I fully expected to be distracted by the ghost of Lady Mary during Michelle Dockery's new TNT series, "Good Behavior." Dockery's work as the imperfect daughter (who wore perfect hats) in "Downton Abbey" was indelible. With her snow-white skin and her endless eye rolling, she was a stone cold noble. And yet she was also a passionate literary heroine who, despite gender standards of the time, refused to be sweet and feel meaningless without a man. When I think of "Downton," I think first of Dockery's chilly, fiery turn.
But Lady Mary quickly left my mind while viewing "Good Behavior," an intriguing neo-noir that premieres with back-to-back episodes on Tuesday at 9 p.m. Dockery pulls an Edie Falco, to some extent, as she manages to follow up her work as an iconic TV character with a completely different and yet equally compelling performance. She dives into the role of an American grifter and addict named Letty Raines with the kind of full-tilt enthusiasm and versatility that's exciting to watch. "Good Behavior," created by the "Wayward Pines" team of Chad Hodge and Blake Crouch, has plenty of potential, most of all thanks to Dockery.
When we meet Letty — who's based on a character from three Crouch novellas — she is waiting tables in South Carolina and listening to a self-help app that delivers affirmations such as "I am in control of my life." She has a parole officer, Christian (Terry Kinney), who sees how intelligent she is and works hard to help her stay sober and out of trouble. Also, Letty has a young son she's not allowed to visit, who is being cared for by Letty's mother, Estelle (Lusia Strus). Surely that will continue to motivate her to go straight.
But, with a nasty boss who mistreats her for being a woman and an ex-con, she finds diner work humiliating. Those affirmations ring hollow. Her deep hunger for trouble and escape kicks in, and soon she is donning a wig to burglarize rooms at an expensive hotel. Hiding in the closet in one of those rooms, she overhears a man hire an Argentine assassin, Javier (Juan Diego Botto), to kill his wife. She sneaks out of the room and decides to tell the soon-to-be-murdered wife to watch out. Letty is crooked and cunning, but she has enough moral grounding to frown on murder.
And that's all I'll say about the setup, which ultimately has Javier blackmailing Letty into working another job with him. They become a team of sorts, but Letty can't wait to finish so she can return to her miserable life. In the three episodes I saw, the pairing was simultaneously fun to watch and disturbing. On the one hand, they both have great instincts when it comes to lying and cheating, like the con artists in the British series "Hustle." Their chemistry — both between the characters and the actors — is formidable. Letty is particularly good at making up stories on the spot, when the two are pretending to be married. She loves to become a different person for a few hours. On the other hand, she is an unwilling participant in the game, and it's hard to appreciate her smooth scam moves when she's essentially in servitude to a violent man. And with each minute she spends with Javier, and with her resumed use of drugs and alcohol, she moves further and further from access to her beloved son.
It's hard to figure out how Hodge and Crouch will make the show's central relationship work more comfortably and believably moving forward. How will they keep this couple together in a more equal relationship, and yet keep Letty at least a tiny bit sympathetic? Are Letty and Javier going to be Bonnie and Clyde? Or will they be softened, with some comedic elements in the mix? Botto is fine, but he's in the difficult position of playing a guy who is both Javier Bardem's cold-hearted hit man in "No Country for Old Men" and a romantic lead. Can this work over the long run? All I know is that I'm willing to keep watching, to find out the answers.
Starring: Michelle Dockery, Juan Diego Botto, Terry Kinney, Lusia Strus
Tuesday night, 9-11