Powerless’ Pilot is a Campy Cape Opera in All the Worst Ways

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Prior to developing Powerless, Ben Queen worked on the quickly-cancelled and long forgotten science fiction legal drama Century City. Though ultimately unsuccessful at finding an audience, its basic premise was nevertheless inspired, viewing a fictitious world not too unlike our own through the narrow lens of a specific profession. I recall seeing the first commercials for such; they immediately set my mind racing as to how the same formula could be similarly utilized to great effect with other worlds, other vocations. Quickly I began dreaming of one day seeing a show set in the Daily Planet or the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit, following the everyday denizens of the DC Universe as the never-ending battles between superheroes and villains rage on just off-screen. Even despite my tepid reception of Gotham, which was seemingly everything I’d wanted, I nevertheless held a great deal of hope for Powerless, particularly with each new announcement leading up to its eventual premier.

NBC had the perfect pedigree for a smart, superhero comedy with a strong focus on characters. Even in the era of Marvel’s Netflix series and The Arrowverse on the CW, the highwater mark of superheroes on television remains the season one of Heroes and the entire run of Chuck, back-to-back “must see TV” from the peacock. Concurrent to such, NBC began greenlighting a slate of sharp dramedies that would mostly prove themselves above the intelligence of American audiences. Though an adaptation of The Office proved popular, its sister series Parks and Recreation never found the same fanfare, and the best of the bunch, Community, remained a cult classic for all six seasons (#andamovie). But I’d have gladly been Powerless’ sole viewer for a single half-season run were it written with the same emotional weight, fully fleshed-out characters, and cleaver metafictional devises as its broadcast brethren. The casting of Danny Pudi, Community’s fan-favorite character Abed Nadir, definitely gave indication that NBC did indeed have every intention of drawing upon this legacy with Powerless, promising to deliver Dunder Mifflin were it owned by Wayne Industries.

Unfortunately, Powerless’ pilot suggests the series to be far more populist in its appeal than its predecessors. As such, it lacks subtlety, with its visual and sonic motifs one small step above a multi-cam laugh track to some Chuck Lorre travesty. Worse, as a cape opera, this descends directly into camp – and not even the self-aware camp of the ’66 Batman series that allowed the later to become such an enduring pop art masterpiece (through apropos for getting Adam West to make a vocal cameo). That is to say, far too many shots linger on the crude costumes and shoddy, subpar special effect work. It robs the world of the very verisimilitude necessary for the characters inhabiting it to likewise be believable. While Pawnee and Greendale could oftentimes prove ridiculous settings, even to extremes at time, the conceit that they existed in our real world allowed their exaggerated qualities to be part of the humor. Like the characters that inhabited them, they sat precariously on the precipice of plausibility and absurdity. Contra Charm City (presumably the DC equivalent of Baltimore, not far from my old stomping grounds), the fantastical nature of which requires that the screenwriters treat the setting straight-faced; the audience should never be laughing at the world, but at the characters and their circumstances in it.

Similarly telling, seasoned actors such as Pudi and co-star Alan Tudyk, who’ve proven their range elsewhere, are fall flat throughout the episode, suggesting some failure on the script or direction, rather than their comedic timing. Tudyk, even confined to motion-capture for a computer-generated character, took only minutes in the recent Rogue One to steal the show from the rest of the ensemble cast, delivering some of the Saga’s best comedic moments. Here, he’s a more one-dimensional and one-note David Brent, albeit searching for validation from Bruce Wayne instead of his employees. But because he’s not believable as a character, the cringeworthiness that came from Brent or Michael Scott being reminiscent of the audience’s actual bad bosses is entirely lost. Worse off is Pudi, whose Teddy is given much screen time but little characterization. Instead, the focus was squarely on Vanessa Hudgen’s Emily Locke, our sickeningly saccharin pantsuited protagonist. It’s entirely understandable why her employees immediately dislike her, but while this creates credulity, it rarely helps to have a main character with which viewers can’t connect.

With rare exceptions, such as Lost, pilot episodes are notoriously awful, and rarely accurate indicators as to the quality of a series going forward. Parks and Recreation was nigh unwatchable for its first season, and I often exhort friends to power through the first thirteen episodes of Community, as the show failed to find its niche till returning from its first hiatus. Even so, Powerless’ pilot holds less promise, but if it focuses its comedic efforts on characters which we come to care about, keeping the capes and cowls as mere window dressing, it might prove worth watching.

I’ll give it this though: best title-sequence ever!

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