Jessica Jones Is a Stylish, Striking Neo-Noir Drama for Adults

Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones. Photo: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

Yes, Jessica Jones is as good as you’ve heard. Better yet, it’s enjoyable even if you’ve never heard of the main character and know nothing of the comics it’s based on.  

I’m definitely part of that demographic, and on top of that, I liked the show even though I’ve been suffering from a persistent case of superhero fatigue over the past few years (symptoms include crankiness, reflexive eye-rolling at the Marvel logo, and a tendency to work laments about the death of the mid-budget adult drama into reviews that don’t need them). I have it on good authority that the series, which was adapted by Melissa Rosenberg from the comic by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, is a visually as well as tonally faithful adaptation of their 2001–2004 MAX comics series, but you needn’t be aware of that to watch the show. I wasn’t, but the pilot drew me in immediately, and subsequent episodes maintained their grip on my attention even though it’s a much smaller-scaled, slower-paced, more atmospherically driven program than anything else in the superpowers-and-tights vein. I’m almost reluctant to get into the nuts and bolts of the real plot, which doesn’t start to reveal itself until the second episode, because even though a lot of you already know it, I liked the feeling of not knowing exactly what I was looking at from scene to scene and having the show very carefully fill in the blanks. 

It might also make a fascinating companion piece to CBS’s Supergirl, because both series foreground the emotional and social experiences of women in a male-dominated genre (and by extension, a male-dominated world), and use genre tropes to make their points. If you didn’t know going into it that Jessica Jones was a superhero story, you might assume it was a psychological drama about the title character, a private eye, wrapped inside a crime thriller/neo-noir world of neon signs and long, dark streets, shot by Manuel Billeter with maximum attention paid to visual obstructions and blocks of darkness, and scored with subdued, jazzy music by 24’s longtime composer, Sean Callery.

When we first meet Jessica, owner and sole employee of the Alias detective agency, she’s making her monthly nut like Jack Gittes in Chinatown, taking incriminating photos of trysting couples for use in infidelity-driven divorce cases. There’s world-weary voice-over narration, and Jessica’s surly demeanor and snapped-off insults align her with the hard-boiled hero tradition. We’ve seen this kind of character before many times throughout pop-culture history, nearly always played by somebody like Humphrey Bogart or Bruce Willis: a loner who’s clearly sitting on a devastating personal trauma that hasn’t been revealed to us yet, and whose sourness is a defense mechanism meant to cauterize any possibility that she might get close to other people and make herself vulnerable.

When Jessica is hired by a Nebraska couple to locate a gifted student athlete who’s disappeared, what Roger Ebert once called “the gradually expanding flashback” starts to play out; through encounters with other major characters, nearly all of them female, we discover that many powerful and gifted women in this story have been traumatized by a character named Kilgrave (David Tennant), a mysterious, almost demonic-seeming figure who was presumed dead by Jessica. Kilgrave seems to have the mesmerizing power of a cult leader, and his chief characteristic is his refusal to take no for an answer.

This is as good a point as any to warn that this is not in any way, shape, or form a story for kids. You probably see phrases like that applied to all manner of PG-13 entertainment, but it really applies here; this an R story not just because Jessica is a sexually frank woman of appetites who has passionate sex in the pilot with a bar owner she’s spying on, Mike Colter’s Luke Cage. In place of the Marvel usual, which adds violence and sadism and mild profanity and other hints of “edge” to what are essentially juvenile stories, this one has a genuinely adult sensibility. It’s clear that Jessica is suppressing and then working through a trauma of a sexual nature, but it isn’t treated as a pretext for cathartic revenge, nor is it unfurled for viewers in a titillating manner. There are some images of sexual, or at least sexualized, trauma as well, but these are treated as evidence of a sick mind and a cruel and indifferent universe, not as something forbidden or “cool,” a presentation problem that has made it hard for a lot of so-called “graphic novels” to claim that they’re examining horror rather than exploiting it. The non-sexual violence, exemplified by a gory close-quarters shooting, has a sting as well, one that we almost never see in superhero stories. It’s not just horrible, it’s sad; the staging and framing emphasize the pitiful smallness of the act in relation to the wider world, while at the same time hammering home the idea that this act ended two lives and shattered more.

The performances are superb from leads on down to cameo players, and in addition to showcasing a sureness of purpose that you’d expect from good actors who’ve been given strong material, you also feel a sense of elation in individual scenes — a sense of joy that emanates from the performers, even though they might be playing a melancholy or hostile or otherwise not-enjoyable moment. A rather long conversation in a bar between Jessica and Luke — what you’d call a “meet cute” if they were merely cute, as opposed to smokin’ hot — has the sort of snap that you used to find in hard-boiled dramas from the 1940s. It’s also a treat to see a multicultural and sexually multivalent cast integrated, in every sense, into the sort of story that’s more often defined by straight white folks, and that treats anyone who doesn’t fit that mold as an exotic. Cage’s sexual magnetism and wary intelligence are color-coded, in that they seem like a response to living in a white world as well as a harsh one, but he’s a completely imagined character. The camera worships his physique the way detective stories might feast on a voluptuous dame’s curves, but here, too, it’s more about admiration of beauty than putting an actor on cheap display. (This is a rare show that can truly be said to have a female gaze.) One of Jessica’s clients, attorney Jeri Hogarth (who was a man in the comics), is a lesbian, and the series does her the favor of treating her sexuality as different from but equal to all the other flavors of love and lust shown on the series. What a treat it is to see The Matrix’s Carrie-Anne Moss in the role: She always looked as if she’d been drawn and inked, anyway.

Fans of smart direction will appreciate the intelligence of the series’ visual choices. It never shows you anything in the most obvious way, yet it doesn’t seem to be straining to impress. When the camera follows Jessica into a new space, then swings slowly around to show us what she notices, then catches her on the flip-side re-entering the frame and continuing her forward motion, it’s like a moment in a novel where we go from third person to first and back again. And there are many moments when Jessica notices important details, such as an opened door that isn’t supposed to be opened, and rather than pound the detail into your eye with closeups, the episode shifts focus from Jessica sitting on a bed to the slit created by the opened doorframe we’re peeking through, and then back to Jessica. These might seem like choices that aren’t worth fixating on, and there’s a good chance that if you’re engrossed in the story you won’t immediately notice them, but they contribute to the sense that Jessica Jones is building its world more subtly than almost any superhero narrative we’ve seen onscreen recently, and anchoring most of its aesthetic choices to Jessica’s world view and personality. That’s a rare and welcome thing, and one more reason to watch this striking series.