Saturday, February 4, 2017

Underpowered: NBC’s Powerless

Superheroes are ubiquitous on film and television these days. Movie studios’ production slates are full of films mining every last corner of the Marvel and DC universes, while some TV outlets, such as Netflix and the CW, have entire blocks of programming centered around serialized adaptations of comic-book properties. While many of these are well executed – the Marvel movies, in particular, have settled into a rhythm, delivering consistently enjoyable if not especially novel entertainment – there have been some unpleasant side effects. The dark, gritty tone and overbearing self-seriousness of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies have become de rigueur for many franchises, even as they seem to grow increasingly unconcerned with the CGI-rendered carnage inflicted on countless screaming extras during the inevitable climactic battle that’s become a standard plot point in virtually every film.

NBC’s Powerless, which premiered on February 2 and airs at 8:30 ET on Thursday nights, pokes fun at that and many other superhero-movie tropes: at one point, a character laments that superheroes have gone from thwarting robbers to fighting massive battles against supervillains, leaving ordinary people with little to play. That sums up the fundamental premise of this sitcom, which stars Vanessa Hudgens as go-getter Emily Locke, who’s just moved to Charm City to take a new job at Wayne Security. The company (which, yes, is owned by that particular Wayne from the comic books) is supposed to devise new products that will help protect non-super civilians from the daily butchery visited upon them by titanic battles between good and evil. It’s run by Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk), Bruce’s cousin, and, perhaps inevitably for a workplace comedy in 2017, populated by a variety of quirky misfits, such as Ron (Ron Funches), Teddy (Danny Pudi), and Van’s disaffected secretary Jackie (Christina Kirk).

Powerless has a unique premise and, depending on your sense of humor, some effective jokes. Since only the pilot has aired so far, it’s admittedly early to draw definitive conclusions about how well it works (think of how long a brilliant show like Parks and Recreation took to find its footing), but it seems to be a mixed bag. The show was apparently extensively reworked before this version of the pilot was released, suggesting the possibility of corporate interference, which generally makes for a blander end product. As the references to Bruce Wayne indicate, it’s part of the universe (although the script makes sly references to Marvel characters such as Spider-Man as well) and the need to service that brand’s fans and marketing objectives could, if poorly handled, sink the whole enterprise. On the other hand, a show whose humor focused squarely on making fun of our cultural obsession with superheroes might be just what’s needed right now. In that vein, Powerless occasionally taps into a darker sense of humor that’s less about quirk and makes more of a comment on the implicit problems with the genre. In the opening sequence, fresh-faced ingenue Emily thrills to a big battle that ends with her elevated train nearly going up in a fireball, only to be saved at the last second by D-list superheroine Crimson Fox. She’s wildly excited, but the other passengers, longtime denizens of Charm City, remain utterly blasé – they (and, by extension, we) have seen so many life-or-death struggles that they’re completely unmoved.

Christina Kirk and Alan Tudyk in Powerless

As for the cast, Hudgens poses something of a problem in the lead role. It’s hard to shake the impression that she’s like a Type-A adolescent who, having decided to take a role in the school play, keeps posing, smiling, and hitting the same bright but repetitive note, hoping that she can carry the whole thing on sheer charm. Just as the writers need to find a way to move beyond the tropes of the typical workplace sitcom, so too does their lead need to find a greater range to avoid becoming dull. Fortunately, the rest of the cast has some promise. Pudi’s not playing exactly the same sort of role that he pulled off so well in Community, but he and Funches do have a rapport that could grow into a dynamic similar to the one that he shared with Donald Glover on the other show. Kirk and Tudyk also have some evident comic chops; Tudyk, in particular, plays Van with a mixture of barely concealed desperation and self-doubt, overlaid with a fawning obsequiousness towards his distant cousin Bruce, that feels like a more lightweight version of Michael Scott, Steve Carell’s character in the American version of The Office.

As the various references throughout this review to hallowed NBC sitcoms of seasons past might remind you, it can take a while for shows, especially sitcoms, to find a distinctive voice and stand on their own. Powerless still has the potential to do that, despite its off-screen creative problems, its weak lead performance, and the fact that, for now, it’s basically a standard workplace comedy. In order to become something more, it will, like the superheroes its characters keep referencing, have to discover what has the potential to make it rise above the ordinary.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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