Friday, November 27, 2015

TV Review: Jessica Jones Season 1

Jessica Jones is the second Netflix Marvel series to come out, following on the heels of Daredevil.  Both shows are attempts for the Marvel brand to show a darker, more mature side.

Daredevil was dark.

But Jessica Jones is dirty.

Jessica Jones is about the title character (played by a amazing Krysten Ritter), a former superhero who is now a private investigator.  From the first moments of the show we can see there is something horribly broken about her and she tries to cover it with hard fighting and hard drinking.  Jessica is then pulled into a case that is directly connected with her traumatic past.  And this sets up the entire trajectory for the season.

The show has strong connections to the Film Noir tradition of the hard-boiled detective, and it is very successful in this respect.  But the show gets dragged down instead of energized by its vulgarity.

I don't mean to say that the show is necessarily bad.  There are many fine things about it that I will discuss below.  But the big takeaway for me was how this show pushed the envelope in terms of mature content for a Marvel property.

This should come as little surprise since the comic that it is based on, Alias, is the first Marvel comic ever to drop the F-Bomb, among its many R-Rated features.

The comparison to Daredevil may be a bit unfair considering the storylines and subject matter, especially because Jessica Jones suffers in comparison.  Daredevil was the darkest thing that I've had ever seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe up until that point.  But the darkness was of a kind that set the heroes in dire relief against their harrowing circumstances.  Jessica Jones does the same thing, but the level of sexuality and vulgarity acts as more of a distraction than anything.

I find it so interesting that even though there was some sex in Daredevil, there isn't nearly as much or as explicit as in Jessica Jones.  Thankfully there is no direct nudity.  But there is little left to the imagination when depicting the acts themselves.  I'm usually not one to hunt out sexism in media, but I find it so interesting that Marvel's first central female hero on screen is defined a lot by her sexuality, whereas the male heroes are not.

I find it ironic that the show's main producer/writer, Melissa Rosenberg understands how being more graphic can turn off viewers.  This show deals with the subject of rape, but Rosenberg said in an interview with the LA Times:

"With rape, I think we all know what that looks like. We've seen plenty of it on television and I didn't have any need to see it, but I wanted to experience the damage that it does. I wanted the audience to really viscerally feel the scars that it leaves. It was not important to me, on any level, to actually see it. TV has plenty of that, way too often, used as titillation, which is horrifying." 

I agree completely with her point, but I don't think she sees how this could also be applied to the other graphic content.  The show also has an abortion, which is sometimes a deal-breaker for me.  And unlike Daredevil, Jessica Jones does not have the same respect for religion.  While the show never comes out and attacks faith, there is one scene with a Catholic woman and the writing for her is so terrible because it makes her sound almost delusional.  The show flirts with nihilism, but only in the way Daredevil did as a temptation rather than a destination.

The other big drawback of the show is that most of the side characters feel like distractions and are not as interesting.  That isn't to say their performances are in any way bad.  But the non-Jessica storylines lack anything that held my interest.

Having said all of the above, there is still much to admire about the show.

The main storyline is incredibly compelling.  Jessica's struggles are not only external and filled with spectacle, but they are also internal and visceral.  There are a lot of unexpected gut punches in the show.

The writing, while admittedly vulgar, is also incredibly clever.  Plot threads are woven throughout the series and slowly pay off.  The payoff at the end of episode 9, "AKA The Sin Bin" was so cathartic that I punched the air in excitement.  And the show does a wonderful slow build the entire season as the tension and stakes mount higher and higher with each passing episode.

The performance are also fantastic.  I was a bit skeptical about Krysten Ritter only because I had never seen her tackle a character this complex.  But she was more than up for the job.  She has a disaffected cadence in her voice that could be mistaken for indifference, but she uses that tone as part of her characters layers.  And Jessica is at times repulsive and heroic and Ritter plays those contradictions beautifully.

But the standout of the show is without question David Tennant as Killgrave.  I've read a number of reviews that say that Killgrave is best MCU villain, even better than Loki, and I would have to agree.  Tennant is charming, terrifying, sympathetic, vile, funny, and disgust often at the same time.  Tennant makes every insane and evil choice completely believable.  And even though you accept that he is the worst kind of villain, there is a small part of you that hopes, deep down, there is something redeemable.  I credit that mostly to Tennant's ability to see the man behind the monster, while never letting you forget that he is a monster.

The other supporting actors are very good as well.  Rachel Taylor as Trish Walker (Hellcat in the comics), Eka Darville as druggie neighbor Malcolm, Carrie-Anne Moss as sleazy, upscale attorney Jeri Hogarth, and Mike Colter as Luke Cage are all top notch.

So because of the good content and bad content I am in the awkward position of not being able to recommend the show.  Again, this does not mean that it is a poor quality show at all or that you shouldn't watch it all.  But because of the mature content, it may detrimental for those who struggle with graphic content.

I'm hoping the second season will rise above this one.

4 out of 5 stars

1 comment:

  1. Now that Going Deep with David Rees has moved to the Esquire network I refuse to succumb to bait and switch subscriptions. I've had to really cut back on monthly bills the last few years, so I'm going to be missing a lot of stuff.

    TruTV, believe it or not, has the replacement show. Adam Ruins Everything.

    Good news. Every Frame a Painting paid tribute to Buster Keaton.