‘Jessica Jones’ does the impossible

Photo: Marvel / Netflix

The new series ‘Marvel’s Jessica Jones’ hit Netflix last week to universal critical acclaim. In this review, I’ll tell you why I love this groundbreaking show and what it manages to do that nothing else in the genre has done before.

Who run the world

I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t know very much about Jessica Jones, the Marvel character in general or this series, before sitting down for the first of a couple of binge-watching sessions. Several reviews have called the series a slow burn — and it’s true, most of the high-octane action takes place in the second half of the season. But the mystery and suspense drew me in almost immediately.

Though it has a wonderfully overt noir tone and stylistic touches that call back to a bygone era of private-eye dramas, ‘Jessica Jones’ comes out of the gate with a refreshing take on modern life — with a twist, of course — but without any of the usual hangups, limitations, or fakery that we’ve come to expect from TV.

Let’s start with Krysten Ritter, whose breakout performance in the underrated ‘Don’t Trust The B’ remained memorable long after that show was cancelled too soon and became one of the main reasons ‘Jessica Jones’ got on my radar in the first place. Her brilliant portrayal of Jones is uncompromising — a multifaceted, complicated character who found herself after an accident with super strength and the ability to fly, sort of (“it’s more like jumping and falling”, she says) but is also hard-drinking and a victim of violence, torture, and her own demons. She’s sincere and sensitive at times, closed-off and aggressive at others.

There are a few excellent male roles in the series, including Mike Colter as the stone-cold and rock-hard — but also caring and kind-hearted — Luke Cage, and of course the masterful David Tennant, whose Kilgrave might just be the most sophisticated and truly unsettling villain in any story of any kind that I’ve seen in recent memory. His ability to control minds is the stuff of nightmares.

But what sets ‘Jessica Jones’ apart from past shows is that it’s expressly feminist. This is a show that proudly features women at the forefront in nearly every way. Jessica and her confidant and sister-by-way-of-adoption Trish, played by Rachael Taylor, comprise a crime-fighting team by the end of the season that leaves any traditional gender stereotype you can think of in the dust. Even the music blaring on Trish’s headphones in a final showdown scene — “Demons” by Sleigh Bells — is a loud expression of undeniable woman-powered power.

The series also calls out real-life sexism through Kilgrave, who in his monstrous and creepy demeanor repeatedly tells Jessica to “smile”, an allegory laid bare in a stark way that resonates with anyone who has ever heard the same.

One of the most unapologetically modern aspects of the show is its approach to sexuality — front-and-center and inclusive in a way I’m told is unprecedented for Marvel. There are at least three fully-developed lesbian characters, including the icy and powerful lawyer Jeri Hogarth (who was reimagined as a woman for this series) along with her wife and mistress, all of whom are realistic characters with real problems, none of whom are props or boilerplate templates.

That’s on top of the actual sex scenes found throughout the series, which aside from being remarkable for existing in the first place, exhibit an authentic sort of maturity and nuance rarely found in entertainment. Add it all up and you’ve got a show that pushes all the right boundaries, not in the name of sensationalism, but realism. It’s fresh, bracing, and captivating.

Reality bites

The realism of ‘Jessica Jones’ runs through its veins, all the way to its core. Let me put it bluntly, as Jessica would: A lot of goddamn awful shit happens. There’s not much in the way of happy endings, and about 3/4 of the way through the season, I likened it to a Shakespearean tragedy. Spoiler alert: Jessica survives, but plenty of those around her, including many she sets out to protect, don’t.

Part of what makes the Jessica Jones character so compelling to me is that she’s deeply flawed. She tries to do the right thing, cares about those with kind hearts, and can kick ass and take names with the best of them — but she’s made a lot of mistakes in her life. Mistakes that still haunt her every day. And she makes more heartbreaking mistakes throughout the season that cost lives.

Of course, it’s hard when you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder — and the show confronts the complexities of PTSD. There are recurring flashes and shifts throughout each episode as Jessica recalls details from her past that haunt her, temporarily clouding her mind or breaking her down.

And then there’s the subject of rape. The series doesn’t depict rape on-screen in poor taste like ‘Game of Thrones’ — there’s nothing gratuitous or exploitative to be found here. Instead, it handles the topic much more maturely, presenting it as a component of Jessica’s life that continues to affect her and that she talks about openly and genuinely, as many survivors do.

It’s all part of a broader theme of domestic abuse that Jessica and others have suffered at the hands of Kilgrave, who uses his powers to enable and prolong the kinds of situations that are too familiar in our own real-world storylines.

Jessica Jones doesn’t think of herself as a hero, but she’s the “antihero we need, because complicated characters are real characters”. Even through the misery and the often agonizing failure, she finds a way to persevere — and sometimes win. I can relate to that, and I’m pretty sure you can, too.

An inviting thriller

It’s always been difficult for me to get into superhero stories or comics. I’ve lived what you could call a “comic adjacent” life. A lot of my friends and the crowds I hang with have always been into comics, and they could tell you everything you’d need to know about the Marvel Universe. But while I appreciate that the genre is so meaningful to so many, I never shared the same passion.

That’s why I was intrigued by the show’s creators referring to ‘Jessica Jones’ as “a psychological thriller first and a superhero show second”. A few of the central characters have powers, but there are no costumes, no fictional worlds. The story happens in modern-day, actual New York. On the surface, Jessica still appears like the rest of us. She’s human, inside and out. Just “gifted”.

As I found out, you don’t really need to know anything about Marvel to enjoy ‘Jessica Jones’, and that’s a quality that makes it accessible to newcomers. You will learn the essentials of Jessica’s story through a series of flashbacks as the season progresses. And as you become more invested in the series, you can always read up on the backstories and the origins of ‘Alias’ as you see fit.

The show provides the viewer a wealth of sociological and psychological study, investigative drama, and hard-hitting action for days. But if you’re anything like me, you might also find it gets you to care about stuff you never cared about.

‘Jessica Jones’ is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe of television series that will eventually culminate with ‘The Defenders’, a super-group of characters from four different shows. If you want more ‘Jessica’, you’ll want more of all of those intertwined stories. I was practically oblivious to ‘Daredevil’ before I watched this series, but now, guess what? I’m gonna go back and watch it.

It’s a testament to the exceptional quality, intensity, and meaningful substance of ‘Jessica Jones’ that it can take fair-weather observers of a genre and help catapult them into fandom — not to mention, inspire me to write my first TV review in a year. And that was by my own free will.

Season 1 of ‘Marvel’s Jessica Jones’ premiered November 20, 2015, on Netflix. All 13 one-hour episodes are currently available for streaming.

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