In the current TV atmosphere where streaming is king, it has been a while since a network drama has made waves. But FOX’s The Cleaning Lady might have the right ingredients to break through. Based on an Argentinian drama and developed by Miranda Kwok, the hourlong thriller series follows Thony De La Rosa (Élodie Yung), an undocumented Cambodian doctor-turned-cleaning lady, who takes any cleaning job she can get to save up money for her son’s autoimmune disease treatment. One night, she attends a late underground fight and witnesses a murder, and the only thing that saves her life is her offer to clean up the crime scene. But after she finishes that job, she isn’t allowed to just wash her hands of it; she’s now forever entangled with the crime lord and has to use her smarts to duck the FBI and get what she needs for her son.
It’s easy to make parallels to Breaking Bad, as the main character in both shows enters a world of crime through the side door and ultimately gets tangled up in unsavory activity for the sake of saving their family. Like that AMC show, The Cleaning Lady leans on its central character’s innate and professional skills and knowledge (for Walter White, it was chemistry; for Thony, it’s cleaning) to keep them from falling off the ledge that they inch towards in every episode.
Thony’s backstory is more complex than what meets the eye, but as of the first three episodes provided for review, her background as a doctor is one aspect of the story that doesn’t feel like it’s utilized to its full potential. We see Thony conversing with doctors here and there, occasionally suggesting treatments for her son, but the fact that she’s a smart woman who had to give up her high-status job in favor of becoming a glorified maid only comes through as an afterthought. Thony is capable of being more than just the help, and the series would be better off leaning into that side of her. Instead, she comes across as meek and desperate, which might be rooted in realism but doesn’t make her the most exciting character on our screens.
Set against the very real crisis of undocumented immigration and humanizing those seeking support to keep their families together, The Cleaning Lady excels at centering the drama around Thony’s motivations. It’s an important visualization, especially in a world where illegal immigration is such a hot topic, to see the faces and lives behind the issue and understand their motivations.
Where the show falls flat though is when the plot focus extends to the underground criminal world that Thony is on the precipice of entering. The characters there are largely copy and paste images of who we’ve seen inhabit this space before, and their motivations aren’t much more compelling than that of typical villainous characters. Contrarily, the FBI agents investigating the scene are given some depth and stakes that make the cat-and-mouse game compelling.
The Cleaning Lady is a fast-paced portrayal of a woman pushed to the edge and forced to contend with hard decisions for the wellbeing of her family, and Yung’s central performance is filled with warmth, determination, and grit. Thony isn’t a pushover and it’s immediately clear that she’s the type of mother who will not rest until her son recovers, and Yung plays that motherly instinct perfectly. But in scenes with the mob bosses that she’s now in league with, Yung lacks the charisma to go toe-to-toe with them.
Still, it’s exciting to see an Asian woman in the lead of a story like this, with her complexities on full display and entering a world that typically isn’t inhabited by faces like hers. Kwok’s script does a good job of centering this narrative without hitting us over the head with claims of diversity and representation, the balance integral to its success. It’s a unique character inhabiting a unique world: the perfect ingredients for an exciting story.
The Cleaning Lady premieres with weekly episodes Monday, January 3rd on FOX.
Radhika Menon is a pop culture-obsessed writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Her work has appeared in NY Post’s Decider, Teen Vogue, and will be featured in Brown Girl Magazine‘s first ever print anthology. She is a proud alumna of the University of Michigan and thinks she’s funny on Twitter.
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