DC hasn’t done too shabby when it comes to its TV presence. Arrow has spawned two spin-offs, Supergirl is a wonderful thing, Gotham is a crazy thing, Constantine is set to return from the grave and Black Lightning is on its way. NBC’s Powerless is the latest in this long line, but stands out as the first straight up sitcom. It also stars Alan Tudyk, so that’s automatically ten points in its favour.
Starring exactly zero superheroes, the series follows Vanessa Hudgens’ Emily Locke as she joins the R&D team at Wayne Security, specializing in products designed to protect the people of Charm City from superpowered catastrophes. The hook of Powerless is the focus on the regular people of the DC universe, while heroes like Batman or Green Lantern exist like celebrities to be played in fantasy drafts. Just a part of every day life and sometimes inconveniently so.
Powerless hasn’t had exactly the easiest development process. The original pilot was set in an insurance firm that dealt with the fallout from superheroes and villains. But somewhere along the way almost everything was thrown out, put back together and we ended up with plenty more Batman references. It makes sense really, Batman is arguably DC’s most famous and successful property at this point.
The new pilot and following episode show the seams of how the show was Frankenstein-ed back together, with character dynamics that aren’t quite there and can’t quite decide whether they want Emily and the development team to be antagonistic or friends. Maybe it’s also just jarring to see how different it is, especially visually, compared to the original trailer. Instead of an office workplace, Wayne Security feels and looks like a location straight out of a comic book.
Powerless has a wonderful asset in its cast. Hudgens is surprisingly endearing as sunshine-in-a-bottle Emily, while Christina Kirk’s Jackie brings just the right amount of salt and cynical exhaustion to contrast her. Danny Pudi and Ron Funches still feel a little underwritten, but they are strong enough to still make their characters entertaining. But in the wake of Con Man and Rogue One, Alan Tudyk is the main reason I needed to watch Powerless and he hasn’t disappointed yet as Bruce Wayne’s bumbling cousin and Emily’s disastrous boss Van. Though the writing for Van has risked becoming overly obnoxious over the first few episodes, Tudyk knows just when to rein it in and just when to go all out.
Last week’s episode, “Emily Dates a Henchman”, felt like a strong step forwards and was the first that really implemented the premise in an interesting way. As the title suggests, the episode centres around Emily’s relationship with her new boyfriend, iZombie‘s charming Robert Buckley, who spends his nights in question-mark emblazoned T-shirts and working for the Riddler. Sometimes you accidentally date a henchman, apparently this is a thing that happens.
It doesn’t just make for an entertaining twenty minutes, it’s also a lovely little bit of world building in a world where the superheroes are real and not the focus. The superhero references come a lot more naturally all around, as the B-plot follows Tudyk and the R&D boys as they try to bait the Dark Knight into an appearance after finding one of his bat-a-rangs. Between Emily’s doomed relationship and the giddiness at potentially meeting Batman, this episode actually captures the idea of being a normal person in the DC universe. It’s still absurd and offers plenty of moments that lampshade some of comic books’ greatest tropes, but it’s just grounded enough to make it work.
It also gave us Alan Tudyk in a rubber Robin costume and that makes up for a lot. It’s too early to make a clear judgement and there are still seams showing, but after a pretty turbulent development Powerless is showing more and more promise with every episode. It’ll be interesting to see whether this show finds its footing or not over the rest of the season, but I’m certainly hoping it continues improving.
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