Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review: The second season of Netflix's "Jessica Jones" sticks the landing after shaky beginning.



After almost two and a half years, Jessica Jones has returned for her second season on Netflix. There are going to be some slight spoilers in the discussion of the second season today, so if you haven’t finished the season, bail out now. Just to let you know you are all being warned. In order to really discuss how the second season of Jessica Jones succeeds and how it fails, we’ll have to dig deep into the text of the show. So, don’t get mad if I give certain things away, this will be a spoiler filled zone.
When “Daredevil” hit our Netflix screens in 2015, it felt like a bomb going off. It blew away the 2003 Ben Affleck movie, but it also felt like the world of superheroes-on-television was changing. This felt more dangerous, more visceral and just rawer than any other superhero shows I’d seen on TV, and I sat back and happily awaited what Netflix Marvel would do next. 

That next big thing was “Jessica Jones.” This show was even cooler because it felt so unique. Jessica Jones wasn’t a person who had a day job, then went home and put on a cape. She was a private eye who happened to use her mysterious superpowers at night. She never put on a costume, because frankly, she felt she didn’t need it. She was a “superhero” who mouthed off to people who annoyed her and spent ungodly amounts of time at a bar and didn’t seem to care about one-night stands. It didn’t feel like a person we usually see in superhero stories, told on the big or small screen. Again, Netflix Marvel did the unthinkable, and I patiently waited for the next big thing.

Then came “Luke Cage” which started out strong but featured a story that shouldn’t have lasted thirteen episodes, but somehow it did and it hurt an overall good season of TV. Sadly, the notion of taking a story that could wrap up in a two-and-a-half-hour movie and spreading it across thirteen hours has become commonplace with these Netflix Marvel shows. I often wonder if Netflix has some kind of quota for Marvel that they have to have thirteen episodes per season. Although their mini-series “The Defenders” was only eight. No matter how you see it, the recent Netflix Marvel shows usually run out of steam before episode thirteen. I was so depleted by boredom watching “Iron Fist,” that I never finished season one. “The Defenders” left me cold, even at eight episodes. They got “The Punisher” right for one episode, then decided to tell a painfully uninteresting story about corrupt military when all they had to do was make thirteen episodes of The Punisher going all Paul Kersey on random bad guys. How you fuck up The Punisher is quite frankly, sad.

I began season two of “Jessica Jones” with low expectations. For the first five or six episodes, I felt those low expectations would be justified. “Jessica Jones” season two is a real slow start. There’s a funny cameo moment with an old golden age Marvel character called The Whizzer, which made me laugh out loud. There is some set up for a shadowy organization that took Jessica in as a teenager, and who is responsible for giving her powers. But again, it’s an example of Marvel taking set-up that could take an episode to properly complete and stretching it across five hours.

Usually, these Netflix Marvel shows tend to start strong, then run out of steam. The second season of “Jessica Jones” seems to start slow then finish strong. I suppose its better that way, and I am sure those low expectations I had played a part too, but I firmly believed that this second season got progressively better after episode six and that it made for a very enjoyable season overall. Which is actually more amazing than it sounds. Besides the pacing, “Jessica Jones” season two had a couple things against it. It’s a tough second season overall because Killgrave; who died last season, and Luke Cage; who is getting with another girl, don’t show up this season. There is one episode where Jones hallucinated Killgrave but that’s it. With all the chemistry and provocation those two brought to the show, it makes for a slower season two without them. Plus, Will Traval’s Simpson from season one appears in one episode then dies. I wanted Jessica Jones versus Nuke goddammit!

I am sure Marvel thought Trish Walker (Racheal Taylor) and Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Ann Moss) would fill that void, but they are not nearly as interesting as Killgrave or Cage were. I love Carrie-Ann Moss, but she isn’t given much to do. So, she falls ill to ALS and other corporate tools are trying to muscle her out of her job, like we haven’t seen that before. Her story arc is telegraphed to extreme predictability. Walker’s story arc is actually kind of interesting, but like the first six episodes of this second season, boring in the way it paced and played out. We find Trish Walker addicted to a drug that is enhancing herself. We meet Trish’s biological and Jessica’s adoptive mother Dorothy Walker (Rebecca Mornay). Mornay’s great, but she’s a typical blithering bitch who lives in her own world. But Trish’s backstory is better investigated and she certainly dents her relationship with Jessica, which could lead to an interesting season three. I’m sure Marvel fans will love to see if Trish suits up as Hellcat soon, but it just doesn’t play like Killgrave and Cage did last season.

Jessica’s main storyline may both fascinate and frustrate casual viewers. Superhero stories are already a quasi-laughing stock when the hero fights a villain who has THE EXACT SAME POWER BASE AS THEY DO. The “villain” of this story is a flying woman with super-strength. But the woman in question is also Jessica’s real mother. Oh yes, both Jessica and her mother Alisa Jones (played by Janet McTeer) were taken by mad scientist Karl Malus (Callum Keith Rennie) who operated on them and gave them superpowers. The story plays pretty compelling throughout, and I think McTeer does incredible work with Jessica. The climax is more dramatic and really doesn’t end on the typical superhero fight. In fact, the season on a whole is driven by its drama instead of superhero antics, and that might win over some casual viewers who maybe don’t care about the comic book aspects of the show. Maybe that’s also why I personally didn’t mind Jessica Jones versus Anti-Jessica Jones, because the drama created with Jessica and her troubled family history was enough to buy me over. And I loved how things didn’t just erupt into comic book action to settle storylines.

There is a very good, perhaps even great story hidden inside this second season, you just have to cut through lots of padding in order to get to it.

I would also keep an eye out for Eka Darville who returns as Jones’ partner Malcolm. He’s got quite the storyline here to which will make for a juicy season three. The themes of this second season are about people hitting rock bottom, then discovering their full potential. It’s about discovering who you are and what you are capable of and how that affects the others around you. By the end of season two, Jessica and her supporting characters aren’t the people we met in season one. This could pay off big time in a third season. Everyone does top-notch acting work, and while some storylines are predictable, they certainly have helped set up for a season that could improve upon what’s already there.

So, if you could weave through the slow start and if you don’t mind a couple stuttering storylines, then I think you’ll have fun with “Jessica Jones” season two. I can’t say I enjoyed better than season one, but it’s some very good TV halfway through. It’s much better than “Iron Fist” or “The Defenders” or “The Punisher” combined and I applaud the show for making a dramatic season without relying on the superhero antics of the genre. I think audiences will be surprised how it leans on character work and drama instead of big fight scenes. Compared to “Daredevil” though, it doesn’t go down nearly as smooth.

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