Carla Gugino’s first job as a TV series regular was playing Michael J. Fox’s reporter girlfriend Ashley on Spin City in 1996. It was a big break that instead broke bad: The show’s creators quickly realized Ashley was a distraction from the funnier workplace scenes, and Gugino was let go after a dozen episodes. So thorough was her erasure from the series that an Ashley subplot was removed from a rerun that aired not long after Gugino’s last episode, replaced by previously-cut footage featuring other characters who were still on the show.
Things have largely worked out for Gugino in the years since. She never became a household name, but she works constantly in movies and television. And of late she’s having the kind of career renaissance generally not available to actresses of a certain age. She did terrific work as the imprisoned heroine in Gerald’s Game and as the ethereal mother in The Haunting of Hill House. And as the title character of Cinemax’s new crime drama Jett, she’s so charismatic and smoldering that it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when it would have been possible to remove all trace of her from another show.
Created by Sebastian Gutierrez (Snakes on a Plane), the series stars Gugino as Daisy “Jett” Kowalski, a master thief recently out of prison, hoping to live the quiet life with daughter Alice (Violet McGraw) and Maria (Elena Anaya), a mysterious companion whom everyone mistakenly assumes is her housekeeper. But Jett is both great at what she does and great to look at (the show could more accurately be titled Jett: A Deadly Thirst Trap), which means she keeps drawing the attention of criminals who enjoy both her services and her company. Local crime lord Charlie Baudelaire (Giancarlo Esposito, far more relaxed than he is as Gus Fring, but still dangerous) wants her to steal a ring from the Havana home of rival Milan Bestic (Greg Bryk), who may or may not be involved with Charlie’s son Charlie Junior (Gentry White), who may or may not be the primary target of cop Jack Dillon (Michael Aronov), who once got involved with Jett when he was undercover in her crew. Everyone wants something from Jett, who mostly wants to be left alone, and before you can you say “Just one last job,” she’s somehow providing services for all of them, even as she tries to get free of everything.
It is, as that description suggests, a labyrinthine show. And I haven’t even gotten into the subplots about Jack’s affair with his partner Josie (Jodie Turner-Smith), Charlie’s feud with kingpin Jacinto Salas (Ache Hernandez), Jett’s friendship with fellow ex-con Phoenix (Gaite Jansen), or Charlie’s henchman Bennie (Chris Backus) becoming obsessed with a woman (Lucy Walters) whom he briefly kidnaps to help Jett’s ex-partner Quinn (Mustafa Shakir) secure early release from prison. To make matters more convoluted, Gutierrez favors bouncing around in time to provide backstory, or to open an episode with an intriguing mystery — why is Jett’s torso soaked in blood as she takes a call from Alice’s school? — before jumping back hours or even weeks earlier to explain how we got there.
The sheer tonnage of plot and character and twists can be exhausting, even if you, like me, happen to be in the tank for hard-boiled crime fiction of this type. (It’s not an Elmore Leonard adaptation, but it would feel indebted to Leonard even if Gugino hadn’t starred in the brilliant-but-canceled Out of Sight spinoff Karen Sisco.) Gutierrez (who writes and directs each episode) has a tendency to wallow in some of the genre’s more lurid aspects. Mid-kidnapping, for instance, Bennie warns his victim’s husband that he will sexually assault her every hour on the hour, then “chop her up and mail you the body parts.” And when an opponent realizes Jett is going to let him bleed to death, his dying request is to ask, “What does your pussy taste like?” “Summer,” she replies without skipping a beat.
Gugino owns the frame every second she’s in it, which means the show suffers in her absence, even if a strong co-star like Esposito or Gil Bellows (who plays Evans, Bestic’s lieutenant) is there in her place. She and Gutierrez are partners in real life and frequent professional collaborators. He has an intimate understanding of how best to showcase her. It goes beyond the stylish costumes Jett struts around in to draw attention away from the things she wants to steal; it’s how unflappably cool Gugino can be in almost every scenario. Jett’s shot in the arm at the end of one episode; at the start of the next, we see her calmly bandaging the wound while driving a stolen getaway car, without ever taking her eyes off the road or losing control of the vehicle. Most of the men on the show (and many of the women) are in love with her to some degree, and everyone talks about how unpredictable she is. The reactions of everyone else demand a lead performance superheroic in its understated charisma. Gugino (who did briefly play the first Silk Spectre in Watchmen) thankfully lives up to the challenge. It’s a great performance buoying a pretty good show, and the sort of thing Gugino’s had in her for a long time, even if her jobs have only occasionally allowed her to demonstrate it to this spectacular degree.