In the wake of marathoning 20 episodes of NBC’s Good Girls in two days, I’m thinking a lot about dark romance/romantic suspense worldbuilding and how character dynamics are incredibly important when it comes to pulling off love stories (or at least root-for stories) with antiheroes and criminals. Why does a pairing like that of suburban soccer mom Beth (Christina Hendricks) and gang leader Rio (Manny Montana) work for me when something like serial killer Ben (Robert Scott Wilson) and ingénue Ciara (Victoria Konefal) on Days of our Lives doesn’t? Because the worlds in which they move in, and the rules of those worlds, are very different.
On the surface, both shows are over-the-top soaps. They’re both on NBC. One is primetime, one is daytime. Thing is, Good Girls’ central conceit is that these average moms aren’t actually ‘good girls,’ and that they’re, in their own ways, striking back against a patriarchal expectation of what women are supposed to be. Beth, her sister Annie, and their best friend Ruby, start committing crimes for their families, for financial security, and their decisions impact their children, their love lives, etc. The more messed up they get, the more morally gray the tone of the show gets. And when Beth and Rio finally act on their attraction, it’s a commentary on how far along the spectrum she’s moved and how tired she is of her mundane life and her dipshit husband. Contrast that with the world of a daytime soap opera…one where heroes and villains tend to be pretty clear cut, where gender roles are still fairly rigid. There is no real opportunity for characters to move across the moral spectrum—especially if you’re a female character. If you begin a bad girl, that’s more or less what you are throughout. If you begin an ingénue, again, you don’t really get to move on from that. (And nobody’s smashing the patriarchy!) So how, then, does a TV series effectively pair a Very Good Girl with an Extremely Bad Boy? Well…you don’t. Not without changing one of their statuses.
Characters like Beth and Rio or Good Behavior’s hitman Javier (Juan Diego Botto) and con artist Letty (Michelle Dockery) exist on the same level. They spark because they’re all various shades of ‘bad.’ It’s established that Beth and Rio cannot have a relationship when she’s trying to be a ‘good girl.’ The reason they work is that they acknowledge, and get off on, the darkness in each other. It’s equal parts twisted and fond…a weirdly functional, compelling, mentor/mentee bond. And the show never says otherwise. Meanwhile, on something like Days, they’re trying to set up a false dichotomy between serial killer and rape survivor…and that is just not an equal playing field at all. And instead of Ciara getting darker and more twisted to match Ben, they’re trying to lighten and whitewash Ben to match her. Problem? You can’t un-ring that serial strangler bell…so, it just comes off as inauthentic, ridiculous, and bending the rules of the genre to fit this couple. Ciara’s running around trying to assure everyone that Ben has changed, that he’s a good man. That’s not something you could ever see Beth or Letty saying about their guys. Because they know that’s not true. Rio and Javier may be kind sometimes, may be loving in their own ways, but there’s no convincing anyone else on their shows that they are good. And neither series is even interested in pushing that narrative.
The success or failure of a dark romance is, at the core, a craft issue. Your world and your characters have to be consistent. Like all of your dark characters are romantically viable because everyone’s shady to some degree. Or your ingénue falls for the criminal because there’s something equally feral inside her, an equal need to commit crimes. (And, no, being raped is NOT the same kind of ‘broken’ as killing people or robbing banks, for fuck’s sake.) On Good Girls, Beth and Rio aren’t the only ones with this tangled web of status and equality. All the pairings operate by the same rules. Ruby (Retta) and her husband Stan have to grapple with him being a cop and him gradually getting pulled into the mess with her and consciously deciding that their love is more important than him being the ‘good guy.’ In the second season, Annie (Mae Whitman) unwittingly gets involved with an undercover FBI agent, Noah. And just by virtue of lying to her, Noah is automatically on her level. He’s not a hero. He used her. But because of how their world works, I’m kind of rooting for them anyway!
That’s the kind of dynamic I’m trying to keep in mind for my own upcoming paranormal romantic suspense trilogy. I’m still working out the rules of the universe—and just how bonkers I want it to be—but I already know the statuses of my characters and what will shift in the course of their stories. In book one, the heroine gets darker to match the hero. In book two, both protagonists are on the same level…but there are elements of deception in play. In book three, the protagonists are going to change together. The good girls aren’t that good. The bad boys aren’t that bad. Somewhere in the middle is the love story.
Where is the love story on Good Girls? Since it’s about to wrap its second season, with a third season on the horizon, I have no idea. Rio could die. Noah could die. Stan and Ruby could divorce—and, I swear, I will riot if that happens. We do know that the love between the female protagonists, their core of friendship, is sacrosanct. That, probably, is the real “happily ever after” they’re fighting for. This, too, is a conscious craft decision. That, amidst all the darkness, Beth, Annie, and Ruby are each other’s light.