This is an ongoing archive and blog of reviews and commentary by W.L. Swarts!
Saturday, November 21, 2015
So Much Potential! How Jessica Jones Season 1 Soars And Falls!
The Good: Engaging characters, Good reversals, Awesome effects, Some amazing performance moments
The Bad: Plot opts toward predictability as opposed to pushing the characters into a compelling new direction
The Basics: The Marvel Cinematic Universe becomes immeasurably richer for the addition of Jessica Jones when the first season rocks Netflix!
Not since Sense8 (reviewed here!) have I gotten so excited about a new television program based solely on its previews. But when I first learned of Jessica Jones being released as a thirteen episode season on Netflix, I got my hopes up for a great television experience when the first trailer dropped. Good work, Netflix, for having the two original (to me, anyway) shows of the year that truly sucked me in based on previews. Truth be told, though, given my review focus on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even if the trailers had not intrigued me, I would have felt obligated to review the first season of Jessica Jones.
Unlike Daredevil (season 1 is reviewed here!), I knew nothing of the character Jessica Jones prior to watching the first season of the Netflix television show. I made a point not to go out and read any of the Alias books after the television series was announced, so I could do a pure viewing of the television incarnation; at best I think Jessica Jones might have been a peripheral character in one of the Shadowland or Secret Wars books I once read. Regardless, all I truly knew about Jessica Jones prior to watching the first season came from what I saw in the trailers.
That was enough to get me both intrigued and concerned. As much a Marvel Comics fans want to protest and kvetch, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is actually dominated by the Marvel Television Universe; Matt Murdock and now Jessica Jones have had more screen time than Thor or even Captain America! So, when the previews made it appear that the main villain for Jessica Jones was a Pusher, my hackles were slightly raised. After all, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there has already been a Pusher of great importance . . . in the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode "Melinda" (reviewed here!). While there can certainly be more than one Pusher (no problem there!) and S.H.I.E.L.D. keeps things secret (so unless Jessica Jones had a S.H.I.E.L.D. background, there would be no reason for her to know about the prior Pusher), the generation of the adversary in Jessica Jones had to either be unique or an Inhuman for the disparate elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to tie together. And by sheer volume of material, the real burden on writers and executive producers working in the Marvel Cinematic/Television Universe is to actually make new works synch up with Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D..
To that end, Jessica Jones is set in the same post-Avengers rebuilding New York City as the first season of Daredevil. There, Jessica Jones acts as a freelance private detective for her own firm, Alias Investigations, where she spends her nights getting money shots of people cheating on their spouses for money. She also spies upon a local bartender, named Luke Cage, and drinks to excess. Her drinking stems from her inability to deal with a fairly recent trauma; she was captured by a man with mind control abilities and forced into a life of servitude until she escaped him and left him for dead after being forced to kill another woman. The man who kidnapped her was Kilgrave and he reappears on her radar when a couple from the midwest arrive and hire Jessica Jones to find their missing daughter. But finding and rescuing Hope Shlottman is only the beginning of Jessica's new Kilgrave-based nightmare when Shlottman kills her parents as part of a post-abduction suggestion Kilgrave left in her.
Now, Jessica Jones has to find and capture Kilgrave without falling under his influence and then get him to confess to having the powers he does in order to exonerate Hope. To that end, Jessica Jones enlists her celebrity sister Trish Walker (who adopted her when Jessica's family was killed in a car accident) and soon they are both in Kilgrave's crosshairs when Trish uses her radio show to out and belittle Kilgrave. Kilgrave sends Will Simpson, an otherwise benevolent police officer, to kill Trish and while Jessica Jones and Trish are able to save him, his guilt over the beating he gave Walker is intense. That allows the women to enlist Simpson and his special ops skill set to lay a trap for Kilgrave. Unfortunately, while all of this is going on, Jessica Jones falls in with the bartender Luke Cage, but their romance is almost entirely doomed from the start by the fact that Cage - despite being unbreakable - does not believe in the existence and powers of Kilgrave and the fact that Jessica Jones killed Cage's wife as her last Kilgrave-controlled moment!
Right off the bat, I liked Jessica Jones. It's official; the curse of Marvel's Agent Carter (season 1 is reviewed here!) is broken. Jessica Jones Season 1 proves with a pretty absolute quality that female superheros can carry a show without spouting off the canned phrases about the characters being female. I'm a feminist and what diminishes much of the public debate in the worst works - like Agent Carter and the pilot to Supergirl (which, to be fair, is all I've yet seen of that series) - is the need to point to the gender of the characters with a "Look! See? A woman can do this!" type attitude/message. Jessica Jones can kick pretty much anyone's ass; she doesn't point out that she's a woman while she's doing it. Trish Walker is trained to be a martial arts expert after a prior incident and she doesn't play the "how can you hit me, I'm a woman" card when the mind-controlled Simpson belts her repeatedly across the face. Jessica Jones has women in power, women empowered and men who treat them with complete equality. If Jessica Jones succeeds, the groundwork - with Trish Walker - is laid for other spinoffs and while I'm not sure a Hellcat show could make it, Walker is a great character to bridge the gap from Jessica Jones to She-Hulk.
Jessica Jones Season 1 also manages to do what no other component of the Marvel Cinematic Universe had yet done: they have a perfect episode. Truth be told, I hated where the series went for significant chunks after "AKA WWJD?" but the episode "AKA WWJD?" is perfectly constructed, perfectly executed and it defines both the last quarter of the season and it establishes Jessica Jones as both powerful and flawed in a deeply human way. Jessica Jones is faced with an incredible decision in "AKA WWJD?" and she makes it based on her own pain and sense of disillusionment created by Kilgrave. That makes her human and even though I loathe the choice she makes, she comes by it honestly and within her character, which makes for instantly compelling television.
To better understand the series, it helps to know who the main characters are. In the first season of Jessica Jones, the principle characters are:
Jessica Jones - A private investigator working in Hell's Kitchen, she is most often found sleeping in her office, drunk. When the Shlottmans hire her to find their daughter, Hope, the traumas inflicted upon her by the pusher Kilgrave force her to reconcile all of the cracked aspects of her life. She struggles to do the right thing and she is immediately handicapped by the idea that she cannot simply execute her nightmarish former-controller because she needs his confession to save Hope Shlottman's life,
Luke Cage - A bartender working in Hell's Kitchen, he has stayed off the radar of those hunting extra-normal people simply by avoiding fights. With Jessica Jones, though, he discovers his impenetrable skin comes in handy and he opens his heart to her for the first time since losing his wife,
Trish Walker - Former child star Patsy, she now is the host of New York City's most successful radio talk show. She is adopted sister and best friend to Jessica Jones and believed Jessica fully after the Kilgrave abduction. She is excited to have Jessica back in her life - unbeknownst to her, Jessica keeps her abusive mother away from her - until the Kilgrave-controlled Will Simpson attacks her in her fortified apartment. Still, she talks things out with Simpson until a key incident forces her to choose between her new lover and her oldest friend,
Jeryn Hogarth - One of the partners at Hell's Kitchen's most prestigious law firms, she has been having an affair with her secretary, under her wife's nose. She begins an acrimonious divorce with her doctor wife and uses Jessica for her ability to get results in some of her toughest cases. She sees the potential in Kilgrave and becomes a wild card in Jessica and Trish's plan to stop the pusher. She represents Hope Shlottman, at Jessica Jones's insistence,
Malcolm - Jessica Jones's heroine-addicted neighbor, he once had a bright future as a social worker before Alias Investigations opened up in the building he lived in,
Hope Shlottman - A bright young track and field athlete who goes missing, she was abducted by Kilgrave and used as his pawn to draw out Jessica Jones. She is mind-controlled to kill her parents and, while in prison, she discovers that she is carrying Kilgrave's baby,
Will Simpson - A benevolent police officer who was former Special Ops, he is manipulated by Kilgrave to kill Trish after Trish berates Kilgrave on her radio program. He works hard to overcome the guilt of trying to kill Trish and helps establish a prison for Kilgrave. He reluctantly works with Jessica Jones to entrap Kilgrave and seems to have everything under control until Kilgrave uses his control to mortally wound Simpson and force him back into a life he thought he had escaped,
and Kilgrave - A man with mind-control abilities and a mysterious past, he uses people like objects. He is obsessed with Jessica Jones.
The first season of Jessica Jones is, essentially, a mystery. How can you prove crimes committed by a man whose power is mind control? How do you bring that man to justice? The reversals and concept are exceptional and the execution of the material makes the first season of Jessica Jones a must-see.
Unfortunately, in typical Marvel tradition, the show mortgages originality for fidelity to the (presumably) source material and a painfully predictable paradigm. "AKA WWJD?" is so amazing an episode because it forces the viewer to completely change their perception of Kilgrave and all that has come before. The villain becomes absolutely sympathetic and entirely fascinating to watch. In "AKA WWJD?" the mystery is, essentially, solved and the viewer is left wondering "what the hell can they possibly do for the next five episodes?!" until the last two minutes of the program.
And that, alas, guts the first season of Jessica Jones. Why? Why are so many super hero-based shows so obsessed with ruining what they establish and creating the villains they seek to destroy?! The Flash just did it with "Gorilla Warfare" (reviewed here!) when they had the enemy psychic Gorilla Grodd completely trusting the team right before betraying their newfound ally completely. In a similar way, Jessica Jones Season 1 builds to a point where all of a sudden the series explodes with potential and it can become anything . . . and the executive producers drive it into the most absolutely mundane, dull, predictable place it can be. Sure, it comes from Jessica Jones's pain and that's sad, but the overall statement is that we can forgive Natasha Romanov her life of murder, spying, and espionage because it's unseen and Scarlett Johansson is hot, but the personal nature of the attacks done by Kilgrave, despite how deep his character suddenly becomes, is unforgivable? I call bullshit.
That said, the show is dominated by exceptional performances and great casting. I've only read two She-Hulk books that had Patsy in them, but the moment I realized the character was the same as the Hellcat I had recently read, I became delighted. Rachael Taylor is perfectly cast as Trisha and Taylor Schilling had best never play hardball with contract negotiations, lest Rachael Taylor play a recast version of Piper on Orange Is The New Black! She could entirely pull it off.
Jessica Jones Season 1 manages to expertly redefine our expectations for David Tennant as well. Tennant plays Kilgrave as a somewhat monolithic villain up until "AKA Top Shelf Perverts." Then, Tennant is actually given something deeper and more complex to play and he nails it. He is incredible in "AKA Top Shelf Perverts," effectively turns the character of Kilgrave on his head in "AKA WWJD?" and then becomes absolutely impossible to watch without being horrified in "AKA Sin Bin." When Tennant expresses helplessness for Kilgrave, it is heartbreaking and to exhibit that range over the course of thirteen episodes is exceptional.
No less impressive is Krysten Ritter. Ritter has had a tough go of a career as she is usually locked in as a sidekick or supporting performer on a cast. Her big headlining series Don't Trust The B In Apartment 23 was hamstrung by terrible writing (her character was humanized almost by the end of the first episode) and failed through no fault of Ritter's. But, as a character actor, Krysten Ritter has shown exceptional range over her career and it is truly saying something to say that the role of Jessica Jones is not like anything else she has done before. The character is damaged and strong, exceptional and essentially human, and finding the balance between those disparate elements can be a virtually impossible task. Not, however, for Krysten Ritter. She makes Jessica Jones compelling to follow and believable for her intelligence and vices.
Ultimately, Jessica Jones Season 1 sets up a potentially compelling second season that will cement the idea that Jones is the result of yet another failed super-soldier program, as opposed to her or Luke Cage being in any way Inhumans, but the execution of the first season is a strong enough standalone to make us be thrilled to have gotten it . . . and exciting enough to want to return to it!
For a better understanding of what this season comprises, please check out my reviews of the individual episodes in the season at:
"AKA Ladies Night"
"AKA Crush Syndrome"
"AKA It's Called Whiskey"
"AKA 99 Friends"
"AKA The Sandwich Saved Me"
"AKA You're A Winner!"
"AKA Top Shelf Perverts"
"AKA Sin Bin"
"AKA 1,000 Cuts"
"AKA I've Got The Blues"
"AKA Take A Bloody Number"
For other television season and episode reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for a listing of those reviews!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Posted by W.L. Swarts at 2:21 PM
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