How Cinemax's "Jett" does nudity — and plenty of it — right

“Jett” is the very rare show that artfully incorporates nudity and sexuality in its cinematic dialogue

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 20, 2019 5:10PM (EDT)

Carla Gugino in "Jett" (Ben Mark Holzberg/CINEMAX)
Carla Gugino in "Jett" (Ben Mark Holzberg/CINEMAX)

An upcoming episode of “Jett” brings us inside a hotel suite where expert thief Daisy "Jett" Kowalski is temporarily shacked up with crime kingpin Charlie Baudelaire. The gangster’s mistress is stripped bare. The pair has planned a very hot encounter in detail, down to the soundtrack: Nina Simone’s cover of “Save Me,” a song originally co-written by Aretha Franklin.

But “Jett” series creator Sebastian Gutierrez never shows them doing the deed itself, only the action prior and breaks between. Within these interludes, Gutierrez uses a meticulously choreographed dance between the actors’ bodies and a few props — mainly fancy dishes holding dessert — to inject honesty into a scene filled with deceitful dialogue.

Charlie, played by Giancarlo Esposito, is asking questions of series star Carla Gugino’s Jett that she will not answer, and others require untruthful responses. Jett is naturally skilled in evasiveness — a trait of the trade, surely. But that’s the point. Charlie isn't meant to see through her distractions.

During the scene the director and set designer frame Gugino’s naked body to subtly tease the viewer in the style of a burlesque strip, revealing enough of Gugino's skin to give us an idea of what's happening. Charlie casually eats a dessert off a plate placed on Jett’s posterior, and she reads a paper that covers her cleavage. She sidesteps a question about her past by sliding out of bed and crossing the room, giving a full view of her backside as she drops the needle on the record groove that holds “Save Me,” an invitation for another round.

Then Charlie asks a question requiring Jett to lie, and she does — while sitting herself down at a table laden with a full coffee service: china cups, dishes and all. She tells her tale while stark naked and splay-legged, nattering on about a goofy mishap that never happened while giving her lover the full Penthouse centerfold view. But between Charlie’s eyes and ours are the dishes, the coffee, and table itself. Like Charlie, the viewer gets the suggestion of an eyeful without Gugino giving anything away.

“You have a bunch of fun being a girl, don’t you?” Charlie purrs to Jett, who replies, “I can make my own decisions, if that’s what you mean.”

“Jett” is a terrifically fun series, a color-saturated summertime crime caper built for speed and fans of Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino. It also lives on Cinemax, where its nine-episode season is currently airing Fridays at 10 p.m., and that infers the expectation of skin and sex.

But let’s jump back in time to lay out the plot: In addition to being a world-class thief,  Jett is a mother and a protective friend to her confidante Maria (Elena Anaya), who lives with her and her young daughter Alice (Violet McGraw). When the series begins she’s recently emerged from prison and trying to stay out of trouble. But Charlie persuades her to do one more job for him, tasking her to steal a very valuable ring from a European gangster named Miljan Bestic (Greg Bryk).

Jett works at a bar as a requirement of her release, but she also has bills to pay. Alice has school, and Maria has a terminal illness. So Jett takes the job, only to have it go sideways, trapping her between several criminal factions jockeying for dominance. But Jett has her own arsenal to call upon, including unparalleled skills with breaking and entering, family connections (it is hinted that crime runs in her blood), an I.Q. that enables her to stay several steps ahead of everyone else.

Clearly Jett is the result of a considerate, respectful collaboration between the writer and his muse. But it should also be pointed out that Gutierrez writes every woman in this series with as much thoughtful consideration as Gugino’s role — even Jett’s friend Phoenix (Gaite Jansen), a sex worker with her own formidable skillset that comes in handy when Jett needs her the most, is smart, determined and loyal.

Like every other Cinemax original, "Jett" earns its TV-MA-rating: suggestive dialogue, coarse or crude language and violence, it’s all there. Unlike other shows meriting a “sexual situations” label prior to the opening credits sequence, the treatment of nudity in “Jett” gives no reason to brace oneself for the expectation of being horrified. On the contrary, “Jett” is the very rare show that artfully incorporates nudity and sexuality in its cinematic dialogue. Which characters are naked and the context in which the nudity occurs, the circumstances that call for it and extent that the camera reveals it — all of these elements are integral to Gutierrez’s storytelling.

This makes the series’ treatment of sex and sensuality different from other series on Cinemax and most of premium cable. Where other series exploit naked and primarily female bodies as a means of titillation, placing it on par with violence and degradation, the nudity in “Jett” is designed to be an equal opportunity, universally pleasing trompe l’oeil. And it’s presented in various degrees with very different emotional implications to demonstrate the characters’ relationships to each other and the plot itself.

One example of such contrasts at work is in two scenes featuring nude swimming. One stars Maria swimming naked at a motel pool, an existential defiance that scandalizes the owner of the establishment. She doesn’t care; facing down death has a way of removing concerns about modesty or shocking people.

The other features a gangster’s captive lover swimming nude in his pool, one of the few pleasures left to him in an abusive, controlling relationship. Maria’s dip evokes a luxuriant freedom; the lover’s is akin to a hamster running on a wheel or an aquarium-bound amphibian flopping around in his water bowl.

Nudity in itself can be a beautiful storytelling device. Human beings have been inspired by the raw human form for eons, commemorating it in statuary, paintings, cave walls, holograms. When done well on TV and in film, it augments depictions of romance or libidinous fun, or reveals previously unseen layers of emotional depth.

But we are freshly finished with a season during which a major topic of conversation concerned the inability of certain men to believably, respectfully write women characters, specifically the two male co-creators of the biggest series on television. This is part of a larger conversation surrounding who gets to tell whose stories, and whether it is possible for someone who hasn’t lived the experience of the people they’re conceptualizing to fully realize an honest characterization of them, their interior lives and unspoken struggles.

The answer to that is simple: of course it’s possible. And yet it isn’t easy. When nudity and sex enter the picture, a story becomes more fraught with concerns about exploitation and critiques over gaze.

Onscreen nudity in many ways a symbol of Hollywood’s power imbalance. Consider a July 2018 study conducted by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which measures its depiction as a marker of inequality. In the Initiative's examination of 1100 popular films released between 2007 and 2017, nearly 25.4 percent featured some female nudity compared to male nudity, which occurred only 9.6 percent of the time. (Not surprisingly, out of the 100 top films in 2017, only 33 depicted a female lead or co-lead. Out of those films only five of those roles were played by female actors age 45 or older. The statistics measuring the ratios of female directors, producers and writers is even more depressing.)

Meanwhile nudity in TV dramas, particularly recent series, tends to be awkwardly inserted and frequently associated with shame, vulnerability or included for shock value.“Games of Thrones” was criticized throughout its run for exploiting rape as a go-to tool to stoke the motivations of male characters and using female nudity primarily for titillation. In that show and others, nudity takes on pejorative connotations far more often than being associated with tenderness. Such critiques eventually resulted in HBO hiring an intimacy coordinator for all of its productions that include sex scenes, starting with "The Deuce,"  in order to make sure the actors feel comfortable and safe in during production.

Depictions of casual sex can have a purpose, mind you.  A currently airing example of this is in HBO’s “Euphoria,” whose premiere is veritable marathon of dick pics and rough sex. In that series as well as in Starz’s “Now Apocalypse,” sex and nudity as sport delineates the difference between casual encounters and actual intimacy, which is elusive and something some characters yearn to find.

Cinemax, of course, has long depicted sex as an expectation of the action film genre. For many years "Skinemax" was the home of soft-core porn, but when it rebranded in 2016 it returned to an emphasis on high-octane action sprinkled with soft-core interludes. Its first international co-production “Strike Back,” for example, was  a weekly action movie with explosions galore, whose special forces agents would be seen finishing tough missions with furious and presumably life-affirming wall-banging. In "Warrior" the majority of the female characters work in a brothel, which is itself a cover for a madam who is secretly a vigilante.

This presentation mainly caters to straight men, and Cinemax’s audience skews male, 60% of which are men over age 30, the very demographic most likely to be able to afford paying extra for it.

With “Jett,” though, Gutierrez is sharing a vision in which everyone can have their cheesecake and eat it too. Jett uses nudity and sex as a mask or a tool of manipulation, a means to an end even if, as Charlie points out, she’s having a bunch of fun with it.

There is exploitative type of nakedness in “Jett” too, but within the first few episodes it manifests in the form of nude boy toys cavorting at a libertine house party thrown by Charlie’s psychotic son Junior (Gentry White), slamming down cocktails, dangerously flipping burgers by the grill in the buff. And it's worth pointing out that the series’ first incidence of full-frontal nudity occurs by way of a male actor, not female.

Gutierrez weaves nudity into the series as a marker of intimacy, exemplified by a post-coital glimpse at a pair of cops having an affair, with the female partner astride the back of her lover, enjoying a slice of pizza.  On a network famous for copious boob shots and out-of-nowhere grinding, it’s noteworthy that “Jett” features very few onscreen depictions of sex, and when it does, the camera takes a tight focus on the woman’s face to capture her pleasure, not that of her male partner.

Gutierrez designs the dialogue just as carefully.  Every scene oozes with pulpy banter set to cool music purring in the background. All of it augments the world he built to give Gugino, his partner since 1996, a role that maximizes her acting talents first and foremost while also paying homage to her famous physical assets.

“Jett” employs the very Tarantino-esque tactic of dropping the viewer into the middle of an anxious moment, then jumping back in time a few days, weeks, month or years, a cinematic version of a wise-guy speak that tells us, “See, here’s what happens.”

Despite its numerous flashbacks, however, Jett’s personal history is barely examined in the five episodes made available to review. Nevertheless, it’s obvious what kind of person she is. She's pragmatic, cool, a woman of few words and subtle expressiveness that speaks volumes. Jett exercises different types of loyalty in her personal life and in business. Of the two, her devotion to the women in her life is ironclad and unwavering.

The business version is trickier, a loyalty born out of purpose and attuned to survival. Jett appears to a true team player to one crime boss while exercising the thin illusion of trustworthiness to another.

While it is true that Gugino is famous for being comfortable with appearing naked in front of the camera, she’s also one of Hollywood’s underappreciated actors, a woman who can command the center of a scene. Gutierrez has said in a number of interviews that he conceptualized Gugino’s character in response to the realization that he’d only ever seen male anti-heroes on TV and thus was inspired to create a female version.

But Gugino’s Jett is not a woman wearing a man’s role like an ill-fitting suit. She’s decidedly femme in every aspect of her life, at home and when she’s working.

Gugino hasn’t exactly wanted for work; she’s co-starring in a variety of summer blockbusters including “Spy Kids” and “San Andreas,” and on television she’s appeared in the likes of USA’s short-lived “Political Animals” beside Sigourney Weaver and in Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House.”

But for my money the role that she should have lived in for years as opposed to just a few episodes of a blink-and-you-missed it ABC series is that of "Karen Sisco," a Leonard character introduced on the big screen by Jennifer Lopez in “Out of Sight,” where Lopez is paired with George Clooney’s thief Jack Foley.

Gugino’s Sisco is flintier that Lopez's, and shades of her personality show up in “Jett.” Only now, she gets to play the formidable Jack character as opposed to a law enforcement officer and daddy’s girl.

Jett is capable of handling herself but prefers not to use guns or even to tussle. Throughout the story, the script emphasizes her brains over her brawn, and when bullets enter the picture, just about everything goes awry.

And Jett, as Gutierrez writes and Gugino styles her, also is a decidedly sensual creature who uses sex to cement deals and to smooth out relationships, but only as far as it suits her. She understands the power of the honey trap as a means to an end, but also understands how men disrespect women comfortable with their sexuality. When she’s on a job, she makes it clear that just because she’s the only woman in the room does not de facto require her to be the lure or anyone's plaything. In fact, she insists on being the boss.

As previously stated, Gutierrez and Gugino are partners and her influence throughout the construction of “Jett” is obvious. However, such a level of intimacy between creator and star isn’t required for any writer, man or woman, to write women thoughtfully and to depict nude scenes that convey the difference between sex and sensuality, between one-sided titillation and an eroticism that holds a universal appeal.

“Jett” invites everybody to vicariously revel in the story's sensual power and how the title character moves with it, channels it.

An associate of Charlie’s attempts to put a line on Jett in one scene, likening her to a disappearing coin trick — now you see it, now you don’t. He tells Jett that she’s the same thing, but in reverse: now that she is here, he says, she cannot be unseen. “You’ve used that before,” she purrs. That doesn’t mean he isn’t on to something.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland