These impressions contain spoilers for the first episode of Powerless.
Powerless is the new NBC sitcom about regular people working among superheroes. Starring Vanessa Hudgens as she starts her job as Director of Research & Development at Wayne Security in Charm City. The regular cast includes my favourites Alan Tudyk, as the boss/Bruce Wayne’s cousin (a very minor DC character), and Danny Pudi as the Chief Design Officer who doesn’t design… much.
Judging a series based only on its pilot episode does seem a little unfair. But that’s the way many people choose what they want to watch, myself included. I’ve walked away after many shows just after the first episode. The phrase “The season gets better in its second half” is hard to stomach when you have to push through hours of tediousness to get there. First impressions count for something. For everything else, there’s reviews.
As with past NBC hits, Parks and Recreation and Community, it can take a while to build the world of your show. When the characters develop, so does the humour. With the already existing world of DC Comics it could seem like the world is already there, but a world is made up of side characters, like Leonard from Community or Perd Hapley from Parks and Rec. References to superheroes does not a world make. It remains to be seen if we will get these side characters.
This first episode starts with Vanessa Hudgens’ character, Emily Locke, on her way to work for her first day. She is amazed at the superhero battle going on around her, but the rest of the train’s occupants have no interest in the events, as they literally see it happen every day. Crimson Fox saves the train before it derails and Emily safely gets to work.
She meets her boss Van Wayne (Tudyk) who desperately seeks Bruce Wayne’s approval. Van says that he would rather be working in luxury at the main Wayne headquarters in Gotham City. As the new director of research & development Emily meets the rest of the office; Teddy (Pudi), the Chief Design Officer, whose main contribution seems to be in picking colours for their products. Christina Kirk, Ron Funches, and Jennie Pierson make up the rest of the main group, but don’t have much play time in this half hour episode.
Emily learns she is only one of several directors to work at this office and wonders if she can truly make a difference. They receive the bad news that Bruce Wayne is shutting them down. So here comes Emily to save the day; in a moment of absurd self-reflection she comes up with the idea for a wrist device that detects supervillain Jack O’Lantern based on his smell. Emily has never invented anything before but it’s successful and they all keep their jobs. Van is upset he has to stay. The core workmates go out for drinks. The End.
It all happens so quickly, and seeing this is the first time we’re meeting all these characters do we really care about those stakes? Not so much. I worry for the future storylines. Will Powerless be inventing a new gadget every episode to solve some external super-related problem? Or will we actually delve into these characters?
There were some nice self-referential nods to the DC universe including how many glass windows Superman destroys when trying to save the city. But in general I prefer more character-related humour. I like Alan Tudyk’s performance as the reluctant but trying-to-please boss, and Danny Pudi plays a more laid back but still very particular, version of his character Abed from Community. Vanessa Hudgens as the main character is a kind of aspirational Lesley Knope as she directs the team. We get a glimpse of her relationship with her father, which may develop future plot points.
There may be good reason why the first episode doesn’t work. Reception was positive when the pilot was initially shown at SDCC. Then the creator and initial showrunner Ben Queen left the show and they shifted the premise and re-shot almost the entire pilot. The new showrunners; Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker last worked on $#*! My Dad Says.
Other things I noticed..
- Adam West reprises his role as Bruce Wayne in a brief voiceover. Here’s hoping for more Adam West tidbits as the series goes on.
- It reminded me of Better Off Ted, another offbeat sitcom that focuses on a Research & Development unit at a big corporation.
- Marc McClure guest stars as Vanessa’s father. I wouldn’t recognise him now, but he was Jimmy Olsen back in the day for those original Superman films.
- The CGI city battles with the superheroes/villains are pretty bad. I’m glad this is kept to a minimum. Unfortunately due to the premise I can see this happening in every episode.
- Some lesser known DC Characters make their appearance including Crimson Fox and Jack O’Lantern.
Verdict: I’m going to keep watching for now but if things don’t pick up I will jump off this sinking ship.