It’s been quite a while since the old “Skinemax” nickname applied to Cinemax, which was once the premium-cable destination of choice for viewers looking for erotic adult fare with minimal plot interference. Cinemax’s original series in recent years have been far more sophisticated than stereotypical softcore porn, but the network’s reputation is hard to shake, and Cinemax originals still often feature a strong emphasis on nudity and violence, at times at the expense of plotting. At best, this can provide a fast-paced, unpretentious alternative to dreary prestige dramas. At worst, it can produce something like Jett, a leaden noir-style drama with frequent sex scenes and violent confrontations (sometimes simultaneously).
Created by veteran B-movie filmmaker Sebastian Gutierrez (who wrote and directed all nine episodes in the first season), Jett stars Gutierrez’s longtime personal partner and professional collaborator Carla Gugino as Daisy “Jett” Kowalski, an expert thief attempting to go straight after serving a few years in prison. Of course, career criminals who attempt to go straight in movies and TV series never succeed in their efforts, and Jett is soon drawn back into the underworld, thanks to her connection with debonair crime boss Charlie Baudelaire (Giancarlo Esposito). Charlie hires her for one of those mythical “one final score” jobs, but naturally things go sour, and Jett finds herself on the hook to a very dangerous man, stuck working more jobs as she attempts to provide a more stable life for her young daughter Alice (Gugino’s The Haunting of Hill House co-star Violet McGraw).
Jett’s network of allies and enemies includes various friends and lovers (and ex-lovers), from an undercover cop she once saved from having his cover blown to a prostitute she helped protect from a prison gang while behind bars. Her initial mission puts her at odds with Charlie’s son Junior (Gentry White), a petulant, vindictive brat whose predilection for sexual assault takes him uncomfortably close to the regressive stereotype of a predatory gay villain. The show is full of problematic romantic and sexual relationships, but rather than challenge or subvert them, Gutierrez settles for hollow titillation.
With its damaged heroine blackmailed into returning to a life of crime while working to become a better parent, Jett has a lot in common with TNT’s short-lived Good Behavior, starring Michelle Dockery, and like Good Behavior, Jett is trying way too hard to seem edgy and dark, while just coming across as phony and desperate. At least it has Gugino in the title role, and she brings the perfect mix of intensity and sensuality to Jett, just as she has in crime and noir productions from Sin City to the much-missed cult series Karen Sisco. If Gugino weren’t Gutierrez’s partner and an executive producer on the show herself, it might seem like she got a raw deal here. She’s stuck playing a cliched sexy thief who uses her feminine wiles to get what she wants, but Gugino adds depth to Jett that goes beyond the trite plotting and purple dialogue (if nothing else, it suggests she would have been the perfect person to play Catwoman at pretty much any point in her career).
Gugino may even have been the driving force behind Gutierrez’s entire career (she’s starred in every movie he ever directed), and she’s definitely pulling more weight here than he is. The first episode opens with a scene so blatantly ripped off from Pulp Fiction that it’s hard to believe it isn’t an intentional parody, although Gutierrez plays everything here unimaginatively straight. Two of Baudelaire’s henchmen sit in a car discussing the ethical implications of accepting a swimming invitation from their boss’ wife, and their overwritten banter recalls a strained version of the dynamic between Pulp Fiction’s Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta), right down to the subject matter. Their on-a-dime switch from lighthearted chit-chat to staging a violent kidnapping is also straight out of the Quentin Tarantino playbook.
Gutierrez also frequently employs non-linear storytelling that accomplishes nothing aside from jerking the audience around, allowing him to open episodes on seemingly shocking moments that turn out to be a lot less significant than they first appear. Episodes often stop dead for character-building flashbacks that offer virtually no insight, and exist solely as excuses for further nudity or violence, both of which show up at such regular intervals that it comes off like Gutierrez is working on a timetable. It’s certainly possible to do something clever and innovative within this B-movie exploitation framework, but Gutierrez just puts Jett through familiar gangster-movie scenarios, relying on Gugino’s sultry allure to fill in the blanks.
He tries hard with the visuals, too, using split-screen compositions and off-kilter camera angles in addition to plenty of moody, neon-colored lighting to evoke stylish crime pictures from classic noir to paranoid ’70s thrillers to Brian De Palma and Steven Soderbergh movies. As the calm, confident, crime boss, Esposito is clearly trading on his image as Gus Fring from Breaking Bad. The collection of eccentric characters could have walked out of a novel by Elmore Leonard (whose work provided the source material for Karen Sisco), but Gutierrez’s self-consciously hard-boiled dialogue sounds more like it came from one of the many Tarantino knock-offs that flooded the market in the ’90s. In that sense, it’s not too far from something that Cinemax would have aired in the ’90s, right alongside all that “Skinemax” stuff. The level of dramatic sophistication is only slightly higher.
Starring Carla Gugino, Giancarlo Esposito, Gil Bellows, Elena Anaya, Michael Aronov, Gaite Jansen, Chris Backus, Gentry White, Jodie Turner-Smith and Violet McGraw, Jett airs Fridays at 10 p.m. starting June 14 on Cinemax.