The first season of “Jessica Jones” was hailed as a breakthrough for Disney’s heretofore child-friendly Marvel-verse, dealing as it did with more mature themes like sexism, addiction, rape and domestic abuse. The newly released second season continues to push the genre forward as it explores people with superpowers living ordinary(ish) lives, but unfortunately the plot isn’t quite so focused this time around.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the company — bought by Disney in 2009, a year after it began delivering box office hits — has been releasing cover stories and special videos in tandem with its first two films of 2018: “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” But this year also is the fifth anniversary of the MCU and Netflix’s partnership to create a second, parallel series for the streaming screen. “Jessica Jones,” season two, released by Netflix on Thursday, represents a new chapter after the successful introduction of no less than six Marvel series. It might even be considered the TV version of Marvel entering what it has called its “Phase II” for Hollywood blockbusters.
Marvel’s goal when it partnered with Netflix was to make a prestige-TV version of its big-screen superhero world. This, to a large extent, has happened. But where Netflix has stumbled is length.
Marvel’s goal when it partnered with Netflix was to make a prestige-TV version of its big-screen superhero world. Importantly, the smaller scale would allow Marvel and Netlfix to present a darker, grittier and far more realistic version of superhero life. This, to a large extent, has happened. But where Netflix has stumbled is length. Prestige basic cable shows like “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men” typically ran 13 episodes per year. Marvel decided this model was the only model, a choice that has led to many of its franchises experiencing an unfortunate phenomenon sometimes known as "Netflix bloat."
The choice to make “Mad Men” seasons into “13-hour movies” wasn’t an arbitrary one for AMC. Thirteen is one fourth of the calendar year and half the length of the old-school OTA (Over-The-Air) standard TV season, which typically ran around 26 weeks. Traditional network shows nowadays typically run slightly shorter, with 22 episodes. But for traditional network producers, 13 feels like a safe way to create a once-a-year limited series event, without getting too radical or losing viewers.
For Netflix to use this model makes no sense, however — when freed of broadcast timing and sweeps, why settle into this seemingly arbitrary format? This is especially true because Netflix drops all its episodes at once. “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black,” the streaming platform's first two out-of-the-box successes, both run 13 episodes per season. Even newer shows like “13 Reasons Why” have adopted it. And all find themselves at some point suffering from the same problem “Jessica Jones” now suffers from — in order to stretch the story to fill the length, the episodes drag. “House of Cards” took a couple of seasons before the drag really set in, and “Orange Is The New Black” took to changing up its format for Season 5 (doing what felt like a 13-hour bottle episode) to try and combat the issue. Sadly Marvel remains unaware of the problem — or perhaps it is aware but is not particularly bothered by it.
Some of this confidence is earned. The first seasons of “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones,” which introduced us to this franchise, were critical successes. “Daredevil” didn’t actually have enough plots to fill its space, but showrunners cleverly disguised the issue with what has become a hallmark of Marvel shows on Netflix: the “Big Bad Swap.” Around the halfway point of the series, the person the audience has assumed was the main villain is revealed to be a red herring. This device worked so well that “Luke Cage,” “Iron Fist,” “The Defenders” and “The Punisher” have all used variations on it to fill out their own first seasons, with varying levels of success.
When “Jessica Jones” hits on all cylinders, it’s still the best series Netflix and Marvel have to offer. But with the loss of villain Kilgrave, this season has lost its focus.
“Jessica Jones” on the other hand had a story large enough to fill the space in her first season. Her clash with Kilgrave (David Tennant, back this season for a one-episode cameo) and their extraordinarily complicated and horrifically abusive relationship was gripping. Krysten Ritter (our titular hero) and Tennant were magnetic enough to keep it all on track.
And when “Jessica Jones” hits on all cylinders, it’s still the best series Netflix and Marvel have to offer, with showrunner Melissa Rosenberg continuing to use the superhero genre as a parable to discuss provocative issues. But with the loss of villain Kilgrave, this season has lost its focus. The early episodes meander about, not unlike someone who's fresh out of a decade-long relationship narrative and clearly not eager to jump back into a new one.
But the now-familiar plot digressions and red herrings are hit or miss. (An addiction side plot giving a sidekick character faux superpowers is one of the most compelling.) In other places, the show seems to be adding early weight that cannot possibly be worth any later payoffs.
Netflix is not beholden to advertisers. So if the show only has enough plot to fill three episodes, they should only make three episodes.
The term “Netflix bloat” was created to refer to the streaming service’s inability to edit its shows down. While it’s great that Netflix writers and directors feel free to create without the rules and regulations guiding terrestrial television, this freedom is coming with a cost. Bloating has now become an unwelcome feature marring some of the best Netflix programming. Even documentaries like the recently released “Seven Seconds” feel badly weighed down, practically wallowing in their ability to explore every tangent possible.
Netflix doesn’t need to fill a calendar year. It’s not beholden to advertisers; no syndication mark needs to be hit in order to qualify for lucrative reruns. So if the show only has enough plot to fill three episodes, they should make only three episodes. “Stranger Things,” for example, has seen the value in running only as long as it needs. (It also adjusts as needed, running eight episodes in the first season and nine in the second.)
Now it’s time for other shows to follow suit. With the second season of “Luke Cage” and the third installment of “Daredevil” both due out later in 2018, and another three MCU series prepping for 2019, we can only hope Marvel starts seeing the light. Characters like Jessica Jones are worthy of our respect and our full attention; let's let them have the freedom to call the shots as the story dictates.