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.