While the world waits for Graham Yost and Timothy Olyphant to bring Raylan Givens back to TV following the cancelations of both Sneaky Pete and Santa Clarita Diet, Cinemax subscribers can get their fix by tuning in to Carla Gugino’s lively and stylish new crime series, Jett, which is remarkably reminiscent of the late author’s quirky, fast-talking style. Written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez (Women in Trouble, Gothika), Jett follows the exploits of recently paroled career criminal Daisy “Jett” Kowalski as she takes on the proverbial “one last job,” kicking off a propulsive crime caper that would be right at home with the works of Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh.
This isn’t exactly new territory for Gugino, who was essentially born to play this role, as she previously starred in the lamentably canceled ABC series Karen Cisco (and appeared in a one-off episode of Justified as a very Karen Sisco-like investigator), based on the Elmore Leonard character portrayed by Jennifer Lopez in Soderbergh’s endlessly re-watchable Out of Sight. It is, however, a far cry from her most recent exploits on television in Neftlix and Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game and The Haunting of Hill House, and through the magic of casting, Gugino’s Jett is mother to an adorable moppet played by her Hill House daughter Violet McGraw.
Despite the mother-daughter overlap between the two series, Gugino delivers a character who operates on a completely different wavelength, one that has her playing a rare female antihero who isn’t just a gender-swapped version of the typical male antiheroes populating stories of this kind. Instead, Jett offers up a tale of an ultra-competent thief making her way through an unsurprisingly male-dominated underworld. And as its most dominant underworld figure, the series turns to Gustavo Fring himself, Giancarlo Esposito, as crime boss Charlie Baudelaire, who woos Jett back into a dangerous game mere months after she was released from prison. But the circumstances of Jett’s “final” job aren’t as simple as they appear, as a trip to Cuba to steal a ring from Eastern Block baddie (and Peter Facinelli lookalike contest winner) Milan Bestic (Greg Byrk) results in a domino effect of double-crosses, mixed allegiances, and the pursuit of sweet, sweet revenge that makes crime stories like this one so much fun to watch.
Gutierrez excels at a genre-specific brand of non-linear storytelling, jumping back and forth in time and often interlacing the action or dialogue with quiet moments revealing the interiority of Jett’s intimate thoughts. The information gleaned from those brief but important interludes afford the audience entry into the character’s state of mind, and it’s a valuable storytelling tool considering Jett most often presents herself via a series of prescribed facades as a means of navigating her way through a variety of difficult scenarios, often with men who, though they may value her expertise as a thief, most often see her as a sexual object.
And while Jett’s multitudinous narrative layers exceed the usual for an hour-long drama — even one on a premium channel like Cinemax — and sometimes teeters on the brink of convolution, it stops short of being overly engineered or exasperating, and instead is simply fun to watch. There is a similar sentiment with regard to some of the show’s dialogue as well, as it occasionally hews remarkably close to early Tarantino scripts with its focus on likable criminals talking at length about otherwise banal subjects, while sitting in a car in Los Angeles. But those criminals — particularly Bennie, the exceedingly polite and dapper thug played by Chris Backus (Roadies) — are so likable, it’s easy to forgive the Tarantino-ness of it all, or at least see it for what it is: a playful homage.
That likability extends to almost the entire cast, particularly former Luke Cage villain and The Deuce bouncer Mustafa Shakir, who plays Quinn, a convicted safe cracker and love interest of Jett’s who is not only the focus of many of Jett’s innermost thoughts, but also becomes the catalyst for her spiraling plot that sees her play two crime lords against one another in a Yojimbo-like game of back and forth. There are exceptions, though, as the aforementioned Milan Bestic is out nearly bad guy-ed by Charlie’s ambitious son, Junior (Gentry White, UnReal). It’s through these two characters that Jett’s otherwise buoyant and playful tone is balanced with a level of violence that reaches for disturbing but the series itself never regards with a wink.
And though Gugino’s magnetic persona and performance are the cornerstones of the series, Gutierrez manages to introduce a variety of supporting characters and subplots that, at first glance, are throwaway contrivances, though they eventually morph into significant threads that offer necessary character development for seemingly tangential members of the cast. This, in addition to the calculated and almost painterly way Gutierrez and his cinematographer Cale Finot compose so many of the series’ shots make each hour an engaging crime saga unto itself.
With its eccentric, quippy criminals, sprawling underworld, and engaging lead character, Jett is welcome female-centric addition to Cinemax’s typically hyper-masculinized lineup of original programming. It will also scratch that Elmore Leonard itch for anyone who’s been missing that sort of thing on TV as of late.
Jett premieres Friday, June 14 @10pm on Cinemax.