Early in the second episode of Jett, a new crime series written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez, master thief Jett Kowalski (Carla Gugino) engages in a tense exchange with a man named Evans (Gil Bellows), a handler for a powerful criminal to whom she's reluctantly come to owe some favors. Trying to assure her that he's not her enemy he says, "Just remember, nothing's black and white."
It's an eye-rolling pulp cliché but don't reach for the remote yet. Without missing a beat, Jett responds, "What about a panda?" a line Gugino delivers with delightfully dead-eyed contempt. Then she keeps going: "Skunk? Zebra? Killer whale? Soccer ball? Keyboard? Dominoes?" And, sure, maybe that stretches the gag a little too far, but going too far seems like half the point. And even if the seemingly endless recitation of black-and-white items wouldn't work coming from most actors, Gugino isn't most actors and her magnetic presence puts it over.
It's a moment that sums up the series around it, a riff on Elmore Leonard-inspired themes starring an actress well-versed in that world thanks to one too-short season starring in the Leonard-created Karen Sisco (and a memorable episode of Justified in which she reprised the role in all but name). Jett understands it's exploring familiar territory, but it does so with unusual daring and intensity. Motörhead once put out a live album with the title Everything Louder than Everyone Else. Gutierrez seems to be driven by a similar mission statement: sexier and more stylish than everyone else.
Not that that's how Jett wants to live. As the series opens, she's hoping to enjoy a quiet, normal life with her daughter Alice (Violet McGraw). Well, as quiet and normal as a retired thief can expect. And she's not trying to be that normal. At the park, she sits across from the other moms, watching Alice while they tap away on their phones. When asked where she used to live, she volunteers "prison." When one refers to Maria (Elena Anaya) as her nanny, she points out they're wrong without clarifying the relationship (and the series takes its time clarifying it for viewers). But her plan has a problem. Trouble is, Jett's the best at what she does: leading teams to steal items that seemingly no one else could steal, and others know it.
No one knows this better than Charlie Baudelaire (Giancarlo Esposito), a crime boss who makes no attempt to hide his admiration for Jett's skills, or his interest in her sexually, an interest she occasionally indulges out of some combination of affection and politics. That doesn't mean they trust one another, or that they should. The breathless first episode features both a loyalty test and a betrayal with complications that ripple through subsequent episodes after Charlie and his son Junior (Gentry White) compel Jett into performing one more job: retrieving a priceless ring from the safe of one of Charlie's rivals (Greg Bryk). After reaching out to Quinn (The Deuce's Mustafa Shakir), a colleague with whom she also has a line-blurring relationship, she pulls the job off flawlessly. Almost.
The first two episodes of Jett both climax with intricately executed heist scenes and both end with "How's she going to get out of this one?" cliffhangers that make it hard not to move on to the next episode right away. It would probably be asking too much for the series to sustain that momentum, but it's hard not to grow a little concerned when subsequent episodes start to sag a bit. Of the five episodes provided to critics, Episodes 3 through 5 suffer a bit from an overabundance of characters and subplots that, at this point at least, can feel like distractions from the main plot, like a cop ally (Michael Aronov) having an extramarital affair with his partner (Jodie Turner-Smith) and an enforcer (Christopher Backus) who becomes infatuated with a woman he once kidnapped (Lucy Walters). In the end, it might all come together like a perfectly planned heist. Currently it feels like a lot of characters competing for viewers' attention.
They're all well-realized, however, and they all tend to spout lines like "Everything's medicine. Everything's a poison" that reflect directly on Jett's own struggle to find a balance between what she does best and the life she wants to live. Still, it's a far more gripping show whenever it keeps the focus on Gugino's performance, which offsets the sometimes wild plot developments -- assassinations! prison shankings! -- by under-reacting while conveying just enough vulnerability to make it clear that she uses cool as a defense mechanism. She's balanced nicely by Esposito, who plays Charlie as a chuckling, effusive, extrovert, a mirror image of Gus Fring who's, in his own way, just as terrifying.
Previously best known for the Pedro Almodóvar-inspired indie film Women in Trouble and other indie films, Gutierrez (who's collaborated with Gugino, his off-screen partner, many times before) directs with a kinetic style and with a fondness for dramatic flourishes, moody lighting, and striking framing. It's the work of someone who appears to be having a ball cutting loose and trying out every crime genre idea he's ever had --and taking every chance to fill the screen with sex and violence -- while still serving a story about a woman trying to hold onto her soul in a world filled with temptation and betrayal. Whether Jett will bring it all together at season's end remains to be seen, but it's clearly going to be fun to watch it try.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Jett premieres Friday, June 14 on Cinemax.