Monday, December 14, 2015

Jessica Jones

I am of an age where I refer to graphic novels as “comic books” and don’t look back. I know good work is done in that field, but it doesn’t interest me much. To me, graphic novels deny the reader the ability to build his own sets and cast his own actors, while not bringing either to life as well movies and television. In that way they’re the worst of both worlds. I’m old. Before you read more, get off my lawn.

That’s not to say there aren’t great stories told and characters created in the graphic field. Case in point: Netflix’s Jessica Jones. Jay Stringer apparently binged the entire series between meals and appealed in Facebook for people to discuss it with him. We were in a show hole so we obliged him, at a more leisurely pace. (I never did hear more of it after I let him know we finished. He’s probably already forgotten he watched it.) Since he appears to have lost interest, here’s what I have to say about Jessica Jones:

This is how to tell a superhero story

I’ll bend over backward to avoid spoilers, as the show is still new and people with lives and other interests are still catching up. Suffice to say, it’s a universe not unlike our own, except a crew of people with superhuman powers saved the world from some potentially catastrophic event. (They saved at least New York, which is the same thing if you’re from New York.) Now they’ve retreated to more normal lives out of the limelight, as they are feared/resented by normal folk.

Jessica (Krysten Ritter) and her peers aren’t of the Aqua Man / Hulk / Captain America / Fantastic Four ilk. They’re superficially normal people who have a quality or two beyond the abilities of human beings. Jessica has superhuman strength. That’s as much as I’ll say about the “gifts.” Half the fun of the show is watching the reveals. They’re not where, or what, you’d expect. They’re also not flashy. You could interact with any of these people and not notice anything out of the ordinary unless they wanted you to.

That’s the universe. What the show is about is pain. The badly damaged characters all carry their scars in their own ways. Everyone works around the hands they’ve been dealt; going at them head on would be too painful. Even the villain (David Tennant, wonderfully oily and childish by turns) has a history that demands empathy. (One critic said the series is a romance when viewed through Kilgrave’s eyes. That critic should never be left alone with a woman.)

Even though every scene and every decision made by a character is one way or another a reaction to the pain he or she carries, the series never becomes nihilistic or maudlin. Everyone manages. It’s as if they all believe in their way that God never gives them more than they can handle, but they wish He had a somewhat lower idea of their abilities. Jessica in particular has a sardonic wit that is one of the bows the show makes toward traditional PI stories. (The opening theme and credits also work well in this regard, as do the voice-overs that begin and end the season.) The pace is brisk enough to keep everyone from dwelling too much on their demons, but never so fast you can’t appreciate all that’s happening to the characters. If something strikes you odd, hang in there, but pay attention. You’ll get what you need to make sense of it before too long.

That may be my favorite thing about Jessica Jones: the creators’ respect for their audience’s intelligence. Creator Melissa Rosenberg has an impressive resume and knows how to leverage her experience. Writers would do well to study how to provide no more exposition than is needed, and no earlier than is necessary. It’s an impressive feat.

The most fun—for me, at least—is how this show must make men’s rights advocates’ heads explode. Woman are in charge both in front of and behind the camera. In addition to Rosenberg,
writers include Jenna Reback, Dana Baratta, and Liz Friedman; S.J. Clarkson, Uta Briesewitz, and Rosemary Rodriguez are among the directors. In front of the camera, Jessica is realistically badass, though her friend Trish (Rachael Taylor) is even stronger in her own way. Even the “victim,” Hope, steps up in an unexpected way. They do whatever it takes, to whatever degree necessary. They don’t ask permission and they don’t apologize.

Kudos to Netflix for allowing Rosenberg and her crew to create something television has not seen before. Let’s hope things continue apace in Season Two and more content provider get the message.


Unknown said...

"The most fun—for me, at least—is how this show must make men’s rights advocates’ heads explode."

-Why exactly would it make our heads explode?
We aren't against female characters, writers, directors etc.
This is just a lame strawman argument by someone who has no idea what they are talking about.

Dana King said...

"-Why exactly would it make our heads explode?"
For many of the same reasons mra's heads exploded over the strong female characters in Mad Max: Fury Road. To call this a straw man is disingenuous at best, most likely deceitful, and quite possibly a bare faced lie. I've done research into the men's rights movement (which I refuse to dignify with capital letters) for an upcoming book, and I've learned many of the code terms. I've also been to your web site. mra's are fine with "female characters, writers, directors etc" so long as they remember their places, which is to support the male hierarchy.

Thanks for giving me fodder for a new blog post. I'll try to post iot before your mom shuts off the Internet in her basement.

Mike Dennis said...

Great insights into a great series, Dana.

I must admit, though, even though I'm not a "men's rights advocate" (whatever they are), my head definitely does not explode at seeing all these "strong women" (are there any other kind?) on camera, behind the camera, and on top of the camera. I don't think the creators of this show have a particular axe to grind against men, as opposed to, say, SEX AND THE CITY, in which man-bashing was an absolute requirement in virtually every scene of every episode. The men in JESSICA JONES are fairly portrayed, IMHO.

JJ also doesn't qualify as a "chick flick", simply because of the presence of men speaking in complete sentences, as opposed to, say, AUGUST OSAGE COUNTY, where I'm hard-pressed to remember even one scene in which a man actually appeared.

Anyway, we're about halfway through JJ, and I'm sure it's going to get better from here. We're already looking forward to season 2.

Call me what you will. said...

Website. You mean Banes YouTube content? Which I doubt very little you have looked up given your response.