November 22, 2015

Jessica Jones and the problem of forward momentum – or, Marvel needs a goddamn editor

When I sat down to watch the new Marvel show Jessica Jones, I was incredibly excited. It had everything I wanted in a television show.

A cynical superhero working as a PI? Awesome. I love mystery formats in my genre. That’s my thang.

The promise of exploring such heady social topics as PTSD, surviving abuse, and misogyny? Great. I love when superhero stories examine human failings, especially ones as important as this.

And also it had terrific actors. Krysten Ritter was a god damned genius on the canceled-before-its-time Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23. And Mike Colter was basically charm incarnate on The Good Wife, playing the nicest and most charismatic drug dealer ever. And David Tennant as a monstrous psychopath with mind control powers? Wow. Fucking sold. Just give it to me already!

My excitement grew even more acute as the radiant reviews came out. The best thing Marvel’s ever done on television? An instant classic? Holy shit, I was going to love this.

So when I sat down to watch it with my (pregnant, ill-feeling) wife, I had the highest of hopes. I turned on the pilot, and sat back, waiting to be wowed.

And then I started… frowning a bit. I had the urge to look at my phone once or twice.

Then my wife said, “This show isn’t that compelling.”

“It’s the first episode,” I said, defensively. First episodes are usually pretty rocky. It takes a while for shows to find their feet.

So then we watched the next episode. And then the next episode. And then, finally, the first half of the season.

And that was when I realized this show has absolutely no idea what in the hell it’s doing.

THE ISSUE OF QUESTIONS

When I describe the novel writing process to budding writers – something I’ve only done once or twice, mind – I usually frame the discussion around a series of questions.

Books set out to explore the unknown. The unknown could be something literal – “Who killed this person?” Or, it can be something circumstantial – “Can this character go to war and return unscathed?” Or it can be something incredibly abstract – “Is true connection even possible in the modern American marriage?”

But in general, most novels and most stories explore something that is not immediately known. The story is a vehicle for the process of discovery.

And this is usually framed around a series of questions. You start with one unknown, and in trying to understand it, it raises more questions, hinting at larger unknowns.

Let’s look at the murder mystery plot structure:

The duchess has been killed. The detective sets off to find the killer.

About a fifth of the way into the book, the detective suspects the butler.

About a third of the way into the book, the detective confirms it was the butler - but, the butler gets murdered, and the detective finds evidence of some kind of death cult in the butler’s room.

Reports start coming in of the duchess making payments to a sinister man who would meet her at her estate gates on moonlit nights.

The detective tracks down a witness to the butler’s murder – and the killer they describe has a birthmark just like the duchess’s long-passed half-brother, who died under strange circumstances years ago in a fire at an abbey.

The detective goes to the ruins of the abbey and finds a secret underground chamber – and on the wall of the chamber is the symbol of the death cult…

And so on, and so on, and so on. This is all quite rote, but you get the idea – one question (“Who killed the duchess?”) has now lead to a series of larger questions, setting off a chain reaction of sorts.

That raising and answering of questions creates a feeling of plot progress - there is a goal (“We must find out who killed the duchess!”), and by exploring these unknowns, were are getting closer to reaching that goal.

Or (UPDATE) let’s try a literary approach to how plotting is about the placement and exploration of unknowns. Let’s say it’s a book about the failing marriage.

You could stage it so that the book alternates between a week in the life of this advanced middle aged couple in the present and the early years of their marriage well in the past.

So in the present, you see the couple fighting and reacting to seemingly innocuous things: the way the husband masks his face with cloth when mowing the lawn, the way the wife refuses to cook anymore but is adamant about driving the book mobile for the local library. You’re not sure why they’re having these issues, until the book flashes back to the past and you see that the couple had a son, who liked mowing the grass with the dad, but died of leukemia. In their grief, they realized their marriage was based on roleplaying more than emotional reliance, and they were unable to cope with it.

So that’s one unknown that’s explored. But you can tell there’s more out there – the cooking, the book mobile. There are more and more questions. It makes you keep reading.

You find out then that the dad had an affair after the death of their son, and fathered a child out of wedlock, and on the day the wife found out, she found the husband and his mistress were sharing leftover of a dish she spent the whole day making. Since then, she can’t bring herself to cook for him anymore.

But you then find out that the wife has been having contact with the illegitimate child, bringing the little girl books on the book mobile – and of course they’re the books her dead son read when he was little. And so the story ends with the wife sharing an emotional connection with this child who doesn’t know or even wonder why this woman is so involved with her – and you realize that this emotional connection, this honesty, is deeper than anything the husband can offer the wife anymore.

Again, this is pretty contrived, but you get the idea.

You can see how the progress of exploring unknowns not only forms a tension that makes you keep reading, but it also challenges the status quo of the story’s central conflict. What you first thought was just a simple murder, or a spat over a meal, turns out to have really been so much more. This is because each scene and each discovery adds something new to the story’s experience. We learn more about the characters, and this informs their past actions and their future actions.

The problem with Jessica Jones is that it doesn’t do any of that, at least for the first half of the show – which is a severe failing. Maybe there’s something phenomenal in the second half of the show – but at this point, I don’t really have any desire to find out. The show is not sure how to progress its plot or how to change its status quo.

Spoilers follow.

WHEN WILL THINGS START HAPPENING?

The pilot of Jessica Jones establishes the show’s status quo quite well. I pretty much knew what the show was about, and the pilot confirmed all of those expectations, but it did a good job in building the central conceit.

The show’s status quo is:

Jessica Jones is a cynical, traumatized superhero being harassed and threatened by the incredibly powerful mind-controller Kilgrave, who can strike at her at any moment.

The show made it clear from the get-go that Kilgrave has been and still is a very dangerous person: tricking a girl into murdering her parents is goddamn intense, especially since he did it more or less to screw with Jessica. And while I knew that Kilgrave had abused Jessica as well going into the show, the pilot did a good enough job establishing that in its own right.

And then… not much happens in the next episode. Jessica convinces her attorney friend Hogarth (expertly played by Carrie-Anne Moss) to take on the girl who killed her parents as a client. Jessica finds out that Kilgrave can’t use his mind control powers while under anesthesia – but she doesn’t make any decisions to something with that yet.

However, does any of this change the status quo of the show at all? Which was:

Jessica Jones is a cynical, traumatized superhero being harassed and threatened by the incredibly powerful mind-controller Kilgrave, who can strike at her at any moment.

No. Jessica is still traumatized, she’s still being threatened by Kilgrave. The state is the same.

In the third episode, Jessica’s friend Trish makes the incredibly bad decision of publicly slandering Kilgrave on the radio. Kilgrave predictably reacts, Jessica saves her friend and confirms that Kilgrave is alive, still obsessed with her, and is still incredibly dangerous.

But – we knew that already. The first episode did that for us! He made a girl kill her parents just to fuck with Jessica! We know it’s him, we know he’s alive, we know he’s bad news, and we know he’s obsessed with Jessica! Does any of this change the status quo of the show? Let’s check:

Jessica Jones is a cynical, traumatized superhero being harassed and threatened by the incredibly powerful mind-controller Kilgrave, who can strike at her at any moment.

No. Jessica is still the cynical, traumatized superhero. We know why she’s traumatized now – she was coerced into killing Luke Cage’s girlfriend, and is now sleeping with the man himself, unbeknownst to the fact that he’s sleeping with his girlfriend’s murderer – but has anything changed in the central conflict between Jessica and Kilgrave? Not really. It’s all still the same.

Then in the fourth episode… not much happens. Jessica takes a case that winds up being wholly unrelated and inconsequential to the central Jessica/Kilgrave dynamic. Trish bonds with her coerced assassin, Simpson, a standard cop character. Hogarth cheats on her wife.

It was around this point in the show that I started getting worried. This was around the end of the first act, by normal story standards. But the show hadn’t made any movements to start looking at the next thing. At the end of this episode, my wife turned to me and said, “Can you name one thing that happened in that episode that actually mattered?” And I really couldn’t.

Then in the fifth episode, Jessica and her motley gang finally, finally do something about Kilgrave – who, despite being more or less all powerful, has yet to actually do, uh, anything. Except respond to some slander and monitor Jessica, that is.

The gang gets a dart gun, follows Kilgrave, tranquilizes him, and tries to take him back to their safehouse. This plan is underwhelming to say the least, but hey, at least it’s a plan – it’s action, which is something that hasn’t happened much on the show yet.

But is it a plan? What they intend to do after capturing him isn’t clear. Jessica intends to use him to clear the name of the girl who killed her parents. But how do you coerce a confession out of a guy whose every word could rewrite your brain? How, exactly, does she intend to make a coerced confession legal? Why not just cut his throat or smash his skull or, I dunno, perform a lobotomy on him or something? The show doesn’t do a terrific job of making the “next steps” very clear.

But it turns out, it doesn’t matter. Kilgrave’s got a tracking device on him, and about 20 seconds after taking Kilgrave, some goons show up, use cattle prods on Jessica and the gang, and take Kilgrave back to safety.

And then we’re back to square one again. No one has lost or gained much ground. The goons intentionally didn’t hurt any of them. No one suffered too much – we really didn’t have too many consequences at all, and we really didn’t learn anything new about Jessica and Kilgrave’s conflict. Sure, Jessica is now trying to save her junkie friend that Kilgrave was using to spy on her, but there hasn’t been much change to the status quo yet, which is, let’s remember:

Jessica Jones is a cynical, traumatized superhero being harassed and threatened by the incredibly powerful mind-controller Kilgrave, who can strike at her at any moment.

 Yeah this all checks out. This is still basically what’s going on in the show, and we’re very close to the halfway mark now. The state of show still has yet to change.

That’s bad. By the end of the first third, a story should be examining something beyond what was established at the beginning. And Jessica Jones is not doing that.

JUST SHIT OR GET OFF THE POT ALREADY

The problem with Jessica Jones is one of potential.

Jessica is a superpowered person. She can do lots of things that we can’t. And though she is traumatized, and is now spiritually and mentally weakened, it’s clear she’s a strong character who can still take action.

Except, it takes five episodes for her to do that – four whole goddamn hours from the pilot, where the stakes are made clear. And then all that work gets flushed down the toilet.

Worse, the progress she makes – tracking down Kilgrave, attempting to kidnap him – doesn’t happen because of her own persistent efforts. Rather, she kind of falls backassward into them. Her attorney makes a bunch of noise about mind control alibis on the radio, a bunch of people show up claiming to have been coerced by him, Jessica reluctantly forms a support group, and one of them mentions offhandedly that, hey, I was Kilgrave’s driver for a while, and he made me keep driving back to meet this one dude, who turns out to be Jessica’s neighbor.

That’s not quite the fruits of Jessica’s labor. That’s a circumstantial gift. One that she didn’t totally work for, one that the show immediately squanders by having a bunch of random goons with cattle prods take Kilgrave back the second Jessica kidnaps him. So it’s a somewhat unsatisfying, passive turning point that the show then immediately renders inconsequential. “Hey, you thought we were going to do something? Well, here are some guys to make sure we actually can’t do something, so let’s start all over again.”

Then there’s Kilgrave himself. We’re halfway through the show and the entirety of the action has taken place within this character’s shadow – but we still don’t know anything about him. I know he’s mean and he makes kids pee on the floor and shopkeeps throw hot coffee in their own faces – I get that he’s bad, he makes a girl kill her parents in the first goddamn episode! But I don’t really know who he is. The show is almost halfway over and he’s remained an enigma throughout.

As Kilgrave is the guy generating almost 100% of the show’s conflict, that’s bad. It’s bad if the engine of all the show’s drama is an absent non-entity.

Also, Kilgrave is super-powerful, but besides the action in the pilot, he hasn’t really done much that we can see. He’s just kind of hanging around, controlling people, getting photos of Jessica, but not much else. The one time he does something it’s because he’s (very, very stupidly) provoked.

I mean, this guy can make a whole roomful of people kill themselves, right? He can do anything, right? But he’s done jack shit since the pilot. He hasn’t surprised us or made us think differently about him.

So basically this show is about two superpowered people who don’t really do much with those powers. That’s frustrating to watch.

Some other issues with the characters:

  •  The show takes its sweet time on Jessica and Luke’s relationship. They have sex once, she sees the photo of Luke’s girlfriend (whom she killed), and she wigs out a bit. By this point we, The Audience, have gotten it. But then they figure out each other superpowers, they have sex again, and we’re again reminded that Jessica killed his girlfriend. We get it! Move on! Complicate this further, or something!
  • I’m not sure what to do with Trish. Trish is Jessica’s rich, famous, radio-show friend, who has some kind of troubled past due to her safe room and security measures. (I think it has to do with Kilgrave, or her mother? It didn’t seem clear.) Trish knows that Kilgrave can control other people, yet when a cop comes to her reinforced door for some Obviously Incredibly Sketchy Reasons and asks to come in without a warrant, Trish frowns for a bit, then opens the door, and he of course tries to kill her. (Cue my wife yelling, “WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU?”) None of this is particularly intelligent – it is unwise to fuck with telepaths, then doubly unwise to open your door to anyone. She and the cop later bond over the incident, and hook up, but it’s not clear what she adds to the central conflict between Kilgrave and Jessica. She’s just kind of there.
  • Also, as nice as it is to see Carrie-Anne Moss on TV, and to see two married gay women past their 40′s, I’m not yet sure what she’s adding to the plot. She’s cheating on her wife, sure, and then splits up with her wife… but, I mean, okay? So what? I suspect the show will do something with this later – but it’s taking its sweet time doing this. Right now we’re stepping away from a superpowered stalker story to deal with some not-quite-fleshed-out matrimonial issues. For significant minutes at a time. It’s not like things were moving slow enough already.
  • And not to get too uber nerdy, but how is it that Jessica has the strength and the physical durability to stop a speeding car in its tracks, yet can also cut her fingers on glass and get shot and wounded like any other person? How is it that her ankles and legs can take the punishment of jumping on and off skyscrapers, yet a punch to the face still jacks her up? If she punches someone in the chest hard enough to kill them, shouldn’t her fist basically explode under the strain, if it isn’t superhumanly durable? The show hasn’t made the rules there quite clear.

THIS IS NOT JUST JESSICA JONES’S PROBLEM

Lest we forget, Daredevil, Marvel’s other Netflix show, had lots of these problems too.

Daredevil was a mightily wheel-spinny show. There were a lot of plots toward the middle that just felt like they weren’t pertinent to some degree. Lots of talk about journalism and corporate embezzlement and vague real estate deals that frankly just seemed to suck up time and not matter much, especially when there were fucking ninjas going to town on each other in the background.

The difference with DD was that it had three advantages:

  • It was terribly derivative: it played the vigilante superhero origin story completely straight, right down to the grim monologues about “My City.” But while this would ordinarily be a weakness (and it still kind of is), because it’s such a familiar story model, we kind of knew what’s going to happen. That meant that the show’s choices and development were sort of preordained. There was always movement in one direction – the creation of Daredevil – and though the show sometimes took its sweet fucking time in getting there, we and everyone in the cast knew it was going to get there eventually.
  • It had Wilson Fisk. He was probably everyone’s favorite thing on the show. We got to know him right about at the 1/3 mark of the show (See?? See how that can help structure things?) and from there on out it was about watching him and DD collide with each other. This formed a structure that gave the story events a feeling of momentum (even when the show struggled to deliver on that momentum).
  • The show had Lesser Goons that DD would inevitably meet, almost always leading to a Beatdown of the Week. Jessica Jones has no per-episode conflict. No mystery or monster or phenomenon to form the conflict of that one episode. That leaves the show feeling weirdly unmoored and unfocused.

Between these three elements, the show was given a sense of structure and momentum. Sure, it frequently overplayed the grimness (Beheading a dude with a car door? Voluntarily impaling your own skull on a spike? Come the fuck on) and it made some weirdo doofy racial choices, but at the end it stacked up to be a solidly decent, if somewhat derivative, television show.

Yet it still obviously had the same issues as Jessica Jones, the same hesitancy as to how to advance its own plot.

It’s worth noting that these are two Netflix shows, developed beyond the confines of regular television. But for funsies, let’s compare Jessica Jones to another show about a female abuse survivor who tries to strike out in New York and make a living for herself all in the shadow of a sinister, controlling man who can make other people do what he wants.

I’m talking here, of course, about The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

OTHER SHOWS HAVE DONE THIS BETTER

Kimmy Schmidt was an exuberant story about someone doing her absolute best not to let her own victimhood define her. It was a story about someone who actively challenged herself: Kimmy got an apartment, a job, tried to get her diploma, tried to throw a party, and though some episodes were hit and misses (and though the show also made its own wackadoo racial choices), the show did a good job of interrogating victimhood. Kimmy Schmidt is a show about the choice to live in fear and delusion, and how sometimes people can make those choices for themselves, and sometimes they can’t.

From what I’ve seen thus far – and I feel like 5 whole hours is a good enough sample of a story – Kimmy Schmidt is a far more disciplined show than Jessica Jones is. Kimmy Schmidt knows what it wants to do, how it wants to galvanize its characters, and then it goes out and does it.

And I wonder – is this because Kimmy Schmidt was originally made for network television, by some old school NBC comedy vets? Would Kimmy Schmidt be as good as it is if it was made for binge-watching, made to be consumed in one weekend? (Is this even possible for a sitcom, though? Sitcoms are some of the most highly structured pieces of comedy out there.)

Let’s look at another dark, pulpy, feminist show with a female anti-hero: Orphan Black. Is there a show with a stronger first few episodes than that one? Sarah’s goals are laid clear from the get-go: she needs money, and she needs to find and protect her daughter, so she begins impersonating a well-off woman she saw kill herself – a woman with a striking physical resemblance to Sarah.

But then the show keeps changing the stakes on her, bringing up unknowns that Sarah can’t help but look into: she realizes she’s impersonating a police detective (which she has no idea how to be), and then it turns out this police detective is under investigation, and then it turns out this detective was investigating a series of murders… of women who look exactly like Sarah. This happens within the first three episodes.

Do you see how this show, unlike Jessica Jones, keeps upping the questions and complicating the plot, while making the goals clear? And how Sarah is always given a very specific objective, which she smartly and practically pursues, despite her murky circumstances?

But, again, this is a cable TV show. This was made to fit within strict boundaries. I wonder if we can say the same of Jessica Jones. 

It’s a weird situation. I feel like DD and JJ (and oh my god that sounds like the names of two bratty twin girls) are both TV shows that would have been vastly improved if they’d had 1/3 less episodes to work in. Rather than a season of 13 episodes, it should have been maybe 8 or 9. That would have forced the writers and showrunners to cut to the goddamn point already, and stop wandering around in the weeds, making their characters bump into things like dolts.

And this could be done, right? Since this is all just on Netflix, can’t they rightsize their seasons? Can’t they make the episodes fit the contour of the story? Can’t they get rid of the stretch episodes, and make the season fit the story?

If so, they aren’t doing it yet. And they need to.