There was a time when we thought Miley Cyrus would forever be remembered as Hannah Montana and Emma Watson inescapably as Hermione Granger. Today, it’s almost comical to recall Miley as a Disney star and unfair to limit Emma’s success to the Harry Potter franchise. Sometimes, drastic changes are necessary to paint an actor in a different light and give them the room to explore a new character. Maybe that’s what “Downton Abbey” ’s Michelle Dockery thought she needed when she signed on for TNT’s “Good Behavior,” because there’s nothing quite like seeing Lady Mary smoke out of a DIY crack pipe to send the message that she’s done with the 20th century.
Dockery’s performance as Lady Mary in “Downton Abbey” is iconic: with her icy beauty, witty remarks and effortless sex appeal, she elevates a character separated by an entire century to someone acutely relevant to the modern viewer. She can do more with a perfectly manicured raise of an eyebrow than some can with an entire monologue. As the British actress steps into a drastically different role as junkie ex-con Letty Raines, exchanging corsets for plunging jumpsuits and pointed upper-class English snobbery for a meandering Southern drawl, something goes missing. It’s more than just the initial shock of watching Lady Mary — I mean, Letty Raines — puke in someone’s driveway with a bad hangover. The biggest disappointment of Dockery’s new role is not in her performance — which is emotional and believable and touching — but rather the show’s inherent structure, or rather lack thereof.
As Letty, Dockery steps into a role of a broken women, separated from her eight-year-old son by a restraining order, addicted to drugs and back to her old ways of stealing booze and designer clothes from expensive hotel rooms. She’s the “bad-ass with baggage,” but this isn’t enough to create a complex and enticing female lead. Letty is unstable and emotional, characteristics that lend well to establishing an immediate sympathy to her and her situation. However, it’s ultimately her flexible moral compass and often unmotivated decisions that alienate her character. The story has striking loopholes: Letty knowingly seduces a contracted assassin Javier (Juan Diego Botto, “Zorro”) only to decide to warn the target the next morning, then retreats again after shakily pointing a shotgun at the assassin/one-night-stand. Her emotional trajectory is manic, illuminating jarring inconsistencies in plot and character.
As a result of her unpredictable inclinations to occasionally do the right thing, Letty is sucked into a dangerous relationship with Javier. For some unexplained reason, Javier decides that he needs Letty to help with his assassinations and now “owns” her with the promise of getting her son back. Their love affair is supposed to be hot and steamy, but falls flat with the lack of genuine connection.
“Good Behavior,” however, is cinematically engaging. The camera doesn’t shy away from moving into distorted images, going out of focus as Letty falls off the wagon, and successfully builds suspense with extended shots scored in complete silence. Without thinking too hard or too long on its inconsistencies, the series is objectively entertaining; the fast-paced action translates well on screen and the camera naturally loves Dockery. But only time will tell whether “Good Behavior” is able to stick around for the long haul.