. I knew better than to get involved with an interesting sounding Fox network series which had an interesting concept and no audience. So, despite the mostly positive reviews, I left it alone. Then in the summer it was renewed for another season and actually got nominated by the HCA for Best Network Drama. I grant you the field keeps getting slimmer but it’s not like they’ve stirred me wrong on a lot of things. So this week, I decided to start watching and while it will never be mistaken for the antihero led dramas that make up Peak TV, that’s not necessarily a shortcoming.
The Cleaning Lady is based on an Argentine telenovela. In this version Elodie Yung plays Thony, a doctor in Cambodia who the immigration system, like it has for almost everyone, has failed. By a series of bad luck, she ends up on the scene of a Latino crime family run by Arman Morales. Desperate to stay alive and to save her son, she agrees to help him avoid the law. In the midst of this she ends up on the radar of the FBI in the person of Agent Garrett (Oliver Hudson is still finding his way through this role.) Walking a tightrope, she managed to reach a position where she was trusted with the Morales family’s crypto in the season finale. Then her estranged husband showed up and angry with what was going on, took her son from her home.
In the midst of the search for her son in the Season 2 Premiere, she managed to track him and her husband down to a motel. There was an argument involving her and two of her in-laws and her husband was pushed down the stairs and died. Even though it was an accident, Thony knows far too well how the justice systems treats people like her, so she cleaned up the crime scene and staged it as a robbery. This is a major burden for Chris, her nephew who shoved him and is still dealing with the trauma. It does not help matters that her father and mother-in-law have come to America to bury their son, blame her for what happened and seem determined to bring him back to Cambodia.
The Morales, despite her loyalty, still treat her as little more than help. This is made fundamentally clear when Nadia calls her before the funeral and tells her that she has to deliver a bribe to a judge. “You’re going to do this, so I don’t have to bury my husband,” she says before hanging up. This has led her on the radar of Armond, Nadia’s ex-boyfriend who has secured the loan to pay the bail. Charming in front of his ex-lover, he is utterly ruthless when Thony comes up to get the money forcing her strip not only front of him but in front of a window in his casino. Naveen Andrews is the new highpoint for this series, continuing the run of superb performances that started with The Dropout. I like watching him play what appears to be this series’ Gus Fring.
There are levels of The Cleaning Lady that work very well and some that don’t. The fact that Thony is essentially able to function invisibly throughout the world of crime (“Nobody looks at the cleaning lady” she says more than once) is perhaps the most subtle and devastating commentary about how America views almost every minority who works in the menial jobs they can get. The fact that it is far easier for Thony to function in the criminal world than she ever could in the legitimate one is a shining light on just how bad is for the undocumented is the country. At no point do we get the idea that Thony is enjoying being good at this the way that Walter White clearly did — she is doing this strictly to survive and hopefully to come out the other side. (She hopes to open a clinic with the money she makes from the Morales family.) The series also makes it perfectly clear that neither the authorities nor much of the crime world care very much about Thony, save for what she can do to help them which is hardly a ringing endorsement for how investigations work. Thony has been into deep for awhile now; the question is only can she avoid drowning. I also like the series idea to make the lead character an Asian immigrant than the obvious choice of Latino, which is a bell that has been rung far too often. We get a far clearer picture of Asian rituals in a way we really don’t in almost any other media.
The series works best when it sticks to following Thony, her family and friends and how much deeper they get. Much of the rest of The Cleaning Lady is watered-down Golden Age TV. How the Morales run their empire, Arman’s struggle to survive in prison (eventually killing his mentor) and how Nadia is as ruthless as her husband is nothing we haven’t seen on series like Breaking Bad and Ozark. Nor are things radically different from how the FBI runs the case: the investigation involves a corrupt judge and we have learned that Garrett was previously demoted for having an affair with an informant. Also the series doesn’t seem able to use Liza Weill to her potential, which in itself should be a criminal offense.
I am not yet prepared to go so far as to call The Cleaning Lady great television, but I am willing to give it high marks for the different way it looks at the crime drama. There is precedent for success in this field — I still miss Good Girls, the NBC drama that had an interesting perspective on how three working mothers get in to deep with a crime lord. The fact that Fox was willing to take a chance on it for a second season may say more for the state of broadcast TV rather than the fact that they had faith in the series. For now, I’m going to hope that they continue to demonstrate more in the latter and that we see more series like this on Fox in the foreseeable future. God know, network TV needs them.
My score: 3.75 stars.