I’d originally intended to write weekly posts about NBC’s new sitcom Powerless and how it was doing. Real life (aka the flu) got in the way so instead below I’ve reviewed the first 4 episodes and provided some additional background to the show. Is the show worth your time? Strap in and read on to find out.
Powerless is a 30 minute sitcom that shows the lives of ordinary people working at a technology security firm which designs products to protect average people from the hazards and situations inherent in a world filled with superheroes. To kick things off let me explain how this brief explanation seems to contradict the series description from NBC’s website, copied below:
“In the first comedy series set in the DC universe, Vanessa Hudgens (“Grease Live,” “High School Musical”) plays Emily, a spunky, young insurance adjuster specializing in regular-people coverage against damage caused by the crime-fighting superheroes. It’s when she stands up to one of these larger-than-life figures (after an epic battle messes with her commute) that she accidentally becomes a cult “hero” in her own right… even if it’s just to her group of lovably quirky co-workers. Now, while she navigates her normal, everyday life against an explosive backdrop, Emily might just discover that being a hero doesn’t always require superpowers.”
The show’s pilot had its debut at San Diego Comic-Con 2016 and it was received with mostly high praise. The pilot people saw at the convention is what NBC is describing on their website. The pilot that was delivered in February of 2017 was completely revamped, with the premise and characters noticeably changed from what was previewed at Comic-Con due largely to the show’s creator departing the series before it’s release and the premise being reworked by the studio. Instead of an insurance adjuster handling claims related to superhero destruction, Emily is now the new R&D director at a security firm that creates gadgets to keep people safe during these battles.
Having not seen the Comic-Con version of the pilot, I’m not going to delve too far into what could have been versus what was delivered and will keep as much of that out of my reviews as possible. I think both premises are solid and each lend themselves to different strengths and weaknesses. One of the things I love about the updated premise we got is that the security tech firm is now a Wayne Enterprises company. While there’s nothing saying they wouldn’t have an insurance company in their large list of holdings, the original pilot didn’t make that connection and a security firm does feel more natural given what we’ve seen in other media.
This touches on the overall strength of the show in that it is housed within the vast DC universe. I feel like the show could maybe hold up in a generic setting but the fact that they get to play in DC’s sandbox adds a whole other level to the humor and stories. Heroes and villains are referenced routinely and characters draw new and entertaining connections within the world. Alan Tudyk’s character Van Wayne is Bruce Wayne’s inept cousin in charge of the company and the jokes around his relation to Bruce are fun. They’ve only started to mine the material available to them but knowing how much there is it’s only going to get better as the show continues.
Episode 1: “Wayne or Lose”
Emily Locke lands her dream job as head of research and development at Wayne Security in Charm City, home to superheroes and villains and citizens fed up with their constant fighting. But her first day doesn’t exactly go as planned.
Emily (Hudgens) takes on her new job as head of R&D for Wayne Security but finds her boss inept and her staff not receptive to her leadership. When they discover that the company will be closed due to poor performance she helps motivate her team to design a new device that can help bystanders identify when a villain is in the area to give them time to escape danger. She has to balance this against her boss Van’s (Tudyk) desire to see the company closed so he can leave Charm City for the more metropolitan Gotham. They manage to impress Bruce Wayne with the invention and the company is given new life, much to Van’s disgust.
The pilot episode of Powerless is definitely its weakest but I feel like that’s often the case with most pilots. In this case a lot of that can be chalked up to the show-runners not really having an idea of where they seemed to be headed with the change to the premise. None of the characters feel fleshed out and a lot of the jokes feel superficial. It’s not a terrible episode but one that feels lost.
The other big issue from a comic fan perspective is the over reliance on Batman for the pilot. Not that he was actually in the episode but that every joke, reference and general shout out that the writers could come up with was related to the Dark Knight. He’s clearly going to be the workhorse of the show as far as reference material but it was too heavy handed in the pilot to be anything but distracting.
Episode 2: “Wayne Dream Team”
Emily tries to forge friendships at work, while Van tries to force recognition.
Emily foolishly promises to deliver a project within a week despite the warnings of her staff. Meanwhile Van is obsessed with a corporate picture that’s cropped him out of the shot. The basic structure of the story is pretty boiler plate office sitcom fare but it adds enough comic flare to not be too bland.
Part of the plot revolves around Emily trying to be both friends with and a boss to her employees which has been done countless times before in a sitcom. What makes it fun and new in Powerless is that the office event she wants in on and later disrupts to her team’s frustration is FSL, the Fantasy Superhero League. Now there’s not a whole lot of payoff around this as far as the story, no big reveals or flashy effects or anything but it contains some fun nerd moments when they’re picking their rosters and Teddy (Danny Pudi) chooses the Flash only to have it backfire on him at the end of the episode when Flash is banished for the “season” by Sinestro, something any player of regular fantasy sports will know only too well when injury strikes your best player. While it was a small inclusion it made the episode feel more involved in the DC universe and not the Batman universe.
The episode itself was fun and the jokes didn’t feel as isolated as in the pilot. You could tell that the writers were starting to stretch their legs with the material and it seemed a little more seemless. The resolution to the banning of the FSL where Emily had to watch a 24 hour marathon of HR guidelines video was clever and funny.
Episode 3: “Sinking Day”
Emily and Van try to hook Atlantis into a big deal by throwing a Sinking Day party.
“Sinking Day” revolves around a screw up by Van that causes Wayne Securities to lose one of their biggest clients in ACE Chemicals. In an effort to prove their worth and help Van save face in front of his father, Emily comes up with an idea to win the business of the city of Atlantis. In a side plot, Ron (Ron Funches) attempts to prove that the newest employee of Wayne Securities is also the newest superhero to arrive in Charm City, The Olympian.
This is the episode that finally shows the potential of Powerless when it’s written well and knows what it wants to be. There are so many good lines and moments from this episode and they more firmly tie it in to the world they inhabit. Trying to win a new client is a staple of office comedies but when the client is the city of Atlantis there are Aquaman references galore. Setting this around a party where they’re trying to woo the client with an elaborate celebration for the Sinking Day holiday just adds the right level of absurdity that would exist in this world. And other than the main ACE Chemicals reference, this episode also largely managed to feel a part of the DC world without needing to lean on the Batman crutch which was excellent given it’s prevalence in the first two episodes.
The side plot of Ron thinking one of his co-workers was the new hero in the city was good but felt under served. There wasn’t a ton of focus on it and it never really seemed to resolve itself fully but it could be that it comes back in further episodes so maybe we’ll see more of it. As a note, this is one area that apparently was present in the pilot but in the pilot Ron thought the co-worker was Green Lantern and not some hero created specifically for the show. I’m actually glad they changed it for this episode as I feel like it would almost be too distracting to have Green Lanern involved. Regardless of the resolution since it’s just a generic hero they created there’s less risk of the story line coming back to bite them in the ass if it’s mishandled.
The highlight of the episode was definitely the racial undertones of the jokes when Ron continuously reminds people he’s from Atlantis as everyone just assumed he’d said Atlanta before because he was black. This was just a small bit overall within the show but it demonstrated that they’re not going to be afraid of making slightly more subversive humor a part of their repertoire.
Episode 4: “Emily Dates a Henchman”
Emily unwittingly flirts with the foe when she shacks up with a henchman.
When faced with an invitation to her ex-boyfriend’s wedding Emily tries out the Charm City dating scene only to find herself unknowingly dating a villain’s henchman. Meanwhile Ron, Teddy, and Van discover one of Batman’s Batarangs lodged in a safe door they’re working on and shenanigans ensue.
If “Sinking Day” began to show the strengths of using the DC world within the show then “Emily Dates a Henchman” was a ratchet up in the right direction. Emily begins dating a man who is easily identified as a bad guy by her coworkers which she is oblivious to in the beginning. Common sitcom trope, why should I care. Because in this instance he’s literally a bad guy, a henchman that works for the Riddler. All of the warning signs used to convince her in the show are so over the top fun compared to what it would be anywhere else. The comedic reasons they give feel less situational as in other shows, like when she describes how he wants to take her on a romantic trip to meet his boss in his mansion on Skull Mountain. Sure it’s corny and silly but it certainly feels more real than some other shows where he’s bad for her because “he doesn’t tip well” or some equally benign tick that’s pointed out.
While Vanessa Hudgens is nominally the star of the show this episode was stolen by the other story line and characters which seems like it may become a recurring theme. Having discovered the Batarang, Ron, Teddy and Van come up with the idea of using the built in GPS to try and lure Batman into meeting them. Ron and Teddy for no other reason than to meet Batman cause who wouldn’t want to meet fucking Batman! Van however has more in mind revealing that he wants Batman to pay for damage to his car’s mirror after the Batmobile grazed it and thinking he could be the next Robin. It’d ruin the humor to try to sum up all the funny that occurs around this but Batman does show up (sort of) and the guys respond exactly as you’d expect (“You wore a Batman shirt to meet Batman?!” “Yeah, celebrities love it.”)
The other fun part of the episode was seeing more screen time for Jackie (Christina Kirk), Van’s sarcastic and deadpan assistant. She’s been funny in her moments in the show so far but this episode featured her prominently in the relationship story which really showcased how fun her dry humor can be. And even though she ended up delivering the sappy “message” of the episode to Emily at the end, it was still done in a way that had me laughing.
Ultimately Powerless is a fun show that does its best to fully immerse you in the real world of living in the DC universe. The writing and situations aren’t anything new in the world of sitcoms, it hasn’t shown itself to be as strong creatively as something like Parks and Recreation but what it does well is take a standard premise and inject new life into via the unique lens of comic books. On its own, this show would be another generic NBC comedy with little intrinsic value but by using the world it lives in to color its stories it creates a unique experience that is fun and engaging. Often times niche shows can fizzle because the twist they offer isn’t used well or often enough to separate it from the herd but Powerless is a show that proves that if you handle it well the niche is what makes the show great. Powerless’s best moments are when it fully embraces the comics lore available and if they continue with that formula the show will only get better.