We consider the evolution of high-Reynolds-number, planar, pulsatile jets in an incompressible viscous fluid. The source of the jet flow comprises a mean-flow component with a superposed temporally periodic pulsation, and we address the spatiotemporal evolution of the resulting system. The analysis is presented for both a free symmetric jet and a wall jet. In both cases, pulsation of the source flow leads to a downstream short-wave linear instability, which triggers a breakdown of the boundary-layer structure in the nonlinear regime. We extend the work of Riley, Sánchez-Sans & Watson (J. Fluid Mech., vol. 638, 2009, p. 161) to show that the linear instability takes the form of a wave that propagates with the underlying jet flow, and may be viewed as a (spatially growing) weakly non-parallel analogue of the (temporally growing) short-wave modes identified by Cowley, Hocking & Tutty (Phys. Fluids, vol. 28, 1985, p. 441). The nonlinear evolution of the instability leads to wave steepening, and ultimately a singular breakdown of the jet is obtained at a critical downstream position. We speculate that the form of the breakdown is associated with the formation of a ‘pseudo-shock’ in the jet, indicating a failure of the (long-length scale) boundary-layer scaling. The numerical results that we present disagree with the recent results of Riley et al. (2009) in the case of a free jet, together with other previously published works in this area.