Marvel’s Jessica Jones announces its noir intentions from the get-go. From the slinky music and impressionistic animation of the opening credits, there’s no doubt what kind of series this is going to be, and the (naturally) hard-boiled narration of series star Krysten Ritter sets the stage for the dark, sardonic world she occupies. Thankfully, the narration can best be described as “unobtrusive.” It’s there because that’s how noir works, but the show is otherwise self-aware enough not to cling to the expectations of its genre. Sure, Jessica works behind a glass door with “Alias Investigations” typewritten across it, but this also the type of noir in which Jessica asks someone why they thinks she lives alone, and their response is, “Because people don’t like you?”
Created by Melissa Rosenberg (who put in time on shows as varied as Dexter, Birds Of Prey, and Party Of Five in addition to writing all five Twilight movies), Jessica Jones avoids a villain-of-the-week structure by having Jessica essentially work on the same case for the duration of the first season. There’s no onslaught of new superpowered (or “gifted,” in the parlance of the show) opponents for the heroine to face each episode; in fact, despite her super strength and impressive vertical leap, Jessica would strongly object to being called a heroine at all. Her brief attempt to use her powers for good resulted in her being taken under the sway of Kilgrave (David Tennant, all wild-eyed menace here), whose mind control tactics caused her to commit a terrible crime that the show slowly teases out.
It’s his apparent return that kick-starts the action on the show. A missing college co-ed case turns out to be more complicated than Jessica initially assumes, and forces her to reconsider her distaste for heroism. Reasonably content to drink her way through her PTSD and take PI cases from high-powered attorney Jeryn Hogarth (played with admirable steely ferocity by Carrie-Anne Moss, long marooned after the Matrix movies), Jessica is soon faced with the prospect of her own responsibility for taking care of Kilgrave.
Along her ambivalent path towards heroism, she looks out for her junkie neighbor (Eka Darville), flirts with the handsome Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and slowly reconnects with her foster sister, Trish (Rachael Taylor). If early episodes are a little too focused on the Cage romance, the show really starts to cook once Jessica and Trish start working together on the Kilgrave case. Trish, a former child star and current celebrity radio show host, is the only one who knows everything that happened to Jessica. Initially introduced as the disapproving straight arrow friend, she’s quickly revealed to be something much more interesting, despite her lack of superpowers. She’s also positioned as the moral center of the show, which proves to be vital for Jessica, who’s unsurprisingly given to a bleak pessimism.
It should be said: Jessica Jones is a deeply feminist show, all the way down to its depiction of sex, which is pointedly empowering for the women. More than that, its central conflict is its lead character struggling to maintain her agency against an abusive man. All the people in positions of power (minus Kilgrave) are women, and the story of the missing co-ed extends beyond the mystery of her disappearance. Trish is by no means content to sit on the sidelines of the action, and Hogarth seems to spend all of her time conducting important business meetings in impeccably tailored dresses and confidently seducing her assistant. Moss has a way with a withering putdown, though Ritter gets her fair share, even if the show doesn’t take full advantage of her comedic side. She’s compelling as Jessica, if a little trapped in the confines of the role, which calls too often for her to play the same couple of notes of redemption, relapse, reboot.
All of which makes it frustrating that the show seems so loath to dive into what Kilgrave’s mind control activities involving Jessica and other women really mean. It takes a while for the word “rape” to be said out loud, and the conversation doesn’t extend beyond that one scene. The show’s timidity regarding the implications of what its main villain does is disappointing, particularly for a series that otherwise so fully embraces a female perspective.
Still, the slow build toward a confrontation between Kilgrave and Jessica is tensely effective, hanging over everything else she does. Tennant’s face is barely seen on camera for the first couple of episodes, but rather than make his absence seem pointed, the tactic works as a way to build up Jessica’s dread about his return.
While the series clearly takes place in the same universe as Daredevil, complete with brutal violence and punches that really land, the fight scenes themselves have a very different feel. Jessica’s too strong to lose fistfights, and she partakes in them with a weary sense of resignation that people are wasting her time trying to resolve problems this way.
All of this adds up to a show that is very certain of its voice and tone. Streets are always covered with a foot of grimy snow, Jessica doesn’t own a garment that doesn’t have a hole or three in it, and every drawer or cabinet contains a bottle of booze or a pistol. If Jessica Jones can start fully exploring its own story, it’ll become the neo-noir superhero epic it’s striving to be.
Created by: Melissa Rosenberg
Starring: Krysten Ritter, David Tennant, Carrie-Anne Moss, Mike Coltin, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville
Debuts: Friday, November 20 on Netflix
Format: Hour-long superhero drama
Seven episodes watched for review
For binge-viewers, reviews by Caroline Siede will run from Friday, November 20 through Sunday, November 22. For those watching Jessica Jones at a more relaxed pace, reviews by Oliver Sava will run twice weekly.