A darkened office. A jaded voiceover. A missing girl. And loads of booze. "Jessica Jones" opens with all the gumshoe noir staples in place, but it isn't really a private eye story. It's a spin-off from a Marvel comic, and it isn't a superhero story either. It's a horror story.
"Jessica Jones" is the second of four shows based on Marvel characters to be produced by and aired exclusively on streaming service Netflix. After the critical and commercial success of "Daredevil," "Jones" has the weight of expectation to see if the ambitious four-show project can work, especially as it's headed by a lesser-known Marvel character.
Jones is a New York private dick who's far from a people person. She also has superpowers. Played by Krysten Ritter as a walking eye-roll dispensing barbed comments and super-strength beatings at every turn, Jones is a woman who breaks things. Sparks inevitably fly when she meets Luke Cage, a man who can't be broken. Cage, who will have his own show next on Netflix, is deftly played by Mike Colter, who builds emotional depth behind his brick-wall-like physique.
The show is probably the most adult Marvel outing yet: there's lashings of swearing, frank sex and stomach-churning violence. But even the more graphic moments pale next to the psychological horror of the torture meted out by the villain, the mysterious sharp-dressed figure known as Kilgrave.
In the part of the arch manipulator Kilgrave, David Tennant comprehensively shreds his cuddly "Doctor Who" image. The character is blessed with a simple but enormously powerful superpower, making him easily the scariest villain in the Marvel universe. Tennant alternates between childish petulance and wide-eyed innocence in a chilling study of male entitlement that filled me with genuine dread about what he would do next. Marvel's movies haven't produced many memorable baddies, but after "Daredevil" chief malefactor Wilson Fisk, the Netflix Marvel shows have a 100 percent record for captivating and scary bad guys.
As gripping as "Jessica Jones" is, one niggle is that it isn't really about Jessica Jones. It's about Kilgrave, his powers and his actions. Jessica's actions and her powers don't drive the story -- the lead character could have been anyone. The most scary thing that can happen is that Jessica's superpowers could fall under Kilgrave's spell, but that worst-case scenario has already happened in the show's backstory. The aftermath may be weighty and affecting, but in narrative terms the backstory seems more exciting.
And like Jessica herself, the show is totally preoccupied with Kilgrave rather than offering unusual cases that only Jessica can crack. A private investigator with superpowers is an interesting twist on both the P.I. and superhero genres, but the show doesn't allow Jessica to do much superpowered sleuthing that would be unique to this character. Her powers allow her to win a few fights and tug a few padlocks off doors, but that's nothing Phillip Marlowe couldn't achieve with a solid right hook and a crowbar.
Now I'm not calling for a return to the formulaic case-of-the-week cop show. The Netflix watch-when-you-want format frees the programme-makers from doing something so generic. But it would be cool to see Jessica take on some cases that she's uniquely qualified to solve. Maybe season 2 will see more of that.
Fingers crossed for a second series, anyway. On the strength of the first season the characters and producers deserve it.
And for the first season at least, this isn't really a private eye story, and it isn't really a superhero story. With Kilgrave looming over everything, the show takes a horrifying premise and executes it superbly with shocking twists and escalating dread. It's a horror story.
Kilgrave's power opens the show to a convincing and powerful study of weighty issues like rape, domestic abuse, addiction, adultery, abortion and survivor's guilt. Kilgrave's power is used as a fictional device to explore the psychological effects of abuse and examine the way trauma can send cracks and splinters through a person's life. Whether they respond by numbing the pain through addiction, pushing people away or chasing revenge, the characters are never the same after their encounter with Kilgrave.
If that doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs, well, it isn't. As a TV show, a piece of entertainment, "Jessica Jones" is pretty light on light moments. Even instances of people just being nice to each other are pretty rare. From the sharp-tongued heroine on down the cast list, almost everybody in the show is horrible to each other, from demented neighbours, rapacious lawyers and abusive mothers right down to bit-part players like a doctor who blows her top when a nurse is momentarily baffled by a superpowered patient.
Amid all the gloom, however, one hope-filled glimmer of light comes from the wonderfully rendered friendship between Jones and her best friend Trish Walker (Hellcat in the comics), even when Jessica does her best to push everybody away.
Often bleak but never less than compelling, "Jessica Jones" is a grown-up, scary twist on several genres that proves there's a lot of interesting and unexpected directions for Marvel stories to take.
All 13 episodes of "Jessica Jones" are available to stream on Netflix now.