In Jett, Carla Gugino Plays One of the Coolest Criminals in TV History

[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]

Where to Watch “Jett”: HBO Max (the series originally aired on Cinemax)

One of the first things you notice about “Jett” is the color. Even in the dingiest locations, saddled with the occasional criminal underworld lowlife, there’s usually something in the frame that pops. It could be an interior drenched in neon mood lighting, a bright eye-catching accessory, or a bulb giving off any shade other than beige. This is a show set in a world of criminals, one that they’re not afraid to add a little zest to.

The best parts of this series, written and directed by Sebastián Gutiérrez, recognize the idea that all of that pizzazz means nothing if there’s nothing to the people under that glow. Luckily, “Jett” has the ultimate secret weapon in Carla Gugino. As Daisy “Jett” Kowalski, an expert-level burglar sucked back into a ring of thieves she’d tried to swear off, she commands attention in the same way as any of those visual flourishes.

It’s almost pointless to describe where Jett stands at the start of the series, given how much Gutiérrez dispatches with any conventional chronology. Over the nine episodes of the show’s first (and to this point only) season, Jett has to balance keeping not only herself alive but those she holds dearest to her, as well. They include (but aren’t limited to) her daughter Alice and a handful of former associates from her days pulling off jobs of various sizes. Some of these relationships stray from the professional to the personal. Others have soured, due to things that happened before, during, or after Jett’s time in prison. When you’re in that line of work for long enough, you get to the point where everyone is either a friend or an enemy. Sometimes, it’s hard to know which is which.

Plopped into a web of uneasy alliances with Charlie Baudelaire (Giancarlo Esposito) at the center, Jett has to summon old contacts and instinctive skills in order to get out intact. Some of it involves wrangling new jobs as part of a complex collection of revenge plots. Whether she’s organizing these plans, carrying them out, or sifting through the aftermath, “Jett” is at its most enjoyable when its title character gets to be great at what she does. Gugino brings the even keel and no-nonsense demeanor that jibes so well with the show’s overall neo-noir goals (she’s right at home in both the verbal and physical showdowns), but when “Jett” wants to flip around those conventions from the inside, she’s more than capable of helping that pivot happen.

Jett’s network of ex-cons and ex-coworkers draws in plenty of memorable faces, but it’s hard not to get drawn in by Esposito’s unsurprising magnetism. Like Gugino, so much of his on-screen career has been spent being the platonic ideal of actorly composure. Yet “Jett” gives him the odd chance to snap and really lean into the ruthlessness of the business that most of these characters have chosen. There’s some real brutality to how some of that unfolds, so it’s hard to recommend “Jett” as a breezy holiday binge. Though, as something that doesn’t rest easy and all but demands your attention, it’s one of those shows that’s really hard to pull yourself away from.

Like “Banshee,” “Jett” knew how to take the expectations of being a Cinemax original and use it to its advantage. There’s a good chance in 10 years, “Jett” is the kind of show we’ll wish there were more of. Then again, if there’s still a glimmer of hope that the show can come back at some point as part of the bigger HBO Max family, maybe we won’t have to.

Other Fans: At Salon, Melanie McFarland has this insightful look at how TV — particularly two summers ago when “Jett” first debuted — was in the middle of a reexamination of how shows used nudity as a story element. In looking at the ways “Jett” shows a careful consideration of how physicality of all kinds plays out in this stylized world, McFarland points to how other series could potentially benefit from its example.

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