After Daredevil debuted on Netflix this past April, the buzz around Marvel Television’s partnership with the streaming giant reached deafening levels. “Could all superhero shows be this good?” became the question asked by many a critic and fan. Certainly The Flash and Agent Carter have produced enjoyable and fun moments, but they never really came as close as Daredevil did to being labeled “great television”.
Jessica Jones, the follow up to Daredevil, has a lot to live up to in this regard. It’s a series that sets up the next piece of Marvel and Netflix’s Defenders line-up and is adapted fairly liberally from an acclaimed run of comics (Marvel’s Alias by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos). With the series on the verge of premiering this Friday, you may be wondering just how it shakes out. After getting an opportunity to view the first seven episodes, here’s what I see as working in the show’s favor and where things may be going awry. Keep in mind that each of these points have the unspoken caveat of “thus far”.
- The star: Krysten Ritter embodies the role of Jessica Jones better than I could have imagined. Her surly demeanor, mixed with an ability to convey a real sense of weariness, resonates in every moment she’s on screen. Her Jessica is not afraid to use, abuse, and lie to her own friends if it meets whatever end she’s aiming for. That sense of moral grey allows her to stand-apart in a sea of fairly white-hatted do-gooders in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One of my favorite touches she brings to the role is in how she drunkenly slurs much of her dialogue in an ever so slight fashion, even when a bottle isn’t necessarily in her hand.
- The love interest: Jessica Jones introduces us to Netflix’s next Marvel hero: Luke Cage. And again, Cage is no simple do-gooder. He’s a complex character who manages to feel both trustworthy and menacing at once. While I don’t know what Cage’s status quo will be when the show hits its closing moments, I’m doubly excited for Colter under Cheo Hodari Coker’s pen when Luke Cage airs next year.
- The villain: David Tennant, to his credit, is probably as good here as I’ve seen him in years in this show’s interpretation of The Purple Man. He makes Kilgrave, the sickly obsessed individual who is the series’ foil, a eerily loathsome creature that has clearly allowed his own abilities to heighten an already twisted psyche. The show is at its best when its star is interacting and on screen with these two individuals, and it speaks volumes about this trio when the show doesn’t quite gel the same way without them.
- The genre twist: Jessica Jones spins the superhero story as a neo-noir. From the opening theme, with its jazz infused upright bass and piano swirl, to the hard-drinking detective, all of the elements of a great Raymond Chandler story are on display. It’s also hard to not appreciate how it transmutes the conflict between the hero and the series antagonist into a thriller, adding something a little new to a well-worn genre.
- The action: By “action” I’m not talking purely about combat here. The series uses fighting scenes sparingly, with Jones looking more irked at the inconvenience of having to quickly clobber people than pumped for battle. But here the action also includes sex, which is arguably a bigger part of the show. Jones is, logically, as aggressive when it comes to sex as she is with the rest of her life. She’s not afraid to take the lead, where most series would relegate her character to a more passive role in this regard. On a broader scale, the show portrays a variety of relationships and attitudes towards sex without judgement.
What doesn’t work:
- The unsupportive cast: The fantastic performances by Ritter, Tennant, and Colter only highlight the amateur players that surround them. Jones’ building (and life) is filled with them. The most glaring of those would be a semi-important character: Jones’ best friend, Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), the show’s take on Hellcat. Walker shows up sporadically enough to lack any real development, and the development she’s given falls flat. She solely serves as a vulnerability and liability for Jones. Casting for even more minor roles is worse; Jones has three neighbors that show up on camera and all are varying degrees of awful. One neighbor in particular, Robyn, is arguably the worst character Marvel television has ever produced.
- The stretch: I’m only through seven episodes, so I can’t say how pacing works through the series’ end, but so far the plot feels focused but too thin. Kilgrave is Jones’ sole target of importance, with limited and related subplots that feel like the show is only biding time until Kilgrave can show up on screen again. The few times the series detours into unrelated storylines, the payoff is minimal (or even eye-rolling). The narrative omits so called “Monster of the Week” style episodes, but in doing so comes up short on several occasions, as so far it doesn’t feel like the Kilgrave plot is enough to sustain the full order of episodes.
- Dark isn’t deep: Jessica Jones is, on its surface, an incredibly dark show, complete with violence, PTSD, emotional abuse, and sexual trauma. When Jones has a bad flashback or turns to liquor for emotional support, we get acknowledgement of the issues, but it doesn’t go far beyond that. We’re told some character are dealing with it via mechanisms like support groups, but we don’t know what that actually looks like; we don’t see it. Mental illness and sexual abuse are tough subjects to tackle, and it feels like the writers shy away from them, either out of trepidation for portraying them wrong or out of fear of alienating certain segments of the audience.
- The dialogue: No matter how skilled an actor, some lines are impossible to pull off. “Self respect: Get some!” is a great example that sounds straight out of an anti-drugs commercial. At the end of the day, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg’s main credentials still include the Twilight series (in fairness, the source material wasn’t much to work with) and the early seasons of Dexter (that haven’t aged all that well), and sometimes cheesy, tone-deaf dialogue breaks through the show’s tougher exterior. If you’re aiming for a tone like Veronica Mars, cheesy can work, but when a series is cast out of the gritty Daredevil mode, it can feel out of place.
On a final note, I’ll add that Jessica Jones is a difficult series to binge-watch, much like I found Daredevil (but critics with deadlines don’t have much choice!). It’s an effort that benefits more from one or two episode viewings at a time, and taking in four or five can make those smaller negatives wear on the viewer after a while. Still, Jessica Jones once again proves that Netflix’s production of Marvel series is working significantly better than Marvel’s network programming. We’ll see how the series shakes out as a whole when the full set of episodes drops this Friday, but thus far it’s on track to be one of the better super hero television shows without toppling Daredevil‘s place at the top of that list.