Killer Women isn’t bad. It’s not exactly good, but it’s surprisingly engaging for a show that is trying to do just one thing well. The promos for the show are splashy, with a Western flair that emphasizes brooding silhouettes and spattered blood. (They draw heavily from the title sequence for the classic A Fistful Of Dollars.) Executive producer Hannah Shakespeare (who adapted the series from an Argentine crime drama) previously worked on The Playboy Club, and in their messiness and mediocrity, there’s much in common between the two shows.
On one hand, Killer Women is a show about women. Not just the “killer” ones; the main character is Molly Parker (Tricia Helfer), a Texas Ranger who is always struggling to prove that she is the equal of her male colleagues. She has a sister-in-law who tries to get her to wear dresses, a husband she’s trying to divorce, and a gun she knows how to use. On the other hand, it’s a cowboy procedural, about a Texas Ranger on the fractious border between Texas and Mexico. It uses wide shots to get that windswept, desert feel, and the plot integrates ranch hands and drug cartels with enough facility to make the setting believable.
Killer Women is heavily invested in the romance of guns and cowboys (or cowgirls); it’s a show that ostentatiously frames the firearms in the foreground as two lovers have sex in the background. It’s a show that wants to be sexy and fun without thinking too hard about it. On some counts, it succeeds admirably. And because there are more than a few women producing it—including executive producers Shakespeare and Sofía Vergara—the show comes across as a romance about women for women (except for the gratuitous cleavage shots). Even in its splashiness, Killer Women strives to bring something different to a run-of-the-mill procedural.
The crime of the week in the pilot is a soapy, pulpy murder: A Latina woman wearing a very short red dress and red heels walks into a church with a gun, just as a (white) couple at the altar is pronounced husband and wife. She’s in red. The bride is in white. The murderess stalks up the aisle, raises the gun, and shoots the bride point-blank. She’s gone almost as quickly, leaving just a pair of red high heels in the dust. It would be easy to assume a crime of passion—most of the (male) police force assumes so—especially after she confesses to it, with a sultry accent out of a James Bond movie. After all, the reasoning seems go, she was wearing that red dress. The semiotic resonance of such a decision seems clear, especially for a murder on television, which trades on visual tropes just to keep the story moving.
What makes Killer Women stand out is its willingness to trip up on its own plot devices. It gives viewers material to read between the lines, then it turns right around to point out how they read it incorrectly. That red dress makes for a powerful image, as do those abandoned heels. As the pilot goes on, though, it turns out that the woman was coerced into committing that crime, and given the outfit to play a certain role. Who gave her the outfit? Men, naturally. And it wasn’t a crime of passion, either—without giving away too much of the plot, the bride was killed not because she was about to be a wife, but because she was about to close a major case.
The pilot’s treatment of Latina women is similarly nuanced, which is to be expected from a show with Vergara’s seal of approval. The exoticism of the opening image is heightened by the killer’s race; but the episode moves forward to demonstrate how her race is part of her vulnerability to a drug cartel—not just a sexy accent and long black hair.
Sure, this is all the stuff of a pulpy procedural, but Killer Women offers a different kind of pulp—an appeal it shares with another ABC show, Scandal, as well as Law And Order: Special Victims Unit. It’s not trying to be overly smart for its goal, which is to be an escapist, romantic crime drama. But it’s not playing dumb, either, and that’s refreshing—and a lot of fun, incidentally. Molly in particular is a well-rounded character for the lead in a Western: She’s tough and smart, but she’s also both vulnerable and feminine in ways that do not seem designed to turn her into a victim or to make her seem weak. Best known as Battlestar Galactica’s Number Six, Tricia Helfer is a lightweight actress—which means she can carry this role well. Molly Parker isn’t superficial, but she also isn’t juggling too many complex emotions at once.
ABC has worked hard to cultivate the female demographic in the past five years or so. Shonda Rhimes properties anchor the network, and strong shows like Revenge and Once Upon A Time (and, to a lesser extent, Nashville) target female viewers. Killer Women fits right into that dynamic. It’s not doing a whole lot of work to examine the role of women in society, but it is a show with a single and still-novel goal: to entertain women, without patronizing them.
Adapted by: Hannah Shakespeare (from the Argentine series Mujeres Asesinas)
Starring: Tricia Helfer, Marc Blucas, Alex Fernandez, Marta Milans, Michael Trucco
Debuts: Tuesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Pilot watched for review