TV Review: ‘Marvel’s Jessica Jones’

Marvel's Jessica Jones: A Review
Courtesy of Netflix

Two mainstays of film noir are the tough-talking dame and the cynical private eye, and one of the pleasures of “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” is that it unites both types in one thorny and fascinating character. The show, which features an exceptional performance from Krysten Ritter and sure-handed guidance from executive producer Melissa Rosenberg, is not just a contender for the title Best Marvel-related TV Property; in a supremely crowded TV scene, it is one of the year’s most distinctive new dramas.

Conforming to the hallowed traditions of on-screen private eyes through the ages, Jessica’s wisecracks and her fondness for the bottle are revealed as attempts to camouflage the pain and guilty memories that claw at the detective’s soul. Yet Rosenberg injects enough counterbalancing elements — namely, a smart pace, sharp dialogue and lively supporting performances — to prevent “Jessica Jones” from sinking too deeply into darkness.

The series actually has quite a bit on its to-do list: In addition to establishing the title character’s gumshoe bona fides, it serves up elements of Luke Cage’s origin story. Like Netflix’s “Daredevil,” the new drama is part of a cycle of Marvel-Netflix shows that will culminate in a “Defenders” team-up down the road. Possibly due to that array of commitments, “Jessica Jones” doesn’t spend a great deal of time following its namesake on garden-variety private-eye cases. That may disappoint those who read the well-regarded Brian Michael Bendis comics on which the Netflix series is based, but Bendis is a consultant on this series, and there is much to like about this take on Jessica’s superhero story, which allows her to be believably complex, flawed and vulnerable.

One could argue that this Jessica is a bit of an antihero: She makes bad decisions, keeps secrets and isn’t especially responsible. But Ritter plays her with such charismatic deftness that the character’s mistakes and scars end up being as compelling as her halting attempts to do good and right wrongs. Jessica is damaged, but her refusal to let that damage define her gives the series a core of captivating energy.

Power and control are the show’s dominant themes; without giving away too much, Jessica is recovering from a set of experiences that almost destroyed her faith in her ability to set her own course and use her own will. These elements allow Rosenberg to construct intelligent, well-crafted meditations on the ways in which women are manipulated by social pressures to conform and sacrifice parts of themselves in order to avoid being labeled troublemakers.

By the time the series opens, the detective is well past the point of caring whether people like her, a quality well-suited to Ritter’s talents, and yet Jessica’s wit and boldness make the loyalty of her few remaining friends understandable. Ritter has always had a terrific way with a pointed quip and a sarcastic bon mot, and yet Jessica is anything but brittle: In the hands of Ritter, who uses this role to display her impressive range, the character’s sadness is never far away. Under Jessica’s defensive layers is a wary woman who is determined to get some kind of rough justice for herself and others — if her guilt will let her, that is.

Ritter and Mike Colter, who plays Luke Cage, have fine chemistry together, and Colter’s nuanced take on Cage only increases anticipation for that character’s eponymous series. Carrie-Anne Moss brings prickly presence to her role as a lawyer who throws Jessica cases, and though she’s not seen too often in the first seven episodes, Moss makes the most of her screen time.

“Jessica Jones” takes its time revealing just how canny and malevolent the detective’s main opponent is, which is smart, because Kilgrave (David Tennant) is not a villain who pops by for a movie; he takes up a lot of space in the drama’s narrative and inside Jessica’s head. Once the full effects of his manipulative powers become clear, it’s easy to see why Jessica is so fond of the oblivion brought on by hard liquor. Tennant’s “Doctor Who” role allowed him to play a wide variety of emotions, but Kilgrave is the dark mirror of the Doctor; this man’s chief pleasure is in terrifying others, not helping them. It’s to the actor’s great credit that his Kilgrave is not just watchable but compelling; in the wrong hands, the character could be nothing but a one-note creep or an overly hammy sideshow. The restraint Rosenberg and Tennant bring to the chilly narcissist only makes him seem more dangerous.

What Kilgrave can do and what he’s done to Jessica is grim; there’s no doubt that this series operates in a different, more tonally complex key than the mainstream entertainment “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” or the admirable but chipper “Marvel’s Agent Carter.” That’s no knock on those shows; this drama is simply darker, more bittersweet and more sexual (in other words, this is not a show to watch with your pre-teen).

At the core of its scarred, tenacious heart, “Jessica Jones” is about how hard it is for one woman to trust the world — and herself. Rosenberg does a fine job of weaving that theme into a taut story that has the requisite chase scenes, rain-slicked streets and cliffhangers. It’s an attractive package, but it’s Jessica’s willingness, even at her lowest moments, to drag herself out of despair and fight her self-doubt that makes the drama not just relatable, but haunting.

For a discussion of “The Man in the High Castle,” “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” and “The Expanse,” check out the most recent installment of the Talking TV podcast

TV Review: 'Marvel's Jessica Jones'

(Series; Netflix, Friday, Nov. 20)

Production

Filmed in New York for Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios for Netflix.

Crew

Executive producers, Melissa Rosenberg, Liz Friedman, Jeph Loeb; director, S.J. Clarkson; writer, Rosenberg; camera, Manuel Billeter; production designer, Loren Weeks; costume designer, Stephanie Maslansky; editor, Jonathan Chibnall; music, Sean Callery; casting, Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee. 53 MIN.

Cast

Krysten Ritter, David Tennant, Mike Colter, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, Erin Moriarty, Wil Traval

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  1. Megatron says:

    I enjoyed Jessica Jones, but I do have some issues with.
    It is bit of a slow burner for the first six episodes but picks up after that. The Mary Sue factor. Why is Jessica immune to kilgrave? It is never explained.
    JJ is supposed to be the hero/anti-hero but she fails as a role model type figure with her final act of killing Kilgrave. If her only answer was to kill Kilgrave when she was in complete control than her character is no better than Simpson who wanted to kill Kilgrave. Killing Kilgrave was the easy way out for JJ and she took it (some heroine we got there). JJ could have done numerous things like breaking his jaw/ build a contraption to affect his speech etc.
    Kilgrave was dumbed down in the final episode and his test for JJ to see if she was under his control made very little sense. Kilgrave could have told Trish to slit her throats forcing JJ act for example. Overall JJ was a decent effort.

  2. the worst thing about jessica jones in the character jessica jones.

    I can’t relate to her constantly whinging about being a victim or how everyone in her life trying to help her but treating them like crap.

    what to talk about strong female characters? Carrie Anne-Moss was AMAZING. she’s fantastic. easily the best part about the show..

    Jessica Jones (the character ritter did a fantastic job) is a scumbag human being. I don’t understand why anyone would want to be in her life. Luke Cage is only hanging around because of how good the sex was he acknowledges that she’s a shitty person and tries to cut her out of his life.

    and I really didn’t like how Patsy’s cop boyfriend goes from regular normal guy to complete drug addict psycho crazy person.. so he’s mentally ill and struggling with his meds. why do you have to beat on him instead of getting him medical attention???

    David Tenant is also an amazing evil bad guy. so well written. pity they killed him, such a great actor+character

  3. Ronnie says:

    I thought at first I wasn’t going to be all that interested, but by the end of episode one, I found myself excited for it to continue, but by the end of the second, I was completely hooked. I watched all 13 episodes over 2 days.

  4. Boss says:

    Totally agree with Dave! Found it really hard to follow… And it is slow

  5. Dave says:

    very hard work to follow and understand.

  6. מגדלור says:

    I think that Netflix missed this time. Jessica Jones was way too slow and had a lot of uninteresting stuff.

  7. loco73 says:

    Great show! It was a pleasure to watch and this review is on point! After the amazing “Daredevil” the Netflix-Marvel collaboration has netted another winner with “Jessica Jones”! While different in tone and structure as well as subject matter, I actually find “Agents Of SHIELD” quite fun to watch and clearly much improved versus the first season! And I loved “Agent Carter”! As I’m not a hard-core fan of this genre, and cast my lot neither with DC or Marvel, I really enjoy the Marvel TV series, at a time when I’ve become quite weary and tired of their movies…

  8. Dr. Chew? says:

    I’m GLAAD Ellen Page still has job… Thanks to Jessica Jones!

  9. Steve Bridges says:

    Someone explain to me why every review of this sometimes overwrought, ham-fisted, but other wise good show are written by women. How retrograde is that? Most men aren’t trogledytes, we don’t need to be beaten over the head with the themes of women “consent and control.” News flash, these experiences are not unique to men over women. A fact that the show runner gives short shrift. The show is good, not great (the title sequence was a but too Pink Panther-esque) but deserves a more thorough review than that of female domination and ensuing empowerment.

    And seriously, the cockroach metaphor? AKA the epitome of anti-nuance.

    • Schach says:

      Good question, even if your asumptions about it are quite out of line, and make me feel like we haven’t seem the same show — which

      1) never implied all men needed “to be beaten over the head with the themes of women “consent and control.””, only that a) some humans don’t care about it (here the supervillain, who is a perfect example of its kind, which exists in our reality and usually uses the same set of tools, the one who doesn’t like the word “rape” for what he calls “making love”), b) others will love you but as a beautiful bird in a cage, never completely considering you as their equals or your voice having a say in any meaningful chapter (here, another highly deranged character, not the norm, the drugged supersoldier) and c) some will only love you for what you can provide them (here, Trish’s abusive mother (or the lawyer), who isn’t either meant to lecture all mothers). Next to that, we have four great male characters who don’t need any lecturing about “consent and control”, each a complete entity, very different to each other, each very important to the whole story – the noble protector (Luke), the beautiful heart (Malcolm), the sceptical wise man (the Detective), the naive nerd (Ruben), each pretty engaging and cool in its own way. I find that quite balanced, and even f I liked Daredevil a lot, far more balanced, complex and finely drawn than Netflix former attempt at mature superhero drama, whose universe seems a bit small and simplistic by comparison.

      2) explores the psychology of the victims of such abuses (and of their perpetrators, not the entire men pool) – which are unfortunately common in our society -, the deep scars that it leaves and the difficulty to really fully recover from it, especially when the narrative which surrounds you reduces you to a piece of shit in your own mind. One of the most impressive characters in Jessica Jones is Trish, the one that never lets Jessica succomb to the weight of the internalization of this oppressive narrative, which far too often puts the victims on trial. Considering how often women abuse appears on tv (sometimes without the show even realizing it, as recently illustrated by this GoT director who, exactly like Kilgrave, saw “passionnate love” between his characters, where there was “rape”) and how llittle it is there to actually consider the weight of such trauma on the victims, a show that would try to adress the issue, not to lecture the men, but for once to provide support and understanding to all the victims of abuse — which are from all genders in Jessica Jones.

      3) The abusers in jessica Jones are also from all genders, and are usually also abused. Exploring the case of power and abuse, the show doesn’t limit itself at pointing out the finger at monsters, it also shows how the abuse of power manifests in every relationship, from the apparently benine to the hideous. There’s not character in Jessica Jones who isn’t at the same time abused and abuser. Even the most inoffensive, Ruben, is a stalker to Jessica. The show doesn’t hide from the fact that our world is a constant game of power and oppression, and that the more power you have, the stronger the temptation to opress to get what you want. It just draws the line between the ones who are willing to accept their responsability and improve when confronted with their abuse, for the common good, and the ones who will always have a good rationalization to justify their right to abuse their powers.

      I don’t see as any of that finely crafted work on the matter can be considered as ham-fisted and read as a beating “over the head with the themes of women “consent and control.”

      As for the question; why aren’t there male reviewing this show, I’m not sure it’s really a thing (just done a quick check, the AV Club and DoG reviewers appear to be men), but if it where, that would be kind of weird indeed, in the same way the Supergirl scrutiny is kind of weird too.

    • Suz says:

      Apparently you do need to be beat over the head with the fact that the show doesn’t make consent vs. control a male vs. female issue. Even without mind control, Kilgrave compels Jones to cross a line and we’re meant to recognize that she crossed a line. Seriously that scene of her attempting to beat her captive into submission was far from subtle. She even acknowledges it, in case the thematic import of the sequence flew over the heads of viewers (never mind the peanut gallery of characters demonstrating varying degrees of shock and horror at the proceedings.)

      Plus Jessica’s violation of Luke Cage. She may not have used mind control like Kilgrave, but Luke explicitly calls her out. Again, consent is a complex issue but one that the show explores pretty fully. Kilgrave is the most obvious example, but there’s many overlapping power struggles on the show that range from overt abuse to more subtle microaggressions:

      Kilgrave vs. everyone
      Jessica vs. captive Kilgrave
      Jessica vs. Luke
      Simpson vs. Jessica
      Simpson vs. Trish
      Trish’s mom vs. Trish
      Hogarth vs. Wendy
      Hogarth vs. her fiance
      Hogarth vs. Jessica
      Hope vs. Jessica

      The review didn’t make it into a gendered issue, either, unless simply having been written by a woman makes it so. And I’ve seen plenty of reviews written by men as well, though I haven’t done a quantitative study on the matter.

  10. Spider says:

    Great review! Looking forward to this show!

  11. Fabian says:

    In the name of journalistic accuracy, “That may disappoint those who read the well-regarded Brian Michael Bendis comics on which the Netflix series is based…” should have read:

    “the well-regarded comics by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos.”

    Comics are a collaborative medium and for as excellent as BMB’s writing was in the ALIAS comic that Jessica Jones is based on, the Gaydos art was just as integral to its success.

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