Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


December 21, 2015

, ,

Dissenting Opinions: Jessica Jones

@vitogulla takes issue with the critical hoopla over Jessica Jones.

“Some heavy business hath my lord in hand,
And I must know it, else he loves me not.”
            -William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I

It is often said that the present moment is the golden era of television, that today, because of our more permissive and progressive society, our ability to look at the past down the the rims of our glasses, our recognition of our own past stupidity has brought us to an era where narrative art has reached a new apex of unbridled creativity and experimentation, that the TV show is now our most important cultural artifact. I do not share such optimism. It would be nice to look at the past as wholly primitive and worse to look to some defined or undefined era in history as a time which we must restore. Neither view is realistic, and moreover, neither truly recognizes the complexities of a time. This brings me to the problem of Netflix's Jessica Jones.

Few television shows have been so universally celebrated in recent memory. George Marston, of Newsarama, writes that the show is “not just another hit for Marvel and Netflix, but a landmark moment for female superheroes on TV.” Jack Shepard of The Independent calls Kilgrave “the best on-screen comic book villain since Heath Ledger's Joker.” Even on Rotten Tomatoes, apparently, the show earned a 93% approval rating. What exactly makes this show good? I've heard a lot of things. Over at Forbes, Mark Hughes, in an article titled “Jessica Jones is the Best Show on TV,” after praising the performances and the adult nature of the content, can only muster: “It feels absurd to have to praise a show for treating women as regular human beings who can have lives and relationships and friendships that are written and performed as straightforwardly and normally as male characters’ are treated in other productions. But that’s the world we live in, where it’s supposedly somehow harder to create good, relatable female characters....” Or from The Atlantic: “This is a show about a survivor of rape and abuse, and although it occasionally dances around definitive language on the subject matter, its engagement with it is sensitively done and powerfully affecting.” Or IGN's Eric Goldman writes: “Jessica Jones stands out as a decidedly mature project, which immediately lets you know this is really not a show meant for kids.” Last I checked, these things alone do not for great art make. To say something deals with mature themes and topics is what makes it worth watching is a rabbit hole that we have no need to go down. (By that logic, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the best Star Wars film.) Furthermore, visual narrative is more than performances. Yes, a terrific actor can make the bad scenes better, but last I checked they do not solely make the content we are enjoying (or in many cases, aren't). There are other things that go along with it, such as writing, editing, composition, plot, character. You know, all those things unworthy of our attention. And lastly, to address the last of these critical criteria, treating women as human beings in art is not deserving of a prize: It is one of the lowest bars we can set for ourselves. We shouldn't strive for realistic female characters and all else be damned. It is a matter of realistic female characters within a quality narrative. And this is the fundamental problem with much of our current critical climate. We're so concerned with representation and cultural reverberations, the sociological side effects of meaning, that we forgot that those other pesky criteria, those other factors that we assess to determine quality. With that said, let us investigate Jessica Jones's construction and its employment of the dramatic elements to determine its quality, detached from our culture's own moral failings.

Let me begin by saying that this is by no means a thorough criticism of the show as a whole. I will only be looking at the first episode, as I'd prefer not to devote extensive time, thought, and effort to a product that I find less than stellar. Furthermore, while I did make it through a number of episodes, I care not of the claims that this is a “visual novel,” that each episode is a chapter of a larger whole, as though that excuses the lackluster skill in its craftsmanship.

With that said, one of the first things I noticed about the show was its schizophrenic approach to storytelling, which will be the bulk of my focus here. The episode begins with the typical noir voiceover, the sleazy jazz, the Mike Hammer-style PI who takes photos of cheating wives and husbands, ending with Jones shoving a client's head through a window. It's nothing new for the genre, just a mere gender swap. And I wouldn't be totally honest if I didn't say that I find that to be perfectly fine. And just that: fine. From its opening, it's clear Jessica Jones has little to add to the tradition, presenting the same old urban terrain, the same old shadow and light, the same old seedy underbelly of society. It's a convention ready for exploitation. However, I wouldn't call this revelatory or innovative. It's much more of the same. The text does not attempt to subvert the tropes of the genre or experiment with it in new, exciting ways but instead treads heavily treaded ground.

Once the episode begins, Jones is tasked with serving a subpoena. It's a narrative thread that doesn't really carry much of, or really any, of the episode, with only a few scenes devoted to it, and when the moment is finally at hand, Jones encounters not one ounce of trouble, no obstacles, nothing. So the question should be, Why does it appear at all? What relevance does it serve? Does it really do much for the character or the plot? Not really. We learn she has superhuman strength as she lifts the car, its wheels spinning fruitlessly, the douche-bag driver clearly frightened. Did we really need such a meandering scene? No, it would have been far more effective and efficient had such talents been shown to us in a far more meaningful scene. Of course, Jessica Jones is not content to provide us with one useless narrative thread but a multitude.
She spends her nights spying on Luke Cage, photographing his sexual liaisons. And this is where the show really begins to demonstrate its narrative incompetence. We're unsure why she's there, what she's doing, what her goal is—anything. It's just happening. This, it would seem, was devised in the writer's room as a tactic to create mystery, that when a viewer has no clue what the fuck is going on, we are somehow more intrigued, more invested, but the truth is we are only more frustrated. There aren't any visual clues, no telltale sign or gesture, no hint as to what is going. We might chalk it up to one of her cases, which I assume is the point, but this is dishonest, not some great twist for further revelation. It is laziness on the part of the writer, a way to create cliffhangers by purposely leading the audience astray. What makes it worse is the sudden appearance of David Tennat's Kilgrave, whispering in her ear during a brief dream sequence: another piece of unexplained backstory that fails to explain much, if anything, about our protagonist. Again, this makes the viewer wonder what exactly is going on. Why the fuck is any of this happening? Why should I care? (This problem rears its head again when Jones rushes out of Cage's apartment.)

And of course, we can't forget the other plethora of subplots crammed into the episode, from Jessica's PTSD and alcoholism, her feuding upstairs neighbors, the junkie who stumbles into her apartment, Jones's relationship with Cage, and of course, Carrie Ann Moss's affair. This is one of the show's greatest flaws. There are so many subplots and distractions that the show never feels focused, never knows what it's doing. It wants to get a message across, an idea, but it's so busy developing absolute nobodys that it's lost under its own weight. Why does the cast need be so large? Why, really, do these other characters matter? The person the audience wants to know is Jessica Jones, to follow her, to see her fail or succeed in her quest, but she is a frustrating enigma rather than an intriguing riddle. Not to mention, many of these side stories are meant to serve as comic relief, far too quirky in tone for the gritty nature of the show. Of particular note are Jessica's neighbors who are so goofy and unnecessary that it's a wonder why they appear at all. Worse still, they fail to provide any insight on the show's themes.  

Some might say that the episode finds a direction with Jones's search for Hope, but even that fails to deliver (which brings with it one of the worst lines of dialogue I have heard in some time: “This is just your PTSD”). We would expect some kind of final showdown, some sense of finality when Jones goes to rescue Hope, setting off fire alarms in a hotel, facing her fear, ready for the ensuing battle. But rather than meet any true sense of struggle, she gets a little resistance from Hope, who is no match for Jones, and they leave. That might be one of the most unsatisfying act threes I've ever seen.
Now I can see people making the argument that this is about overcoming your own struggles, learning to face your fears, blah, blah, blah. To those people, I say fuck you. There still needs to be an external conflict, a very real one, to match the internal conflict—and not some weak little human. There needs to be an actual threat, an obstacle which makes such struggles manifest.

It should go without saying that the episode ends on another dishonest twist, as Hope shoots her parents, a surprise that comes completely out of left-field, one without any set-up or hint to keep our suspension of disbelief in check. (Though the writers make sure we know that Trish Talk is a thing that will prove nominally important by the end of the episode—heavy emphasis on nominally.)

That about covers the entire episode, and it would be unfair for me to write off some of things that are decent about the show. The abuse theme is an interesting one and worthy of narrative investigation. The shots are mostly fine, and the performances are good. But there's nothing to it that's particularly impressive. It seems that most people are so determined to experience something different that they've forgotten to stop and see if it's actually good. That's probably what bothers me the most about all of this. The show is whole-heartedly mediocre, and had the critical reaction not been so overwhelmingly and absurdly effusive, I probably wouldn't have made much note of the series and dismissed it as trite. But I do have to wonder how we got to the point where we've started to mistake middling for greatness.                  

Vito Gulla is a regular contributor to and co-discussant on The Ugly Club Podcast. His fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles, Pithead Chapel, Subtopian, Mulberry Fork Review, and The Big Click. He holds MFA in creative writing from Wilkes University. He teaches English and film at Delaware County Community College and resides outside Philadelphia. You can read his blog at and follow him on Twitter @vitogulla.  


Post a Comment