No one could accuse Netflix and Marvel of not making an impact with Jessica Jones. Krysten Ritter’s heroine is already widely loved, David Tennant’s mind controlling villain Kilgrave is praised as Marvel’s best ever, and its bold challenge to rape culture and foregrounding of the experience of an abuse victim have drawn justified praise. It is also impressively stylish. Indeed, I could so easily now be writing a fawning review.
Instead, I am going to say Jessica Jones doesn’t really work. Its great elements are compiled haphazardly, and its good ideas get swamped by its dull and indifferent ones.
At the root of these problems is the show’s attempt to fill 13 hours. For all its thematic complexity Jessica Jones actually has quite a simple plot. Part of what makes Kilgrave menacing is how mundane he is. He doesn’t want to rule the world – just one woman. That is a clever conceit but it creates problems when stretched. To see why contrast Jessica Jones with Daredevil, the previous Marvel/Netflix team up. It was a more conventional superhero story. So there was plenty to watch as the hero peeled back the layers of the villain’s organisation and plan. In Jessica Jones there is just Kilgrave. And the writers don’t know how to create enough variety and structure into this confrontation to fill a whole series.
So they wind up derailing their own story to prevent it reaching its climax in under 13 hours. That results in a lot of repetition, contrivances and filler. Points that were made effectively – such as Kilgrave’s cruelty to strangers – are remade for no good reason. At various point characters do things which are explicable only as ways to extend the proceedings, which robs them of plausibility. And a lot of space is given to uninteresting sub-plots that leech momentum out of the main story. Really who cares whether a lawyer who Jessica sometimes works for is divorcing her wife? The result of all these efforts to stop the series reaching its crescendo too early is that it never does. Tension ratchets up and down more or less at random, and there’s precious little forward momentum. Indeed I spent the final chapter waiting for rather than anticipating the end. Or put another way watching it became a chore.
Most of this could have been avoided if the series had been eight episodes long like Agent Carter. Even trimming it back to ten episodes would probably have made a sizeable difference.
There may well be some merit to Oliver Sara at Vulture’s suggestion that the show should swim against current trends and adopt a ‘case of the week’ structure. It would be possible to have Kilgrave gradually emerge from these individual cases in a way analogous to how Moriarty hovers in the background of Sherlock even when he is not the main antagonist. You could avoid episodes full of dead space if they each had their own arc. That in turn probably would have allowed the series to expand to the network TV standard run of 22 episodes. Either way, Netflix dropped the ball by commissioning 13 episodes.
I would incline to trimming the series because expanding it would not solve the show’s other major problem: its supporting characters. Many of whom would have been best left out altogether. The most obvious candidates for the cut are Jessica’s comic relief neighbours, who jar with the tone of the rest of the show and whose inclusion seems to mystify even critics who gave it otherwise glowing reviews. Fortunately, they occupy a modest amount of screen time. A bigger problem is Sgt Will Simpson. He’s depicted by someone who’s been to the Brett Dalton School of delivering one-note tough guy performances yet the writing of his character is all over the place. I think he’s supposed to be aggravating and winds up being so. Just probably not in the way the writers intended. Removing all his lines and all the scenes centred on him would have been a good step towards getting proceedings moving more smoothly. Of course the deficiency of the secondary characters is made all the more obvious by how good the hero and villain are.
That’s the tragedy of Jessica Jones. There’s an excellent show buried inside the limp one that’s currently showing on Netflix. The first hour gripped me sufficiently hard that even as grew disgruntled with the rest of the series, there was no question of not finishing it. And the episode where Jessica faces the dilemma of whether to try and change her abuser is one of the best hours of TV I have seen this year. But these glimmers of greatness are too few and far between. The show meanders its way into a rut it is unable to escape from and ultimately winds up as Marvel’s weakest TV project to date.