(SPOILERS) I felt no great urgency to investigate Jessica Jones. I’d been underwhelmed by the first season of Daredevil and, despite a common refrain that Jessica got it right where Daredevil had faltered, I really needed to be convinced. I eventually was convinced, but it took about seven episodes to get there.
Does that make up for the rather listless, Daredevil-but-with-better-characters pace and content during the first half of the season? Well, kind of, since it’s what ends up sticking in the mind that counts. The strange part is, even though Jessica Jones mostly rather flounders until David Tennant’s Kilgrave shows up proper and starts doing really nasty things repeatedly, I wasn’t overly taken with the ex-Doctor Who’s performance. I mean, he’s obviously doing something right, because Kilgrave’s a winner on the page and works well on screen, and Tennant’s more than capable of turning the charm on and off at will. Too frequently, though, he summoned the casual patter (but minus the mockney) that made his Doctor so aggravating. I guess it just helps that here you’re supposed to want to punch him.
The dread regarding Kilgrave is intended to grow steadily during the opening tranche of episodes, yet it doesn’t quite come together that way thanks to the languid pace. That, and when we do meet him he’s just David Tennant in a purple suit; it’s only several further episodes down the line that he begins to have some bite.
Add in some annoying filler characters (Eka Darville’s Malcom is a perpetual source of irritation, particularly when he sobers up and starts a victim support group; Colby Minifie’s Robyn is an arresting presence but not in a good way, a junior Sandra Bernhard when it comes to frightening facial contortions) and a selection of identikit ones (it takes a while to distinguish between the triumvirate of blondes that are Rachael Taylor’s Trish, Susie Abromeit’s Pam and Erin Moriarty’s Hope) and you begin to worry that/wonder if Netflix/Marvel are going to stick to the same wholly unremarkable template for each of its Defenders. Coming after Daredevil, there’s a clear feeling of formula (get to a certain point in the run, reveal the villain, reveal the hero’s backstory, etc.) As with Daredevil, it’s evident that pruning the show to three quarters, or a third, of its length would make all the difference.
Krysten Ritter’s an instant hit as Jessica, though, in a way Charlie Cox’s more measured characterisation couldn’t hope to be. Occasionally there’s a bit too much Buffy to her quips, but at least she doesn’t go all meta on us. Mike Colter and Carrie-Anne Moss are similarly strong as Luke Cage and Jessica’s ethics-free legal contact Jeri Hogarth respectively (I have to admit; I didn’t even recognise Rebecca De Mornay as Trish’s mum). Less successful is the TV budget psycho-Captain America meets pill-popping-Bourne Legacy Will Simpson (Wil Traval), who quickly becomes tiresome with his perma-hopped up/hyped up/looney tunes act.
I wasn’t so convinced by the quality of the direction on the show, either. Generally, there was a noticeable lack of panache when it came to the action (or did they just want the action to appear non-spectacular, to emphasis the grittiness of the proceedings? If so, it backfired, as the uninspired camerawork and editing sometimes made it seem plain cheap) and atmosphere (at least until the later stages). There’s a scene in the fourth episode where a Kilgrave-controlled kid starts insulting Jessica on the street. It’s supposed to be creepy, but it’s merely flat.
However, despite my reservations regarding Tennant, Kilgrave is a suitably unfettered, no-holds-barred villain, one at home in this down-and dirty-locale, and the writers find interesting things to do with a character who can have anything he wants simply by demanding it, unlimited by any annoying morals or pesky scruples. Being unsure how far he will go at any moment keeps the season edgy and intriguing, and it begins to raise its game in the sixth episode when we see him “winning” at poker and buying a (Jessica’s parents’) house. Come the seventh, and there’s a terrific confrontation in a police station with officers’ guns placed at members of both each other’s and the public’s heads under threat of mass slaughter at Kilgrave’s command. Jessica Jones hits pretty much an uncompromising home run from there on. It’s certainly a show that doesn’t stint on the blood, gore and general grue.
The twistiness did remind me of a Whedon series at times, but, considering showrunner Melissa Rosenberg was one of Dexter’s guiding hands, the through line with the playing on sympathies, loyalties and sides is readily apparent, from flirting with whether Kilgrave has good reason for being so deranged (abuser/abused) to turning the same on its head when we meet his parents (a particularly fine performance from Michael Siberry as Albert Thompson, who I know best as Bingo Little in the Fry and Laurie Jeeves and Wooster). The ninth and tenth episodes are the highlights, with Kilgrave right where Jessica wants him until he inevitably turns the tables. After that the energy couldn’t help but peter off somewhat, although it still maintained a much stronger draw than in the first half.
Some of the themes in the show are rather laboured (Jessica doesn’t think she’s a good person, but she’s trying to be, and the dialogue goes round and round on whether to kill Kilgrave to the point of cerebral fatigue; the Kilgrave as psycho-ex metaphor mostly works, although occasionally it slips into consciously leading by the nose, such that the commentary on rape/consensual sex – “How am I supposed to know?” – is so far from finessed, it conjures memories of Buffy/Spike in Season Six of that show).
It also suffers the same malaise as Daredevil in failing to hide its lack of interest in the non-hero/villain characters (thus it’s down to the actors to drag something memorable from such roles, which a few, notably Robin Weigert and Clarke Peters, do). That leads to the circularity of, in particular, Malcolm repeating exactly the same inanities whenever he pops up during the course of any given episode (and what, he’s going to be Jessica’s secretary now? Say it’s not so. I guess at least he isn’t Foggy Nelson, so small mercies and all that).
Based on the first half of the season, Jessica Jones looked to be fairly middling fare, but during the last half there were times it bordered on must-see event TV; as such, it definitely speaks to the need to have a motivated, distinct and pro-active Big Bad dictating the course of events. It also helps not to dress your heroes and heroines in silly costumes if you’re hell-bent on emphasising a real-world milieu.