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‘Powerless’ Offers a Sunny But Slight DC Universe

Created by: Ben Queen
Premieres: Thursday, February 2nd @ 8:30 PM on NBC
One episode watched for review

“With great power comes living in a taint.”

If your exposure to the DC universe has been limited to their recent cinematic output, you would be forgiven for thinking the entire company is one of nothing but dense gloom and moody superheroes. And much of their contemporary comics history would back you up; ever since the success of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, much of DC’s output has been catered to the more mature crowd. Yet that only tells a fraction of the story. The CW television shows haven’t been the barrage of nihilism that the films have captured, but they are still relatively moody affairs. Powerless, the new sitcom on NBC, goes about as far from the DCEU as tonally possible, and while it doesn’t work quite yet it remains a breath of relatively fresh air.

The premise is a fairly clever one, though it’s played a bit too cutesy in the pilot episode. Emily Locke (Vanessa Hudgens) is a can-do woman in the Kimmy Schmidt mold (minus the traumatic experiences underlying her naivety). She’s recently taken a job at Wayne Security in Charm City, moving in from what appears to be a small town out in the Midwest. Her ostensible hope is to aid others, and her motives are relatively pure. But there is something in it for her as well; she gets to live in a big city and in the world of Powerless that means two things: superheroes and supervillains. Of course, to the others in Charm City, these warring factions are merely an obstacle on the morning commute, something like a daily power outage or technical setback. In the opening scene Emily is amazed when her train is derailed. Everyone else around her is just mildly perturbed when Crimson Fox halts the oncoming tragedy (the DC A-listers are mentioned here, such as an ad for anti-Joker toxin spray, but it seems like appearances might be kept to lesser-known comic characters).

Even in the context of a charming premise, Powerless quickly establishes itself as a take on the workplace comedy. Upon arriving at her job, Emily meets Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk), Bruce’s eternally jealous cousin. He’s the kind of guy solely looking out for himself, but one could smartly wager there’s a heart of gold under there somewhere. That’s the type of show Powerless presents itself as in its pilot episode, the only one made available to critics. And this is a particularly difficult show to sell in just half an hour, given how much world it has to build. For now, everyone seems either firmly entrenched in stereotype or too underdeveloped to truly be a character. One of Emily’s coworkers is Teddy (Danny Pudi), a less excitable nerd; another is Ron (Ron Funches), a more excitable nerd. And then there’s Wendy (Jennie Pierson), a mean nerd. The group bickers at first, but by the end of the episode they’re all sharing a drink and mostly getting along.

That description sounds a bit dismissive, and it is somewhat. Most of the individual pieces that creator Ben Queen (A to Z) has assembled are strong enough to fight against this current simplicity though. Funches is one of the best weapons a sitcom can have in its arsenal these days, and his sheepish smile and impassioned indulgences pay off greatly here. Pudi is mostly just doing a more social take on Community’s Abed at this point, but he’s left room open for more angles on the character. Christina Kirk appears to be a proper source of grounding for what is a fairly loopy show; she’s certainly funny in the pilot but also brings out one of its few human moments. And Alan Tudyk is Alan Tudyk, devouring the scenery and stretching the contours of his face with reckless abandon.

A great cast can’t always make up for lackluster writing though, and so far the jokes just aren’t that funny and the situations aren’t interestingly drawn. That can certainly change, and the latter is especially marred by the need to do so much in such a short span of time. What’s most promising, besides the generally well-assembled cast (Hudgens just feels kind of off for much of the pilot) is the world that Queen and his production designers have built. The look of the show perfectly feeds into the most interesting thing about it, the notion of regular people in a superheroic world. All of the outfits pop with color, as if the notion of hero costumes leaked into the fashion world of Charm City. And the sets are bright and open, allowing that talented cast to maneuver the space around them to feel fluid. This is a cartoony show, and the design of it reflects that even when the writing isn’t quite there. And that feeling alone does wonders when compared to the general superhero tone of today’s media. Who knew something as simply as a splash of color could set this world apart?

So far, the best thing about Powerless is the opening credits, which show famous DC heroes in action, before zooming in behind them to show someone running in terror. If the series can hit that balance, between the bombastic nature of superheroes and the mundane texture of office life, it might turn into something special. The pieces are all in place, now all the show needs is a proper origin story to turn from yet another sitcom into something extraordinary.

Grade: C+

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Josh Oakley is a writer for Cut Print Film and runs the pop culture blog Wine and Pop.

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