Episode Analysis She-Hulk: Just Jen
She-Hulk's sixth episode shows more of its sitcom strengths but still has a way to go.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for She-Hulk through episode 6 and all of the MCU. Read at your own risk.
She-Hulk: Just Jen was a not bad ep. Which I know sounds damning with faint praise but I get the feeling this show isn’t trying to hit very high highs so “not bad” isn’t in and of itself a bad grade. It was a much stronger episode than last week’s for sure. A few places where I would’ve made some tweaks but on the whole if asked to make a choice for only one ep to watch and one to skip, out of Just Jen vs Mean, Green, and Poured Into These Jeans Just Jen gets the nod no contest.
Let’s get into it.
Why She-Hulk: Just Jen Was a Better Episode
The first thing that stood out to me was that the acting was on point. Unlike last week Jameela Jamil and Renée Elise Goldsberry were able to flex their comedy chops. Mallory’s quick “Don’t touch me” was a particular comedic timing and line reading highlight.
Likewise we had long stretches of what this show needs to do more, which is let Tatiana Maslany be free to do her thing. I was reminded of episode three, Superhuman Law, where one of the highlights was putting Jen as Jen into a tough situation and letting Tatiana act the shit out of it.
I recognize that having Jennifer Walters stay Jennifer Walters goes against her comics self, who prefers to be in She-Hulk form. But the show itself is very wishy-washy about Jen and her alter ego (more on this in a sec) and I feel like if you’re wavering on it and you know your FX isn’t going to be as strong as anyone would like it, make the call to say you went with the option that lets your lead actress do what you hired her to do.
The fact that Tatiana, Jameela, and Renée had so much more energy and life this week had me repeatedly writing in my notes that clearly this was a better director than last week. So imagine my surprise when I double checked and it was Anu Valia again. I’d love to point to the writing and editing being the key difference but too much of it really comes down to performance. Like regardless of when Mallory and Jen’s courtroom scenes fell in the episode, Mallory still should’ve been as vibrant a character in them as she was in meetings this week. Anu Valia has the director’s chair for episode seven as well so it’ll be interesting to see which of the three eps turns out to be the one-off in quality.
On the topic of the writing, this week Kara Brown was in charge there. Kara’s got previous sitcom experience as well as pop culture writing experience for Jezebel (her Shade Court is much missed by yours truly.)
Because of that television experience I think that’s why Just Jen stands up better as a sitcom this week than last. For example the B plot with Mr Immortal managed to connect back to Jen in a way to make the time we spent with it worthwhile. (And, in the time before we learned why we needed to care about this plot, Renée being allowed to do what she does best as Mallory made it fascinating to watch regardless.)
(I feel like I should add here this is not to undercut Ginger Gonzaga’s performance as Nikki Ramos either last week or this. It’s just that Nikki’s involvement with the Mr Immortal plot wasn’t big enough to move the needle on it being worthwhile to watch. Mallory got a bigger bite of that apple, that’s all.)
In terms of the writing as a whole there were, as I said, some things I would’ve tweaked. For example the show needs to be clearer on who is Jen, who is Jen when she’s in She-Hulk form, and what does Jen herself feel about both states? I get that later in the episode Jen says “I just wanted to be amazing” by being She-Hulk but we’re six episodes in and the show hasn’t told us why Jen feels her She-Hulk form is amazing. The closest we got is Jen reluctantly admitting things like being able to walk down the street with headphones on and not be afraid is pretty nice. That’s not enough to connect to why Jen would enjoy dating as She-Hulk or why she’d think showing up to a high school acquaintance’s wedding in She-Hulk form would be both fun for Jen and appropriate for the venue.
I will say I was glad that it wasn’t a plot twist that the only reason Jen got the wedding invite was because the bride wanted She-Hulk at her wedding. I was waiting for that reveal and was happy to be wrong. But this then gets into other parts of the setup where yes, I know, it’s a show and I should just relax but anybody who knows a bare minimum detail about weddings knows things like bridesmaid dresses are handled way in advance. The day of the wedding is not when Jen would be showing up in a dress only She-Hulk could wear comfortably. (Also wasn’t part of the point of Luke that he would make outfits Jen could wear in both her forms? Why did he make her a party dress only She-Hulk could wear and that Jen was swimming in?)
That being said, as glad as I was they didn’t go the route of Lulu wanting She-Hulk there, I was lost on why she wanted Jen there, and why Jen would agree to go and agree to put up with all the bullshit heaped upon her. Yes, Lulu was a friend of the family and Ched was DJing. So what? What’s Jen’s relationship with Lulu besides knowing she exists? Why does Lulu’s opinion mean anything to her? What does Lulu think of Jen that she would ask her to be a bridesmaid but Jen is the only one being treated horribly?
This is the kind of thing that could’ve been fixed by some exposition like - and obviously I’m just spitballing here - but something like oh yeah Jen and Lulu were academic rivals in school so there was always a bit of competition between them. Normally Jen wouldn’t accept the invite but since their families are such close friends Jen’s parents wouldn’t let her hear the end of it if she RSVPed no. Besides, clearly Lulu asking her to be a bridesmaid means the rivalry is past and they can meet as grown, successful adults now!
Or something. My point is now we’ve got some motivations for why anything is happening. Instead what I suspect is the show wanted a She-Hulk light episode, needed a reason for Titania to be there so it had to be an event of some kind, and went sure why not a wedding? And then formed the wedding out of everyone’s worst bridezilla memories without asking if any of them made sense once you put them together. (Lulu vehemently doesn’t want She-Hulk at her wedding until she’s drunk and suddenly does. Sure, why not?)
Which possibly sounds crazy but remember the Megan Thee Stallion episode was written as “insert celeb here” and then backfilled when they found out who they could get. An episode of “We need Jen in Jen form for some reason” which is then backfilled with a wedding makes just as much sense. Also it doesn’t help when we have yet another fourth wall break to lampshade the wedding making no sense for the show. Fourth wall jokes have to be jokes, not excuses to say “We know this is weak and… yeah! Well spotted that you noticed too!”
Granted Jen’s comment was also about the inconvenient placement of the wedding episode, which again brings us to how oddly paced and structured the season as a whole as been. With each new ep I feel like the show was disadvantaged by having the first episode be She-Hulk’s origin story when it was originally intended to be the last. As we’ve talked about elsewhere, the first thing you see in a show, be it the opening number of a musical or the pilot episode of a TV series, teaches you how to watch what you’re watching. Having a pilot episode where Jen as a lawyer is merely a couple of bookends around Jen encountering an alien spaceship and paling around with her cousin in his Smart Hulk form gave us a setup which was the exact opposite of what She-Hulk: Attorney at Law seems to want to be.
Though part of the problem there is that I feel as though the show itself doesn’t know what it wants to be. Because the times that it feels close to a sitcom, like last night, happen more by accident than on purpose. There’s not enough jokes to make this feel like a sitcom compared to any other MCU property with ample quips. (If anything, the joke to story ratio on She-Hulk is much less than in a story like Thor: Ragnarok, for good or ill).
Likewise what kind of sitcom is it trying to be? The repeated B stories that don’t involve Jen suggest it wants to be a workplace comedy but we’re not getting enough slice of work life for that. The show is named after Jen and reminded us it’s about Jen, but Jen’s plots vacillate between comedic (Jen drunk at a wedding reception) and serious (Jen being attacked in alleys) and superhero (Jen having to help Wong fight demons).
It feels like to me that rather than saying they were making a sitcom which starred She-Hulk, they instead said they were making a She-Hulk show where they didn’t want to have to care too much about structure or drama so sure, it’s a sitcom. Except even sitcoms need strong ideas about what they are going to be.
I realize in terms of quality this is a deeply unfair comparison but consider She-Hulk’s six episodes so far in contrast to Abbott Elementary’s first season. From episode one through episode thirteen Abbott Elementary had a clear tone and clear characterization. There wasn’t a single ep where the audience was left feeling like they’d watched something which didn’t fit with what came before. And part of that is because when Quinta Brunson created Abbott Elementary she had a clear vision about how the show was going to honor the stories of teachers trying to do their best for their kids in spite of what the world throws at them. Even if you didn’t see any of Quinta’s interviews explaining that, you could watch any episode of the show and come up with that thesis statement on your own.
What’s She-Hulk’s thesis statement? Can we narrow it down beyond “Something in the MCU with a female hero that sometimes pokes fun at the MCU itself?” What’s the story? What’s the underlying drive pushing the show forward? What’s the goal for Jen as a character? For any of the other characters?
I suspect - and this is me with my bulletin board and string, granted - but I suspect that when the show was a gleam in Jessica Gao’s eye she did have clear ideas of what she wanted to do. However outside interference, such as being told to move the origin story up, and things like when can you include a celeb and what celeb will that be, was basically like a bowling ball straight down the alley of whatever setup she had in mind. So ever since then the show has had to scramble and try to form something coherent out of all the scattered pins.
(I am all over the place with my metaphors today. Does it help if I say I’m currently cuddling up to pain medication? It’s been a week, lemme tell you.)
As always, things that don’t fit anywhere else:
- First use of “Shulkie!” Though the closed captions spelled it as “Shulky.”
- The closed captions were off a lot this week, actually. Lots of words left out, which makes me think there were some on set script changes.
- The constantly changing title card is a cute gag.
- I did like that one of Mr Immortal’s exes was a guy, though that made the “I will never understand women” line a bit confusing. Made me wonder if the inclusion of a guy was a casting decision that didn’t get reflected in a script change.
- The Titania plot worked better this week, not just because of how Jameela was able to lean into her skills as a comedic actress. But it likewise only emphasized how much the plot with Titania last week wasn’t needed. We could’ve skipped it entirely and missed nothing.
- “Inchedable Hulk” was cute
- I also liked that Ched anticipated a fight and had a song ready for it.
- Given that the previouslies referred to the inability for the bad guys to get Jen’s blood while she was in She-Hulk form, I spent the episode dreading that the guy Jen was flirting with was only there to get close to her to do just that. I’m glad this doesn’t seem to be the case, though I guess we’ll find out if that’s an upcoming plot twist. But again I’m left wondering why the need for her blood specifically was the thing brought up in an episode which also specifically forces her to be in a form where her blood could be stolen. I’m not holding that against the episode itself, though. Previouslies are often done by separate teams so this is me side-eyeing that decision, not the episode itself for the results of it.
- Mallory’s growing appreciation of Nikki’s skills had me thinking that was going to lead somewhere as well. Either Mallory trying to poach Nikki from Jen or, during that last scene, Mallory asking Nikki out on a date. I was genuinely surprised when they threw in the part about Mallory being married with a kid.
And that’s all I’ve got. I’m going to go crawl into a ball of pain totally unrelated to the show, and I’ll see you next week!