Netflix’s ‘The Incredible Jessica James’ Isn’t “Incredible,” But Jessica Williams Is All That And More
Thats why she deserved a much better outing
Netflix’s recent offering The Incredible Jessica James starring former Daily Show correspondent and cohost of the lauded podcast — 2 Dope Queens — Jessica Williams — has been poised as the launching pad for the ultra charismatic actress and comedian — but unfortunately, writer Jim Strouse, who also directed this messy fare — failed to deliver a script worthy enough to elevate this natural-born star.
As with most lackluster offerings — the backdrop of a magnificent city coupled with a catchy soundtrack are the key ingredients to woo viewers into comfortable submission. In this case, New York City works overtime to lend a modernized grittiness to the world that burgeoning playwright and eligible bachelorette — Jessica James attempts to navigate.
Thanks to the playbook of HBO’s hit show Insecure — we are getting accustomed to the notion of a young, attractive, and creatively ambitious Black woman, pursuing her life in a manner that isn’t threatened by generic references or assumptions of how she will respond to the complexities that arise — regardless of race or creed.
Jessica James rocks her hub of Brooklyn with the authority that resembles any hip Brooklynite who hustles as a teacher to youngsters incubating the same dreams she still harbors— and then uses some of her free time to actively forget the guy she recently dumped for reasons that aren’t adequately flushed out.
What we do know is that Jessica has a very good friend in Tasha (played by Noel Wells) the brief but memorable girlfriend in Master of None, who bizarrely sets up her emotionally fragile pal with Boone, (Chris O’Dowd) the quintessential bumbling divorcee — who developed an asshole app for people who can’t tolerate the inconvenience of human relations.
The first meeting proves to be trendily awkward as we witness the contrived stages of the classic “date from hell” scenario where the chemistry is deadened by forced dialogue and empty banter.
This plays out even weirder when you consider that Strouse banked on the probability that the scenes between Williams and O’Dowd would be witty enough to validate the casting of such an aesthetically appealing pair. Unfortunately, the gamble didn’t pay off. And even the vow the two woefully mismatched pawns make — to follow each other’s exes — proves to be an unfathomed bonding ritual that does nothing to charm us into cheerleading mode.
The randomly distracting interludes of our heroine summoning visions of her ex-beau, Damon (played by Lakeith Stanfield, who had that “moment” in the critical darling of the year, Get Out) is a confusing exercise that does very little to evoke any empathy or concern for either party. This is due mostly to the realization that Williams also doesn’t seem to jive with Stanfield in the ways that recall how young love can die a sudden death — for no apparent reason.
The only moments in this unevenly construed contender that allow for snippets of emotion involve Jessica’s bond with an impressionably adorable and talented young student, Shandra, (played by Taliyah Whitaker) who is challenged by being the product of recently divorced parents. We also get a glimpse of Jessica’s familial issues when she travels to Ohio to attend her sister’s baby shower. Too much effort is exacted to demonstrate why she’s the black sheep of the family.
The rest of The Incredible Jessica James plays out in a passable way — but that’s only due to the incredible tenacity of Jessica Williams. Strouse, relied on the tropes of the presently eclectic climate — and lazily created a character that was supposed to just exist within the confines of a permissive spirit — that allows a Black woman to penetrate the avenues that once denied entry.
Outside the elements of the classroom where she’s raising future playwrights — and the family that treads lightly around her — Jessica relies mostly on her White counterparts— for support. This wouldn’t necessarily be misconstrued as “stagey”— if the associations were organically produced.
But, to be painfully honest, it’s difficult to understand these ties — particularly when Williams is doing all the heavy lifting. Her natural tendencies spring forth a deep longing to root for her — even when it’s clear that she’s not getting any direction.
Williams breathes life into this limp homage to her soaring spirit — by taking ownership and making the very best out of nothing. Such impeccable and seamless adherence to her signature output — should be rewarded with something that matches her enviable fluidity.
Instead, all we get is the short-circuited version of what we’re mandated to endorse because who better to write about a Black woman — trying to get over her Black ex-boyfriend while fucking around with a White guy that only certain Black girls can date — than a White guy who understands the narrative of under-privileged kids of color and the characteristics of Black girls who would be obliged to date a lackluster dude like Boone.
Jessica Williams did her best, but it wasn’t good enough to shield her or us from the tentacles of another detached sampling— that leaves all the work to the viewers — as they try in vain to figure out why they don’t give two fucks about the outcome of something that set them up for failure from the very start.
Williams will survive this dud and hopefully take matters into her own hands by relying on her own instincts — and the input of better placed individuals — who will know exactly what to do with her when the cameras start to roll.
For now, we can be relieved that she won’t fade into the dust of scarcity. There is so much much more to come. And, that’s not just Incredible — it’s a promise.