Jessica Jones (semi-review)

Jessica Jones is one of those shows that feels like it could and should have been a lot better than it is. I watched 9 episodes (of 13) before I couldn’t take it anymore. It’s got a lot going for it – an interesting premise, a charismatic lead, and David Tennant as the villain. But it’s got a lot working against it too.

Jessica Jones is a superhero (but not that super – she has superhuman strength, but can’t fly) who prefers to keep it on the downlow. She spent several months under the influence of the mysterious Kilgrave (David Tennant) who has psychic powers that force anyone to immediately and singlemindedly carry out his suggestions … provided he’s in physical proximity to them (as we later learn, it’s apparently important that they share the same air). After a particularly traumatic "request" of his, she’s able to break free and walk away, and now he’s obsessed with her. Suffering from PTSD, she prefers to keep a low profile – withdrawn from the world – and when we meet her she’s a cynical, hard-drinking PI. Yes, this is superhero noir.

Kilgrave’s superpower is really interesting, and it makes his motives – both his narcissism and obsession with Jessica (as quite literally "the one who got away") – believable. Moreover, it works really well – with the standard allowances for Sledgehammer given that this is based on a comic book – as the show’s central metaphor, which is about Rape Culture. Kilgrave is the standin for the entitled, privileged male who expects everyone to simply jump to his commands and feels personally insulted and responds with beligerent rage when they don’t.

The best thing about Jessica Jones is the personal nature of the narrative. One gets really tired of "save the world" superheroes pitted against "destroy the world" supervillains. Jessica Jones takes Buffy‘s shtick – of using fantasy as a metaphor for ordinary problems – and ports it to the superhero genre, but does it more completely: Jessica, unlike Buffy, isn’t the center of her fictional universe. And if Jessica had been an interesting character, and if this show had had new and interesting things to say, it might have been something really special.

But Jessical isn’t an interesting character. Her drinking is a classic informed attribute. We see her drinking a lot, and other characters complain about her drinking, but we never see her unable to handle her liquor. It never gets in the way. In fact, she downs an entire bottle of wine on an empty stomach in episode 8 AKA WWJD? just before some of her more impressive feats. It is, in a word, ridiculous. If alcohol has no effect on her, she ipso facto doesn’t have a drinking problem. Her cynicism, likewise, wears thin in about 3minutes. If anything stands out about the pilot, it’s how predictable the dialogue is. It’s like listening to a forgotten hit from the 70s and hearing a line that ends with "baby:" it’s a statistical certainty that the next one ends in "maybe." Spot yourself a word here and there, and you can honestly complete most people’s sentences about a third of the time.

All of which kind of begs the awkward question: if Jessica is so thoroughly defined by her trauma, is there actually anyone in there? It would be an interesting question if the dialogue weren’t played quite so straight, but unfortunately it is. Jessica’s defensive crouch vis-a-vis the world never seems to be the wrong call, and the whole show comes across like a kind of humblebrag. Jessica can’t recover until Kilgrave is taken out because she’s just that good of a person.

If all of this sounds like I’m complaining about a cartoon for being a cartoon, then touche. I’ve never been much of a comics guy, and I know why, and so I probably should’ve known better than to get too far into this one. If you’re a regular reader of comic books, you probably want a different reviewer. What I want is a different show – a do-over. I want this premise, but with sensitively-treated characters. I want Jessica to be more than a clutch of cliches and informed attributes. I want some exploration of and reflection on her near-total lack of empathy with Luke. I want Malcolm to be a real person. I want to see more of Trish’s struggles with the fact that she doesn’t have superpowers. I would like to see more realistic fallout from having been controlled by Kilgrave. Honestly, does no one formerly under his influence go in for mind-training techniques, hardening their will, etc.? Is no one trying to replicate this power? And is there really no time for meditation on the dynamic between wanting someone for who they are on the one hand, but wanting them to do what you want of them on the other? The closest we get is Kilgrave trying to convince Jessica he wants her to come of her own free will – which no doubt he does – but this is a character ultimately incapable of appreciating the distinction, because he’s so thoroughly unused to refusal, and so the point is lost.

Like a lot of Netflix shows, Jessica Jones seems almost generated by a keyword search algorithm. In this case it’s "Dark" and "Strong Female Lead." And … that’s really all it’s got to offer you.

5 thoughts on “Jessica Jones (semi-review)

  1. Hmm. Interesting. As a very big comics fan in general, and specifically, a Jessica Jones comics fan (Alias is one of my favorite comics from the early 2000s), I really loved the series. I’m not convinced that “liking comics” is necessarily “liking badly written stuff” as you’re framing it, but then, I wouldn’t be. :)

    • Heh, fair enough. I didn’t really mean to imply that all comics are badly written so much as that all comics are unsubtle. Jessica Jones the TV show is badly written, though. The dialogue is a cliche perpetual motion machine. It’s like Babylon 5 without the complexity.

      • I would agree that on a dialogue level, Jessica Jones is nothing special. But on the structural level, I found the way Jessica approached fighting someone with mind control powers very creative and emotionally engaging. (I would also argue that it’s no worse written than any of the other Netflix shows Marvel’s produced on a dialogue level, though I haven’t watched more than one episode of Luke Cage, so I can’t say for sure.) I think the darkness was reasonably well done, but again, this show was, I tend to think, made with my particular demographic in mind (people who really like the comics of Jessica Jones).

        • Did you see Daredevil? I haven’t watched any other Netflix comics shows, but I was thinking of trying that one.

          • I’ve seen Daredevil seasons 1 and 2 and Iron Fist, and one episode of Luke Cage. I think the dialogue for Daredevil is marginally better than Jessica Jones, but I don’t think significantly. I think the structure of both seasons is incredibly flawed – there’s a real problem with the sense of time passing, and knowing what to do with the various non-Daredevil character. The villains and antagonists in the series are perhaps the most compelling parts of it, but the motivations and actions are often very incoherent in my viewing.

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