“Jessica Jones,” Season 1
For a while now, I have been supremely turned off by superhero fare. It’s not that I want to be, and there have certainly been entries into the broad genre I’ve enjoyed and even loved, but most of what I’ve bothered myself to watch has been tedious and formulaic. Netflix released the first season of Marvel’s “Daredevil” earlier this year, and it defied my expectations tenfold. The series was captivating, interested in actually exploring its central villain for real, and more than just popcorn entertainment. This November, Marvel went ahead and teamed up with Netflix again for the inaugural season of “Jessica Jones,” a show that actually takes things a step further in my eyes.
I’ll start of by clearly announcing that I have zero familiarity with the Marvel universe. I spent no time reading comics or investigating media of the sort in my childhood, so there simply isn’t any nostalgia factor for me. I also care very little about adherence to source material in general so long as everything holds up; when working across different mediums and related time constraints, it simply isn’t possible to make shot-for-shot incarnations of the written word. With all of my disclaimers safely tucked away, it’s time to discuss how goddamned good “Jessica Jones” is.
The series follows the life of its titular character, portrayed with the perfect pitch of disaffection and complexity by Krysten Ritter. Like me, many of you may have first met Ritter during her previous “superhero” role as Apology Girl.* You know, the one where Walter White watches carelessly as she suffers and the rest of us looked on in jaw-dropped horror. Jessica Jones is a private investigator, and we quickly learn that she’s quite good at what she does. She’s willing to use any tactic necessary to get the dirt she needs for a client, and one of those tactics happens to include the deployment of her superhuman strength.
Jessica is right in the middle of what seems like the routine disappearance of a college girl who likely ran off with her new boyfriend when she realizes something far worse is amiss. Her former captor and arch-rival Kilgrave (the amazing David Tennant), whom she thought dead, is back on the scene, and he has the girl she’s been hired to track. Tragedy strikes at once, and we quickly learn that Kilgrave’s power lies in his own super power: mind control.
Jessica has been under Kilgrave’s spell before to devastating effect, and she eventually accepts the assistance of her talk show host bestie Trish (Rachael Taylor) and a similarly powerful bartender named Luke Cage (Mike Colter). Many other characters come into the fold, and their motivations in certain situations remain quite unclear until the dust has already settled. Among them are Carrie-Anne Moss’s cold-hearted lawyer Jeri, Wil Traval’s cop Will Simpson, and a few weirdo neighbors. The journey from start to finish of this season is a fascinating one, with pieces moving all across the board and new details often right under our noses the whole time. One enormous factor in Jessica and Kilgrave’s relationship is cleverly disclosed very early on if one happens to notice it, but I sure didn’t.
There are a ton of things I loved about the first season of “Jessica Jones.” The actors in major roles are almost uniformly good. I mentioned how wonderful Krysten Ritter is earlier, and she has a whole lot to do in order to make the central character work. Jessica Jones represents the first true woman at the heart of a Marvel offering, and it’s pretty fantastic that she has such depth. Her actions are not always morally just. She isn’t even always sure what direction she is going to take when handling a problem. One scene in particular has Jessica listening to Trish’s words and heart when considering how to handle a situation, but Jessica in no way reacts how she would have if this material was written by a weaker team. Ritter handles all of this with aplomb.
I need to take a moment to heap the same praise on David Tennant. The absolute audacity and sheer force with which he portrays Kilgrave is a lot of fun to watch even as it is also terrifying and unpredictable. He’s a monster, but he’s also humanized in strange and sometimes subtle ways. One minute he’s dryly funny and familiar, and the next moment I found myself realizing the trick that the show was pulling on me. Just like the countless characters Kilgrave coerces, I was under his spell for a moment. That’s pretty fucking cool.
Everything in “Jessica Jones” simply feels a step above anything Marvel has tried previously. It shares a lot of similarities to “Daredevil”–a great show in its own right–but then, for me, goes ahead and ups the ante with its attention to detail. The show has a distinctly noir feel right down to the constant nighttime settings, Jessica’s shitty apartment that spends multiple episodes in complete shambles, and the copious amount of drinking we see on screen. Even some of the comparably minor characters are imbued with a sense of purpose and a memorable trait or two, and sometimes these traits even add up to something more.
I hope both “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” prove to be highly successful ventures for both Marvel and Netflix, and as a result I want to see more comic book adaptations like this. While I’m probably not exactly a member of the target audience for Marvel’s creations, these shows hooked me hard anyway. There’s no need to dumb things down all of the time, and mass audiences may find they agree if given the opportunity. I’ll be happy as long as every over-hyped and paint-by-numbers release in the Captain America or Thor series gets a corresponding entry into the genre like “Jessica Jones.” If that’s the case, I’m totally on board with all of these heroes sticking around a while.
*IMDb has revealed to me that “Breaking Bad” was not actually my first encounter with Ritter, as she totally played Lucy on “Gilmore Girls.”