This question originally appeared on Quora, the knowledge-sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.
Answer by Dan Holliday, lover of all sci-fi, action, and comic-book movies:
It’s the first (that I know of) really well-told female superhero TV series. (Yes, I’m aware of Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman, the many female superheros on the larger cast-driven TV series such as Heroes and Agents of Shield. But as stand-alone dramas, Wonder Woman and Bionic Woman were frequently hokey and, for me, incredibly dated. However, Xena does count as the most successful and well-produced female superhero TV series, so Jessica Jones gets second place.) It avoids the standard trap when exploring the depth and life of a “new type” of character (the trail-blazers: first female superhero, first black superhero, first gay superhero) of portraying them simplistically as all wise, good, noble, and driven by the best virtues.
It’s a subtle bit of prejudice. We saw this in the ’80s when a lot of TV shows that portrayed strong women or black characters in authority: They were always just so perfectly perfect. Their leadership was flawless, or they were the wise black women sharing their brilliance with them. It’s not that there aren’t such characters; it’s just that they’re really boring and insipid.
In real life, people are flawed. They have a mixture of goodness and evil in all of them. Sometimes it’s more of one than the other. Sometimes it’s about half and half. But whatever it is, people—when successfully portrayed on the screen—have all sorts of nuances to them that make for interesting story-telling.
In Jessica Jones, her powers aren’t unstoppable. She isn’t bulletproof. She can get her ass kicked. A baseball bat to the head doesn’t kill her like it would you and me—she heals very quickly. But she can be killed. She can be harmed. She’s just exceptionally stronger (my guess is that it hovers around 10 times) and moderately invulnerable (perhaps only five times). She heals at a considerably faster rate (I tried to keep track, but it looked about 20 times).
She’s an alcoholic. She’s recovering from very, very severe PTSD. She’s careless with her sexual partners (or, maybe she’s just super-immune to disease, which would be an interesting take). She is a curmudgeon. She doesn’t take shit, and she just thinks the worst of everybody.
But those are her flaws, and she knows it. She knows her weaknesses, yet she’s driven by a thread of compassion and hope for something better in the future. Some of that is just “balancing the scales” because of all the guilt she carries. Some of it is true compassion and empathy for human beings.
But she’s also driven by hatred and fear. When she does good, it’s not always out of compassion. Sometimes she lets her anger compel her to get to the next step. She allows hatred to motivate her as much as love and hope. We see all of these characteristics in a person, and they battle it out in front of us, and that made for compelling TV.
The show didn’t depend on a constant parade of superpowers to tell an interesting story. That’s been done: Tomorrow People, Alphas, the 4400, the Sentinel, Misfits, Agents of Shield, Heroes, Smallville, Flash/Green Arrow. The powers, over and over again, get really old really quickly. Once you’ve seen them, you become numb to them.
This is why these Netflix shows are so good. Yes, you get to see a smattering of their powers, but there’s a real story to tell, and the powers are only just useful enough because the person they’re fighting equally matches them. Whether that’s overly convenient is another issue. But the fact that the superhero has to use more than his or her powers is why it’s interesting.
Jessica Jones isn’t just superhuman. She’s also really smart. She’s got a knack for investigation. She sees the clues. She can smell bullshit like a human lie-detector. She takes in the details of her surroundings and is aware of what’s going on around her. With or without super-strength, she’d be a compelling story. But with them, she elevates the story to a new level because she engages villains who have their own power set.