Like some televisual black hole, Painkiller Jane has sucked in random elements of popular sci fi and spat out fodder for the mildly depraved.
Even in a mediascape of cross-platform remakes and formulaic premises, the blatant borrowings of Painkiller Jane are pretty breathtaking. From Blade Runner comes the neon-pumped, neo-noir city of the near future. The Matrix provides the scruffy mise-en-scène of the secret government organization that co-opts Jane, complete with Tank’s battery of screens staffed by skinny look-alikes played by Sean Owen Roberts. The 4400, perhaps channeled via Heroes, supplies the mysterious neural powers theme, while CSI injects the voyeuristic lingering over bodily destruction. That several of these elements originate in the source comic is irrelevant: here they appear second-hand makeovers straining for cool. Like some televisual black hole, Painkiller Jane has sucked in random elements of popular sci fi and spat out fodder for the mildly depraved.
The premiere opened with Jane Vasco (Kristanna Loken), an adolescent fantasy of a DEA agent, cornering three guys on a routine club drugs bust. When they turned to face her, all three look identical. All claimed to be government agents and seemed ready to kill her. She iced the two fakes and earned the thanks of the government agent she saved, Andre McBride (Rob Stewart). Apart from the reprise of CSI’s very annoying trick of replaying a thought’s emergence as a slo-mo visual sequence, this set-up seemed mildly promising. However, the episode then methodically shied away from every possible new-seeming plot turn. It also refused to give context for McBride and Jane’s pursuit of neuros, human beings with paranormal powers they cannot always control.
After a bout of interagency squabbling about her compromising McBride’s operation, he predictably courted her for his team. Jane predictably refused, and tracked McBride back to his lair, to find out who he “really” is. In turn, McBride sabotaged her DEA career, and left her no option but to join him. It was a bit like a sub-par Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy, but without the good lines. When McBride sent Jane on her first operation with Joe (Nathaniel Devaux), she asked not a single intelligent question, and he offered not one reason for sending her to do exactly the same thing that led to her predecessor’s death. In fact, Jane asserted no autonomy at all: McBride commanded and she acted. The rest of the cast nodded sagely, gazed meaningfully, and occasionally stated the obvious, with all the conviction of those who have seen their lines only moments before.
The show also blews its potentially most poignant moment, after Jane was finally “killed” by a 40-floor fall from a skyscraper. Jane -- who is unkillable -- was next seen on a surveillance camera linked to McBride’s HQ. While the team watched in silence, she stumbled back-lit down an artistically murky alley, staggering, groaning, and grunting. For a few moments, the drama was genuinely uncanny, as this Lazarus-like figure, raised, perhaps unwilling, from the dead, in pain she would rather not face, and utterly alone except for the silent male voyeurs, struggled forward. The cost of immortality, if not accompanied by immunity to pain, was frighteningly clear.
Without any cost to its action-cop premise, the drama could easily have pushed Jane to reassess her life in the light of this new knowledge. Or maybe McBride could have pondered the morality of sending her into such dire situations. But the show opted for facile cheer instead of character development. Even as Jane felt repeated pain -- of injury and healing -- she paused to grab a drink, enjoyed a hug from DEA colleague Maureen Bowers (Alianna Huffman), and, the next morning, she was again pretty, peppy, and ready to go. She recovered so quickly, she might never have been hurt at all.
That raises a question: why include her feeling pain in the premise? Judging from the pilot, this detail -- a potential twist on the superhero plot -- has everything to do with providing a pretext for viewers to indulge in woman’s suffering of prolonged agony week after week after week. And so it proves at the end of the first episode: Jane voluntarily (even jauntily, if we're to believe her irritating voiceover) plunged into a maelstrom of bullets, filmed in slow motion to keep the torture on-screen as long as possible, while striking model-girl poses with windblown hair, parted lips, and tight, tight clothes. The fact that she doesn't actually die does nothing to mitigate the orgiastic relish of the camera's unflinching gaze. She’s a sadist’s dream: a beautiful woman who can survive any battering and still keep her looks and her readiness to fight back, not so much female role model as high-tech Galatea.
The show’s predilection for on-screen agony recalls writer and producer Gil Grant’s most popular show, 24, in which the viciousness and frequency of torture scenes have escalated each season. Jane symbolizes both the sacrifices a government under siege requires of its citizens and the cost to citizens of a regime driven by fear and terror. Where 24 at least acknowledges the ambiguity of defining individuals as friends or enemies, Painkiller Jane recalls '50s-style paranoia, when American movies and television heightened anxiety through a fixation on lurking monsters.
While the 4400 and Heroes posit potential good surfacing from human neurological evolution or alteration, and resist, with varying degrees of success, the marginalization or incarceration of their “super-humans,” Jane features characters who believe uncritically that the best neuro is a neutralized neuro. Jane's recruitment represented a moment where a more philosophical or rational discussion of the hostility to neuros might have emerged. Instead, she simply accepted the party line, delivered by the ruthless boss who has just destroyed her DEA career to bring her into his unit, and charged blindly into danger. Whipped up with misogyny and stylish lighting, this paranoia proves no more palatable the second time around.