The following review is spoiler-free for JETT.
There’s a certain amount of realistic chaos in Cinemax’s JETT that some fans of organized crime thrillers will appreciate and others will find daunting. Without a doubt, the performances of Carla Gugino, Giancarlo Esposito, and others are top notch, and the machinations that Gugino’s title character, Daisy “Jett” Kowalski, must go through to extract herself from the difficulties she finds herself in boost our opinion of the skill and professionalism the show’s antihero possesses. Although the series jumping around in time can be confusing at times, the practice usually has a context, and those that stick around for at least three of the nine episodes will find their tenacity rewarded as the overall picture starts to coalesce.
The main problem with JETT is its premiere episode, which acts as a sort of prologue to the main story. Jett has recently been released from prison, and although her life as a mother and bartender probably would not have given her as much satisfaction as being a master thief anyway, she has no intention of nabbing any gigs anytime soon. But as Esposito’s Charlie Baudelaire recruits her for a proverbial “one last job,” he doesn’t give her much choice in the matter, and it seems like a relatively easy score. Great start, right? Even though we know something will go wrong, we should totally be on board with that premise.
Except that Jett initially displays only nominal skill, mostly in the area of casing the joint, and spends most of her time distracting her target with her feminine wiles while someone else makes the score. Make no mistake, in later episodes, Jett’s intelligence and masterful planning are on full display, but for the opening episode to rely so heavily on her femininity when the rest of the series emphasizes her stoicism and lack of maternal instinct might give viewers the wrong impression as the story opens. Those who stick around, especially for the massive twists at the end of both of the first two episodes, will realize the story is quite different from what they might expect.
There are many side stories that add to the enjoyment of JETT, some of which start out as seemingly insignificant events that blossom into either surprising revelations or unanticipated conflicts. No one could ever accuse this show of being predictable; in fact, the winding paths that we follow, for example, with one of Charlie’s henchmen or with a prostitute who becomes involved in the main caper illustrate the unexpected consequences of engaging in criminal activity. Heists don’t always unfold with flawless execution like in Ocean’s Eleven, and this aspect of the show works very much in its favor.
Some may not enjoy the things left unsaid, thinking it a narrative flaw, but Jett is not the kind of show that’s going to hold viewers’ hands in figuring out who’s who or what’s what. Who is the woman named María (Elena Anaya of Wonder Woman) who lives with Jett and her daughter? What’s the deal with Charlie’s son, Charles Junior (Gentry White of The Shannara Chronicles)? Why should we care that a detective from Jett’s past (Michael Aronov of The Blacklist) is having an affair with his partner (Jodie Turner-Smith of The Last Ship)? All of these are mysteries that unfold at their own pace, and often that pace is slow.
That being said, there is plenty of suspense-building bass and wah-guitar in the soundtrack to let the audience know that this is a show with plenty of heists, and whether Jett is working with trusted friends or incompetent thugs, it’s always an adventure. Jett must spend half of her time completing the jobs given to her and the rest of the time struggling to overcome the huge obstacle that is presented to her at the end of the premiere. And that’s not even taking into account her life as a mother!
In fact, one of the most understated aspects of this show is also its biggest hidden gem: the relationship between Jett and her daughter, Alice, played wonderfully by Gugino’s cast mate from The Haunting of Hill House, Violet McGraw. Jett is not a terrible mom; she just doesn’t understand nuanced parental duties like parent-teacher conferences or choosing bedtime stories. The brutal honesty Jett displays in answering Alice’s childhood questions about death and religion mirrors Alice’s childish unsullied observation of the world around her, and the bond between them springs from those harsh truths rather than from sweet nothings and sugar-coated fairy tales. Their relationship is inexplicably entertaining even as it provides a pause between criminal escapades.
In the end, JETT almost feels like a character study of a criminal mastermind who happens to be a woman but who has all of the emotional distance and swagger traditionally associated with male antiheroes. As with most shows like this, the story places her and her loved ones in danger, and she claws her way back to normalcy with grim determination and quiet fury. As the many side plots dance around the central conflict and merge at times, the most that any viewer can do is buckle up and go along for the ride.
JETT premieres on Friday, June 14, 2019 on Cinemax.