Marvel's Jessica Jones is smart, surprising and occasionally terrifying, a human tale of trauma and healing in a superhero vein. Its first episodes have more (unexploitative) sex scenes than battles, more shrugs and eye rolls than mighty kapows. But it's not the shock or novelty that gives it resonance. Jessica Jones is simply the richest, most engaging storytelling Marvel has managed outside of comic books, the first of its TV shows or films that plays like an introduction into a world of possibilities rather than the cross-media establishment of existing brand fundamentals.
It's a story about a person, struggling: with alcohol, with money, with impulsive behavior, with anger. ("I don't give a bag of dicks what kinky shit you're into, just be into it quietly," the lead rages at the family living above her.) She boasts a suite of superpowers, but she's a little embarrassed by them: Our Jessica Jones (the punkishly elfin Krysten Ritter), a miserable private investigator, can leap pretty well, and she's strong enough to stop, as she puts it, "a slow-moving car."
Friendship, too, is a fight. Her bestie, Trish (Rachael Taylor) — whose full name I'm not spilling to preserve a treat for comics readers — is a radio host and ex–childhood starlet, and she and Jessica can't negotiate, at first, how to be present for each other when one is living high and the other is almost defiantly broke-ass. Jessica's biggest struggle is one they share and one that pulls them apart even as it binds them: Both have been the victims of Kilgrave (a chilling David Tennant), the show's lead villain, a baddie who doesn't waste time seizing cosmic cubes or levitating cities in the air. His biz is mind control, Jedi mind trick–style, walking up to anyone he sees and commanding them to do what he pleases. We see him in an early episode stroll into a million-dollar Manhattan apartment and instruct the parents inside to welcome him, to cook for him, to lock those noisy kids of theirs in a closet. He's a bad guy who thinks small, which makes him scary: He's after your self rather than your world. He demands that everyone around him serve him, love him, kill for him — and, even worse, he makes them feel that they want to.
Both Jessica and Trish have been used by Kilgrave, and they cope in ways that the show, created by Melissa Rosenberg, makes unfussily parallel. Trish has made a fortress of her apartment, building a safe room and reinforcing her doors. In her off hours, she takes rigorous defense training. Jessica, though, can't be bothered to fix the broken lock on her front door. She figures that if a man can get inside her head, make her do anything, what's the point in pretending she can keep him out?
Unlike many dark dramas of this Age of Serious TV, Jessica Jones won me over by the end of the pilot. That first episode ends with a jolt but also on a moment of searing resolution: Jessica is going to get Kilgrave, an ungettable bad guy, and stop him from wrecking people in that way that she has been wrecked. (She suffers quick flashbacks to her days of mind enslavement; they're well acted but not especially compelling in themselves.) Ritter is nervy and unpredictable in the role, laying bare the heartache of a woman who attempts to frump through life, to fade into crowds and her hoodies, to hide her vulnerabilities behind a bluff of profanity and badassery. Going about her occasional day job as a P.I. (she's sort of the casual-day Kalinda of a Lockhart-Gardner here run by Carrie-Anne Moss), she'll claim to the men she comes across to have much greater powers than she actually does.
She's vulnerable but never weak, and the show makes it clear early on that her real power is investigative smarts — although, when sleuthing, she will use her superabilities to leap to a second-story fire escape. She seems like she'll have a shot at bringing down Kilgrave, especially since — like so many trollish dudes — he seems to believe she's cowed and unresourceful, that the very idea of him is enough to send her quailing. Scenes in later episodes feature support groups full of traumatized victims, but Jessica believes that her healing will come from taking action. She does so, gutsily, even as the nature of his powers makes every person she sees a possible enemy. By the second episode, even routine walks to her office or through the streets have become terribly tense.
Jessica Jones benefits from the fact that its heroine is a relatively recent comics creation — she doesn't come freighted with 50 years of accumulated character traits. Unlike the team behind Netflix's Daredevil show, Rosenberg and company don't have to account for law school, Catholic guilt, a boxing-noir backstory, ninja training and a half-dozen dead lovers. The showrunners offer more humor and less brutality than in Daredevil, and one pleasure here is discovering which incidental characters get added to the cast as the series goes on. Kilgrave's other victims come to matter as much as Jessica does, and the metaphor of their suffering proves as flexible as the one about society hating the X-Men. Sometimes it edges into rape recovery and survival guilt; for another character, it's postwar PTSD, a good man ashamed at the violence he had in him.
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Jessica Jones is based on the Alias comics by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos from the early 2000s, the first true adults-only series Marvel had ever set within the same universe as Spider-Man, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. A decade later, Alias stands as more than just one of the best, most emotional and most beautifully drawn comics of its day: It now reads as one of the most important and enduring, one in which long, discursive, multi-issue stories unfolded according to the metabolism of its central character, a talkative crank whose past slowly revealed itself over 28 issues. The pace was more radical than the sex or the dirty talk, although at the time those were the news. In the first issue, Jessica tried anal sex in a series of panels that were about her pained face rather than the ins and outs of in-and-out. "I just want to feel something different," she thinks, on the next page. Fandom freaked, a printer refused to print the issue, and even Marvel snickered, describing her lover, Luke Cage, this way in a later guide to its hundreds of characters: "A come-from-behind hero..."
On Netflix, the scene just plays as a too-soon hook-up. (Unlike in 2001, the coupling's interracial aspect — Cage is black, Jessica white — seems entirely a non-issue.) Bendis let his Jessica sink lower, and he favors extended dialogue scenes more common to the stage or old Hollywood than to comics — the show isn't as daring in this regard, but its creators do seem to get that episodic TV, even with tight continuity, is about investing in characters. We're letting these people into our lives, so we damn well should get to know them. Ritter's Jones and that occasional lover, Mike Colter's Cage, are folks you might quickly come to care for and worry over, especially as they go up against mind control, which herein is established as the scariest of all superpowers.
I'm off to watch another.
Marvel's Jessica Jones premieres on Netflix on Friday, November 20.