Daisy “Jett” Kowalski (Carla Gugino) is someone whose face people remember. A silent, meticulous thief who can translate those skills into something more outwardly elegant when necessary, Jett stumbles across multiple past associates along her way to getting out of a life of crime for good. But by necessity, “Jett” is more than just its title character. Watching the new Cinemax series, written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez, is watching Jett wind through a thinly disguised world of scumbags, well-intentioned thieves, and people caught in between both camps. It’s filled with characters and situations we’ve seen before, but her journey makes that familiar trip worth it.
Despite her criminal prowess, Jett isn’t infallible. Gutierrez wisely stays away from making his central character an impervious angel of vengeance, even if there are some sequences that do tend in that direction. The most compelling moments of the series find Jett being forced to outwit her opponents, recalibrating a plan on the fly when necessary. Sometimes those opponents are cloaked in friendliness. Other times, all that’s missing is a twirling mustache to signal their arrival.
However strong she may be in hand-to-hand combat or in gathering information for an impending heist, Jett’s true strength lies in her preparation. Adopting the array of wigs and outfits and cover stories of plenty on-screen spies before her, “Jett” is at its most thrilling when the audience can sense that Jett has all literal and figurative angles covered. She knows where the cameras are, she knows the quickest ways to the exit, and she remembers what some informant told her years ago to help connect a stranger to her intended target.
Gugino has proven that she’s more than capable to handle a role like this. She got her first front-and-center TV role on the acclaimed, but shortlived series “Karen Sisco.” Now, a decade and a half later, she’s back with another title character that also feels in line with her former show’s literary origins. While many of the figures in “Jett” — like her dapper and enigmatic handler Charlie Baudelaire (Giancarlo Esposito) — are tasked with fitting into a particular criminal underworld archetype, Gugino is given a much greater opportunity to show off her versatility. She handles the stylized, snappy dialogue with confidence and gives purpose to each of Jett’s acts of physical and mental dexterity.
Gutierrez plays with each episode’s timeline, often working backward to give context to the present. Sometimes these diversions feel like a necessary surprise, designed to challenge perceptions of a particular character or to undercut assumptions of the various personal relationship in Jett’s immediate orbit. Occasionally though, these can feel like manufactured narrative trickery when the events themselves end up being far more straightforward.
On the whole, the further away from Jett the show strays, the more momentum it tends to lose. Certain secondary relationships are more effective than others — Charlie’s footsoldiers justify their screentime far more than the pair of detectives who are partners in more ways than one. Even when those storylines don’t seem like mere padding for each episode’s hourlong runtime, the pull of “Jett” comes from watching the next steps in Jett’s survival plans unfold.
Though this series may end up in the very near future on some all-encompassing streaming platform, future viewers will be able to peg this as a Cinemax show almost from the outset. “Jett” fits in with the network’s history of action series. But even for a show this pulpy at times, there’s are enough scenes where sex feels shoehorned in as if done to meet a quota.
So it feels all the more exciting when “Jett” does manage to play against expectations and deliver a version of this crime world that feels of its making rather than indebted to a genre checklist. Jett does travel internationally, but even when sticking close to home, there’s a distinct attempt to switch up the show’s color palette that makes Jett’s world feel more expansive and vibrant.
In the show’s early going, “Jett” is certainly not shy about ticking up its body count, either. When this feels earned, it contributes to a real sense of dread, that even if Jett is savvy enough to navigate treacherous conditions, she can’t save everyone. Then there are times when someone is offed in broad daylight merely as a means to underline who the show’s villains are.
With Jett as its center, the show does effectively handle the tricky balance between job-of-the-week procedural and evolving crime saga. When seen through her eyes, whether in a backroom bathed in neon light or an abandoned warehouse or on the deck of a bridge, there’s a slickness to “Jett” that helps propel it along. It’s not a reinvention, but there aren’t many versions of this story that have done it with more style.
“Jett” airs Friday nights at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.