As I was watching an episode of Netflix’s second Marvel offering Jessica Jones the other night, it dawned on me that the streaming entity is rapidly finding itself with a better track record than possibly any actual television station in existence. From early and successful water-testers like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black to more recent outings like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmi Schmidt, Netflix has become an entire network unto itself. And with news breaking Monday that Netflix will be doubling its original programming in 2016 (including new shows from Judd Apatow, Will Arnett, Baz Luhrmann and others), it’s becoming increasingly hard to justify keeping the major networks around at all.
Netflix is also smart; it knows its own limitations. Take, for instance, the online service’s recent partnership with the Marvel universe. Netflix could easily have taken the Flash or S.H.I.E.L.D. or Arrow approach, serving up lukewarm action with hokey decidedly non-blockbuster special effects to a yawning audience who just had their eyeballs blown out by Age of Ultron in IMAX, but they didn’t. Instead, they picked three quiet, gritty, realistic heroes to create quiet, gritty, realistic and gripping television series of: Daredevil (who you’d heard of), Luke Cage (who you might have heard of) and Jessica Jones (who you probably haven’t heard of). Daredevil premiered earlier this year and surprised everyone — instead of a superhero-ey actionfest, Netflix’ Daredevil was a dirty, soiled tale of a fallible vigilante in low-rent Hell’s Kitchen. At times it almost felt more like Law & Order than Ant-Man, and it worked in big ways. The fights were believable and not fantastical, the actors were unknown and subtle. It was the anti-Marvel Marvel show.
If Daredevil was the anti-Marvel Marvel show, however, Jessica Jones is the anti-Marvel-Marvel show-plus. It’s even uglier and dirtier than Daredevil, its hero even more conflicted and snarling, its villain nastier and slimier. Krysten Ritter, fresh off of killing it in her small role in Breaking Bad and her large role in the cult sitcom favorite Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 (WORST TITLE EVER) stars as the title character, a private eye with super-strenth who can lift cars and jump up onto the top of buildings – but only when she wants to. She’s a functioning alcoholic in a run-down apartment building who spends her time doing dirty work for a high-visibility law firm and trying to keep her junkie next door neighbor off of his face in the hallway. She also bears a mysterious link to a man named Kilgrave (British actor David Tennant, trading on his Doctor Who goodwill to play a particularly nasty, smarmy villain) who can control anyone’s mind by the sheer power of suggestion. Jessica once escaped the abusive Kilgrave’s grasp to rebuild her life, but he continues to find ways to stalk her, hypnotically using and tossing away others to get onto Jessica’s radar.
As Jessica pieces together the clues to ending Kilgrave’s destructive forces, she teams with her talk show host friend Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) and ex-Kilgrave victim Will (Will Simpson, playing the unlikely role of the only NYPD cop with blonde highlights in television history) to brainstorm ways to bring Kilgrave down. In the meantime she butts heads with a vicious lawyer (Carrie-Anne Moss), tries to extract information from and imprisoned Kilgrave-influenced murderer (Erin Moriarty) and has athletic super-sex with fellow mutant Luke Cage (Mike Colter, who’ll star as the character in his own series in 2016). Ritter, all the while, plays Jessica as a dark and snarky hard-boiled homage, tossing out kiss-off bon mots and tucking her head down between her shoulders as she vigilantly watches every angle for aggression.
Jessica Jones serves as well as an allegory for survival after rape; while what Kilgrave has taken from Jessica is mental rather than physical, it’s no less an act of brutal assault than a physical rape itself. How Jessica Jones addresses victimization keeps the viewers on their toes; while nearly all of the female characters have been or are actively being victimized in some way, they exist as the strongest and toughest characters in the series — while the male characters are relegated to playing sidekicks like hopeless junkies or macho boy-toys (even though both of these respective characters, while sympathetic and/or likeable, show some manner of aggression to Jessica and Trish in their own ways at some point in the season). The women are painted trickily as simultaneously frightened and empowered, a nod to the dual effects of surviving abuse; and herein lies the strength in Jessica Jones’ themes: you may survive but you won’t forget, and the role of victim is an endlessly difficult one to shed, even when you can punch your fist through a brick wall.
With Jessica Jones and Daredevil (which itself deals with issues of retribution vs. morality) Netflix has tackled the underbelly of the Marvel universe exquisitely — Jessica’s rage is no less justified than The Hulk’s, but she doesn’t transform into an awesome CGI superhero; Daredevil’s Matt Murdock takes fifteen minutes to exhaustedly fight three guys; he can’t just swing a magical hammer and send villains flying through the roof. By delving into Marvel’s deep cuts, Netflix has been surefooted and locked on. This dedication to a finished product simply provides more reasons why Netflix continues to deliver the most thoughtful and creative programming on television, network or otherwise. Here’s to twice as much in 2016.