Review: NBC’s ‘Powerless’ Finds Some Relief From Ultra-Dark DC Movies
Warning – Moderate SPOILERS for Thursday’s Powerless Premiere:
The development of DC’s Powerless has been an interesting one to watch; first losing original showrunner Ben Queen, then changing up the entirety of its premise from a reactive insurance agency to a Wayne Security outfit that better embraces its DC roots. Not to mention, we’re ten-plus series deep into TV superheroes between Marvel and DC at this point, and with comedy one of the branches left unexplored, Powerless feels very much designed to beat Marvel’s Damage Control to the punch.
This is still the TV branch of a billion-dollar superhero movie franchise we’re talking about, and as such only able to reference some of its biggest characters, rather than portray them outright. It’s exactly the kind of limitation that plagued early Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Gotham (remember when Supergirl turned Clark into emojis?), even if Powerless admirably tries to lean into that restrictive premise. Beyond all the name-dropping lies your boilerplate sitcom premise: Emily (Vanessa Hudgens) takes her unflappable optimism to a new job running Wayne Security, quickly finding she needs to inspire the staff to their first small victory, lest the big boss (in this case Bruce Wayne) shut them down.
If that seems a bit formulaic to you, you’re not alone. I’m admittedly rusty when it comes to thinking in terms of network TV – let alone a sitcom pilot – but Powerless feels almost exceptionally pilot-y: the quick setup of a renewable premise, and a few broadly-drawn characterizations to fill in later. What’s missing from the one episode shown to critics is a sense of how Powerless is supposed to transcend a DC reference factory, or what, if any specific relationships between these underdog employees to invest in. If anything, the re-working of the pilot premise pushed the superhero involvement even further to the edge, to the point that characters actively tune out whatever villain or hero soars nearby, leaving you to wonder why we need them in the first place.
It’s a shame, given the level of talent going underused in all the exposition. Hudgens plays Emily’s optimism* with appropriate (if familiar) organizational flair, and Alan Tudyk can conjure the smarmy indifference of Van Wayne in his sleep. The pilot regrettably offers little time for Community breakout Danny Pudi, Undateable alum Ron Funches or Don’t Trust the B star Jennie Pierson to distinguish themselves as Emily’s slacker team, though I’m at least curious about Christina Kirk’s beleaguered secretary Jackie, who takes on something of a jaded mentor role to Emily in the quieter moments.
*I didn’t have a chance to catch the early pilot at Comic-Con, but it’s of interest what from the original footage appears to have been changed, or kept. Crimson Fox and Jack O’Lantern still battle around the pilot’s edges, though Emily’s initial disdain and viral rant appear to have been lost completely, while most everyone seems indifferent to the world’s heroes.
In earnest, I’m all-in for the concept of Powerless giving voice to characters typically depicted as collateral damage (the opening credits cleverly uses iconic comic covers to zoom in on the ordinary citizens behind them), but there’s a distinct feeling that we’ve stretched the limit of this concept already. The contrast of ordinary and super-citizens works well in small-form (see Team Thor or The Incredibles, for instance), even if there’s every chance Powerless finds more fertile ground in subsequent episodes.
Otherwise, the stitching here is just a bit too visible, and final product uncertain how to occupy tall buildings in a single bound, let alone leap them.
Powerless will premiere Thursday, February 2 with “Wayne or Lose,” airing at 8:30 P.M. on NBC.