Weekend Superhero: February 4, 2017
Initially, I was a little excited about NBC’s new show “Powerless”. Set in a universe of superheroes, the show would follow the ordinary citizens that make up the city constantly under attack. The concept seemed ripe with opportunities for clever dissection of the superhero genre. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ve gotten a juvenile parody instead.
I knew I was in for a bumpy ride when “Powerless” opened with a peppy Vanessa Hudgens on her way to her first day at a new job. Sitting on a train, smiling while reading a dry self-help management book, Hudgens starts an expositional conversation with the man next to her. It’s a clunky way to get information out, but it’s a sitcom and I’ll let some things slide.
One minute later, the train is put in immediate peril due to a meta-human battle. As Hudgens – whose character’s name is Emily Locke – looks out her window, we get a freeze frame, and a trite voiceover narration akin to “I bet you’re wondering how I ended up here.” No. Even if I was curious why you were in this situation, I immediately became disinterested when you pulled this cringey cliche. Emily then gives the standard voiceover about growing up in a boring place where nothing fun happens, and she’s not special, and she’s moved to the big city (known in this show as Charm City) to make a difference, and please let me stop talking about this.
Then, the best part of the entire show happens: the opening credits. The credits are a montage of classic superhero comic covers, shown in full to swelling, heroic music. Then, the camera will zoom in on one of the helpless bystanders in the background of the cover and the music will sink, and the name of a cast member appears next to it. Excellent. A genuinely clever idea that perfectly sums up the idea of the show. These credits were so good that I had renewed hope that the episode would actually be entertaining.
When we return to the show, Emily is speaking to her new boss Van Wayne – Bruce’s cousin and President of Wayne Security. Van is played by Alan Tudyk, easily the best performer on the show. I expect nothing less than excellence from the veteran, and get nothing less. Wayne Security is a company that designs protective measures for citizens to use against supervillains, such as Joker anti-venom. Van needs his team to deliver a great product so that he can get a promotion to the office in Gotham City. Emily is the new head of the R&D team.
Excessively chipper and optimistic, Emily makes an immediate bad impression on the R&D team. The team members, one of which is Danny Pudi from “Community”, mention they don’t want to like her because they don’t want to get too attached, since she’s the 6th new boss they’ve had that year. However, this doesn’t explain why they treat Emily with open hostility. Apathy would be better suited, I would think. But they instantly start insulting her and complaining that she’s around. Where does that reaction come from? It’s nonsense.
The episode arc basically entails Emily earning the trust of the team by coming up with a great new product (a sensor that can detect supervillains in the area by their scent) and saving their jobs. Through some silly logic, this actually prevents Van from getting promoted to Gotham City, since Bruce wants him to stay with the team to develop more products. Naturally, this will be the cause of conflict between Van and Emily for the rest of the show.
I can’t emphasize enough: this show is not funny. The timing is all off – especially Hudgens – and it’s filmed like a one-joke parody you might see on YouTube. There are very few touches of actual intellectual commentary on superhero media, such as Van muting his laptop when a supervillain does the cliche “taking over all the broadcasts to convey his sinister message”. However, these are few and far between, and are barely revolutionary or clever ideas.
All in all, “Powerless” is exactly what the name implies. It’s a good concept, weakened by juvenile humor and awkward exchanges.