'Jett': TV Review

Not quite Elmore Leonard, but full of genre pleasures.

Cinemax and Sebastian Gutierrez give Carla Gugino her most Karen Sisco-esque part since 'Karen Sisco' with this stylish pulp thriller.

From multicamera sitcoms to serialized dramas to creepy miniseries, family films to R-rated thrillers, supporting roles to star turns, Carla Gugino's career has been varied and difficult to pin down. For a small but knowledgeable subset of viewers, though, the actress' best work was on 2003's short-lived ABC drama Karen Sisco. I've always insisted that there's an alternate world in which Karen Sisco was a major hit and earned Gugino a handful of Emmy nominations, and yet another world in which the character's appearance on FX's Justified launched a lucrative spinoff. Instead, in our world, I've been left wondering why Hollywood hasn't found Gugino more parts in a similarly hard-boiled, tough-talking, Elmore Leonard-esque vein.

Cinemax's Jett comes close. Written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez (Elektra Luxx), Jett feels like an adaptation of a long-running franchise of crime novels that doesn't actually exist, filled (sometimes to excess) with suave crime lords, verbose henchmen, ambitious heists, steamy sex and unexpected double-crosses, and anchored by an enigmatic and intriguing lead character. Jett is probably a little too derivative for its own good, but through five of its first nine episodes, it marks another fun-but-not-too-deep entry in Cinemax's stable of expanded B-movie genre pieces. And it's a great showcase for Gugino.

Gugino plays Daisy "Jett" Kowalski, a former thief hoping to stay clean after her release from prison, living in simple domesticity with her daughter and the mysterious Maria (Elena Anaya). Of course, just when she thinks she's out, she gets yanked back in by mercurial gangster Charlie Baudelaire (Giancarlo Esposito), who needs her to pull off a job involving an Eastern European crook (Greg Bryk) in Havana (filmed effectively on location). The job requires that Jett's old partner and flame Quinn (Mustafa Shakir) get broken out of prison and, naturally, nothing goes according to plan. The resulting chaos escalates and involves Charlie's psychotic son (Gentry White), a good-natured hooker from Rotterdam (Gaite Jansen's Phoenix), a pair of philandering detectives (Michael Aronov and Jodie Turner-Smith), a droll fixer known only as Evans (Gil Bellows) and a spiral of screwing, stealing and backstabbing.

Gutierrez's writing-directing credits have mostly been messy and inconsistent ensembles characterized by verbosity and the opportunity to give substantive parts to longtime partner Gugino. This is a step forward for him. There's no question that as the writer of 2004's hit-and-miss The Big Bounce, he knows his way around Elmore Leonard and that's the vein he's working in. Jett is full of take-no-shit women, blunt comebacks and underworld figures with an interest in arcane pop culture. Leonard, legendary for his meticulous brevity never would have tolerated the bloat that allows episodes here to sometimes exceed an hour, but he would have respected how Jett feels simultaneously convoluted in its twistiness and literary in how it weaves characters, some introduced almost as afterthoughts, through the season — and also how frequently seemingly major characters are abruptly dispatched.

Outside of that detour in Havana, Leonard probably also would have demanded more geographic specificity from Jett, which blends many of the author's favored locales into a vague-yet-detailed world of dive bars, neon-studded storefronts and classy hotels in which the lighting in every lobby or hallway looks to have been selected exclusively to complement whatever attire Jett has selected to peacock through the scene.

So much of Jett is inspired by the affection Gutierrez and cinematographer Cale Finot have for Gugino, who rewards that affection with a performance of sensitivity and swagger. Whether Jett is spitting out threats, washing blood from her undergarments — there's perhaps too much torture here at times — controlling a crime scene with a gun or seducing basically every character within the frame, there isn't a second Gugino isn't believable and magnetic.

Supporting standouts include the always smooth Esposito; the instantly odd and likable Jansen; a nicely menacing Bellows; Chris Backus as my favorite of the show's erudite thugs; and Gugino's Gerald's Game co-star Bruce Greenwood boasting an entertaining accent I'm still trying to figure out.

The too-brief Quarry, with its rich period trappings and Vietnam backdrop, remains the best and most nuanced of Cinemax's recent run of lean-and-mean genre entries, but Jett joins the likes of Banshee and Warrior as shows that deliver no-nonsense pulp pleasures. And it reminds us of how well Gugino fits into this sort of world.

Cast: Carla Gugino, Giancarlo Esposito, Elena Anaya, Michael Aronov, Gaite Jansen, Chris Backus, Gil Bellows, Jodie Turner-Smith, Gentry White, Mustafa Shakir
Created, written and directed by: Sebastian Gutierrez
Premieres: Friday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Cinemax)