The character of Jessica Jones in the comic books was inseparably linked with big name superheroes in her origin story. Netflix are trying to create a TV universe that is only slightly linked with the movie universe so the question was, how were they going to create a version of Jessica Jones that remained independent in her origin story but still had an impact on the wider universe that is being formed?
The proof lies in Netflix’s most recent addition to their roster. Continuing on from a technique shown in Daredevil, only slight hints are given to a world outside of the New York suburb of Hell’s Kitchen where these two shows take place. This allows the show to focus on the titular characters and the people immediately surrounding them. The “street-level” superheroes are introduced with these two shows but, whereas Daredevil focuses on a man who has a crusade with minimal powers and his wits to best his foes, Jessica Jones focuses on the antithesis, a super strong woman who has no real cause or battles to fight.
Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is an alcoholic super-powered PI operating out of Hell’s Kitchen who has a dark background that overshadows her every action. This dark background returns in the form of Kilgrave (David Tennant) a sociopathic man who can control people’s minds who has a particular interest in Jessica for reasons that become clear as the series progresses. Helping Jessica along the way are her best friend Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), next-door neighbour Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville) and a bartender called Luke Cage (Mike Colter).
With two parts Phillip Marlowe to one part Lisbeth Salander, Jones is fantastically portrayed by Ritter. Rather than simply insisting that Jones is damaged by being moody, anti-social and reaching for the bottle in every scene, Ritter conveys a sense of deep hurt and bitterness with every fibre of her being. She conveys more pathos with a look and a gesture than most actors can do with an entire script. The acerbic private investigator is a character enshrined in the halls of storytelling and there have been, and will be, many variations on that theme for years, what is good about this series is that Ritter portrays an updated take on that trope for the modern superhero fan. With each episode we peel away another layer of Jones’ character so we can truly understand her pain and self-loathing on her own terms. To see a character grow and progress in the ways that she does in the short space of 13 episodes is a refreshing experience, one that a lot TV shows would take two or three seasons to achieve.
The supporting cast is also fantastic. You can see how in a lesser version of this show, Jones could be the typical lone-wolf misanthrope pushing the supporting cast to the side whilst we can only stare helplessly as the lead casts off those around them. The charm of the support that they swing from needing help from Jessica to helping her themselves and points in-between. What’s interesting about this series is that the supporting cast are as interesting as the lead, with their own stories and lives that form the rich tableau of the city of New York. All of these stories interconnect centering on Jones herself. This isn’t uncommon for a TV series of any style but it’s nice to see it done in this way with this TV show as it helps to build a franchise even further in a way that is respectful to the source material.
No hero is complete without a villain, though, and David Tennant is brilliant as the villain in this series. He’s everything you could want from a bad guy: charismatic, sadistic, oddly charming and incredibly chilling. With the ability to turn everyone against Jessica even when not on screen his threatening presence is felt. Kilgrave’s actual reveal isn’t until a few episodes in but because he has been built up in such an insidious way, the actual showing of the main villain is all the more tense of nerve wracking. The interplay between Jones and Kilgrave is also fantastic and it’s great to see the two actors dominate the screen any time they come into contact with each other.
But this is also where a major criticism of this series can be drawn from. Rather than having the interactions between the main and the villain kept to a minimum whilst the fallout from Kilgrave’s actions being the centre of the show we a treated to an overabundance of lengthy back and forth between Jones and Kilgrave which mean that the show does start to flip flop near the middle.. With the build up towards a large scale confrontation between Kilgrave and Jones looming the tension should be building in that corner whilst other things rise and fall. But, because the relationship between the hero and the villain is the main focus of the show, the tension of this final confrontation rises and falls with the show meaning that the pacing slows down occasionally which can be off-putting.
Another criticism can be aimed at the amount of characters that disappear from the screen for too long. The focus is, obviously, on Jessica but there are quite a few stories set up and left dangling for a few episodes before they are picked up again. This is something that Daredevil dealt with quite well as it only had a few core characters to focus on and could, therefore, spend longer amounts of time dealing with those characters. Jessica Jones is a show with a larger supporting cast and, therefore, more stories to tell but it can be a little frustrating when you want to see more of a character but their story isn’t continuing any further.
Despite these criticisms, Jessica Jones is very good. It’s a smart modern detective drama with roots firmly planted in its noir setting but also in its comic book background. Full of heart and with a very good cast that are all a delight to watch, one can only hope it gets renewed for the second season because it certainly deserves one.