Carla Gugino’s Jett is Quentin Tarantino and Elmore Leonard by way of Cinemax. It’s a smart, stylized crime thriller that never forgets it’s on a premium network best known for its late-night offerings, which is to say that the violence (often of a sexual nature) and nudity play directly to the subscriber base. It’s a fitting series for Gugino, who never looked more at home than in the all-too-brief Karen Sisco, but outside the confines of network television, she can push the noir to its extremes, often uncomfortably so: Why cut off the hand of a fully-clothed cop with a chainsaw in a deadly game of Hangman when on Cinemax, you can cut off the hand of a cop in only her panties?
Not that any of it feels particularly gratuitous, just very genre-specific. Writer/director/creator and Gugino’s spouse, Sebastian Gutierrez, spends a lot of time focusing his camera on Gugino’s naked body, but not in a leering way. It’s legitimately artful and done in more of an admiring way because part of Daisy “Jett” Kowalski’s power resides in her sexuality, and she has a reservoir of it, which she exploits from time to time to serve her needs (and that of the audience).
Jett is a career criminal, recently sprung from prison and looking to get back on the straight and narrow now that she has a daughter for which to care. However, her old boss and occasional sex partner, crime lord Charlie Baudelaire (Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito), calls her in for the proverbial last job. It does not go as planned. In fact, by the end of the pilot, Jett finds herself caught between two ruthless crime lords, attempting to work for both and secretly play each off of the other and extricate herself from the situation, a problem exacerbated by Charles Jr., the chaotic and unpredictable son of Baudelaire (and toter of the aforementioned chainsaw).
Gugino is slick and commanding as Jett, a woman of few words who speaks through violence, her stylish outfits, sly sensual looks, or by neutralizing someone with a dry wisecrack. She is incredible as she traverses from one caper to the next trying to keep her house of cards afloat in an otherwise male-dominated field. The series, however, also hosts a number of entertaining, well-defined and idiosyncratic supporting characters, like Bennie (Christopher Backus), a henchman who takes an interest in the life of a housewife after he kills her husband; Phoenix (Gaite Jansen), a sweet-natured former prostitute and junkie who cares for Jett’s daughter; Maria (Elena Anaya), a confidante and roommate who is dying of cancer; and Evans (Gil Bellows), one of Jett’s handlers, who efficiently hands out assignments.
The aesthetic of Jett is Soderberghian, which is to say: Sleek and spare, but budget-friendly. The writing is smart, the plots are tightly wound, the humor is dark, and each episode feels like a quickly-paced hour-long chapter in a movie (I, too, generally do not subscribe to the idea of a TV season as a ten-hour movie, but Jett is so cinematic that the comparison is difficult to avoid). It is also occasionally stressful to watch, and the violence can be intense, particularly when it comes at the expense of characters we are quick to invest in (there’s a character, for instance, with whom we only spend 15 or 20 minutes in the pilot, yet whose death feels so devastating I nearly quit the series (I’m glad I didn’t)).
It’s a terrific series, and it almost feels wrong to bury it on Cinemax, which otherwise doesn’t have enough original content to support the price of a subscription — or at least, original content of this caliber — but for fans of pulpy noir and Elmore Leonard-like fiction, Jett should play well when it’s (presumably) made more widely available once HBO Max launches.
Header Image Source: Cinemax