Keeping Up with the Jones

Let’s get one thing out of the way:  Jessica Jones, the new Netflix series based on the troubled but fascinating Marvel Comics heroine, isn’t noir.  That word has gotten tossed around endlessly by just about every critic that’s written about it, but it’s so far from accurate that it’s not even worth arguing against.  It’s an action thriller with a dark psychological edge, but it’s not noir.  It’s not even neo-noir.

With that out of the way, what it is is a pretty good show; if it’s not the best thing Marvel’s done since they stopped flirting with Hollywood and put a ring on it, it’s certainly in the top echelon.  It’s curious to see what some writers have chosen to focus on when discussing it since it dropped its entire first season on Netflix last week; while a consensus that it’s high-tier Marvel has formed, there’s not a lot of agreement on why that is.  However, this isn’t really a problem so much as it is an indication of how much there is to talk about in this, probably the most sophisticated storytelling to emerge from the new age of Marvel entertainment.

Jessica Jones is the story of its namesake, a low-living private detective who farms out cheap marital work and a few gigs from a big-shot corporate attorney, expertly played by Carrie Ann Moss.  Jones (played with moody intensity by Breaking Bad veteran Krysten Ritter) is a former superhero who quit the capes-and-cowls gig, but the show wisely doesn’t dwell on it too much; neither her powers nor those of Luke Cage, another high-powered low-life she meets and strikes up a fast-burning relationship with, are explored in much detail.  This feels like we’re being short-changed at times, but it lets the show avoid the trap of overemphasizing the origin story, and leaves a bit of enigma for the future.  It’s especially appropriate here, where the emphasis is far less on plot than it is on mood and tone.

That mood is almost relentlessly dark and bleak.  We get plenty of hints of Jones’ painful past, which involves bad parenting, ruined friendships, mistrust, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, and, most especially, sexual assault — but these, too, are not over-explored.  We get some answers, but Jones’ character is never fully explained; it’s more highlighted and brought into relief.  I certainly can’t judge the lived experience of having been raped, but the show certainly seems to do a convincing job of illustrating how it’s a shock that never quite fades, an injury that doesn’t fully heal, and while it’s almost impossible to like her, we come to understand that she’s not merely the kneejerk unpleasant cynic that has come to define darkness, especially in pseudo-‘deep’ male characters.  She’s someone who’s recovering from a trauma that she can’t even bear to speak about, with not the suspicion but the absolute knowledge that no one who hasn’t also been through it could ever begin to understand.

That trauma is embodied in the series’ main villain, Kilgrave, played with menacing flair by David Tennant.  In the comics, Kilgrave (there the Purple Man, here tuned down a bit to reflect the show’s standoffish attitude towards costumed superheroics) wan an outsized metaphor for rape; on television, the show does something that is often a weakness of moving out of the four-color world, but here seems like more of a strength:  it makes explicit what was formerly implicit.  The comic, written by a man, made a lot of missteps in selling the scenario and could often come across as gross, while the show, written largely by Melissa Rosenberg, lets it play out in a more obvious, but also much more compelling, way.  Kilgrave’s power of controlling minds works extremely well not only as a means of committing sexual abuse but as a stand-in for the social forces at work when the suffering of victims is ignored or disbelieved.

Of course, the social purpose of the show is merely the strategy, and the boots on the ground are the various dramatic elements of Jessica Jones itself.  It succeeds more often than not:  the acting is excellent throughout, with Ritter generally solid, Tennant always excellent, Carrie-Ann Moss and Robin Weigert terrific in support, and Mike Colter whetting our appetites for an upcoming Luke Cage series.  The dialogue can be hit-and-miss (Jones’ cynical outlook is developed naturally enough, but it’s often a bit half-baked), but the filmwork more than compensates for it:  Jessica Jones is surprisingly well-shot, with some terrific angles, set-ups, lighting, movement, and general composition well in excess of what you’d expect from this sort of thing.  It’s a pleasure to watch, even when it slows down.

And, oof, does it slow down.  It has a few noteworthy stumbles — the sometimes awkward dialogue; the way it can’t seem to get a handle on what it wants to do with Jessica’s best friend Trish (a.k.a. Patsy Walker, played by Rachael Taylor, and my biggest hope that we’ll eventually see the Son of Satan); the way it fails to develop some of the characters you hope will develop.  But its biggest one is what I’m going to call for the sake of precision the “Daredevil Syndrome”.  While Jessica Jones isn’t nearly as moribund as Netflix’s previous Marvel series, Daredevil, it does choose the same structural path:  there’s one major villain, and it takes quite a while to get him in the same room as the hero.  Jessica Jones does this a lot better, because the villain is better realized, more suited to the tone of the show, and generally given more todo in relation to the main character.  But 15 episodes is still a long time.  I’m no fan of the monster-of-the-week gimmick; it’s rubbed me the wrong way since the Buffy the Vampire Slayer days.  But it does serve, in what is still essentially an action thriller and not a drama, as a way to break up the monotony.  Jessica Jones is well-written enough that a fake-out climax midway through keeps the tension rolling, but by the end, you still feel a bit burned out, time-wise — a sensation that could be alleviated by throwing in a few interesting but ultimately not critical characters to give the show some variety.  Comics learned this lesson a long time ago; TV seems to be forgetting it.

Taken all in all, though, Jessica Jones is, if not the game-changer a lot of critics are making it out to be, at least a successful first season of television with an interesting cast, a good look, and some things to say about the human condition.  It’s what Daredevil should have been:  a spicy entry into an ongoing feast, and not an appetizer that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

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