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For many, Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad will forever be a mighty beacon of television's scripted prowess, standing toe-to-toe with The Wire, The Sopranos, and The Shield in the annals of superb TV crime dramas. That highly laudable list may have a worthy addition in the form of Cinemax's Jett, the endlessly slick and stylish new series from star Carla Gugino and writer/director Sebastian Gutiérrez.
Without the use of its titular character's method of convincing others, only time will tell whether or not Jett can dig its deadly heels into audiences deep enough to make a permanent impact. But having seen the first half of the season available for reviews, I can easily say that Jett is easily my favorite TV crime drama since Breaking Bad, and without ever ripping it off. Jett hits every key point on the "high quality neo-noir" checklist, along with a few of its own blood-smeared write-in suggestions.
Let's look closer at what makes Jett an ideal slice of summer TV. (Also note that while Better Call Saul is one of my favorite shows on the air right now, it isn't completely a crime drama, so I don't put it in squarely in that category.)
It's Sebastian Gutiérrez's Best Work To Date
Anyone who keeps up with modern noir cinema is familiar with Sebastian Gutiérrez's films, many of which star Carla Gugino, his life partner of the past 15+ years. (Films such as Girl Walks into a Bar, Women in Trouble and Electra Luxx, with the latter two leading off an as-yet-unfinished trilogy.) As enjoyable as his filmography is, the biggest "problem," at least in my eyes, is that movies just don't allow audiences enough time to frolic in Gutiérrez's specifically realized worlds.
Compare all that with Jett, where every 60-minute episode feels like a fully rounded mini-movie, complete with all the Tarantino-esque genre staples and then some. At the center is the tried-and-true hook of a reformed criminal and mother – Gugino's Daisy "Jett" Kowalski – who regrettably gets pulled back into the thievery game with an arc populated by hornball kingpins, brazenly confident henchmen, damsels delivering distress, selfish cops, and lots of other slimeballs and questionable folk.
Here, Sebastian Gutiérrez takes the action and violence above and beyond his past efforts, if largely because there's so much more time for it. Jett ushers in some truly brutal moments that might cause viewers to turn their eyes for some stress-inducing frames; very often, though, the person being brutalized deserves every second of pain. Mix all that with a healthy (or unhealthy?) barrage of gorgeously lit nudity and a constant thread of dark humor, and it's clear that Gutiérrez has found the ideal medium for his pulpy storytelling.
Carla Gugino Is In Beast Mode
Even in Carla Gugino and Sebastian Gutiérrez's least memorable collaborations, the actress is always on her A-game, and Jett is her best shot since the cancelled-too-soon Karen Sisco to win over that show's vocal fanbase. Jett plays to all of Gugino's strengths, from physical dominance to mental superiority to unimpeded confidence and so on.
Of course, the many males characters within Jett are embarrassingly quick to remind Gugino's skilled thief just how beautiful she is. And while it's up for debate how much of that she actually appreciates – read as: very little – she definitely uses others' infatuation to her advantage in figuring out ways to fuck others over before they get to her first.
As the season progresses, Jett peels back its central character's layers to give audiences background info about her prison stint, her roles as a mother, and how she met the most important people in her life, from her live-in babysitter-of-sorts Maria (Elena Anaya) to her trusted friend Phoenix (Gaite Jansen). Carla Gugino anchors every scene, too, regardless of if she's delivering a long, heist-related monologue or if she's lighting a cigarette in deliberate silence. Basically, she's Breaking Bad's Heisenberg without as much "Walter White" shading.
Jett Even Stars Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito
The easiest way to inspire a comparison to Breaking Bad is to employ one of the crime drama's most stellar actors, which Jett did in signing on Giancarlo Esposito, whose drug lord Gustavo Fring is currently alive once more via AMC's prequel Better Call Saul. (Which he actually prefers to Breaking Bad, as far as the acting goes.)
In the same way that Walter White and Daisy Kowalski are two completely different kinds of criminals, Giancarlo Esposito's head honcho Charles Baudelaire has very little in common with Fring beyond an overwhelming sense of authority and power. Charles maximizes his influence for his own enjoyment of life and the luxuries that lots of dirty money can provide. Which means fans get to see Esposito smiling a lot, particularly when it comes to his sexual relationship with Jett.
In fact, perhaps the most enjoyable element about the character is watching the nonplussed passiveness on Giancarlo Esposito's face whenever Charles Baudelaire is in the midst of being frightfully ruthless. It ties in well with the Cinemax series' darkly comedic tones, though the looming shadow of Gus Fring adds an extra layer of menace to the actor's performance.
This Cast Fits The Story Perfectly
While we've already discussed Carla Gugino and Giancarlo Esposito's excellence, it's now time to shine a quick light on the rest of the actors and actresses filling out Jett's darkest corners and brightest mansions. Like Breaking Bad, it's a show that is rewarded by the efforts of a full ensemble.
For me, the standout of the bunch is Bosch vet Christopher Backus as Charles' surprisingly humane henchman Bennie, who delivers some truly A+ lines in Jett's early episodes. He also gets invested in his own side-story as a guardian angel, as it were, for a trouble woman named Rosalie (Lucy Walters), which leads to its own complications.
Then we have The Shannara Chronicles' Gentry White as Charles' son Junior – or just make that Charles Junior – who has built up his own reputation within the underworld as a coked-up sadist. Patriot's always convincing Gil Bellows plays Evans, Daisy's no-bullshit handler in her post-prison crime life. Other actors playing fast-talking delinquents include The Handmaid's Tale's Greg Bryk, Gypsy's Shiloh Fernandez, Law & Order True Crime's Gus Halper and more.
On the slightly more protagonistic side are the aforementioned Elena Anaya and Gaite Jansen, whose Maria and Phoenix are interesting reflections of Jett's own life and experiences, and are given more narrative weight than similar character usually get in pulpy projects like this. Michael Aranov seems like a ticking time bomb as former undercover agent Jackie Dillon, whose stays connected with Jett through their past together, complicating things with his partner/girlfriend, played by The Last Ship's Jodie Tuner-Smith.
I could never make so lofty a claim as to say that Jett will be remembered as one of the greatest crime dramas in all of television. As well, I obviously can't objectively claim it's just as good as Breaking Bad in every single way, considering the comparison would be completely unbalanced. It's not going to be everyone nudity-filled cup of tea, which is fine, because it succeeds in reaching the exact goals it's aiming for.
I think I can safely say, however, that its intelligence and wily storytelling gives Jett the current stronghold on the cops-and-criminals TV that's airing in 2019. Plus, I think I'm technically enjoying Jett (in the most all-encompassing sense of the word) more than I enjoyed Breaking Bad's first season when it aired back in 2008. Now to get started on some Daisy Kowalski and Walter White fan fiction...