Superheroes and villains cause a lot of collateral damage. That’s always been the case, but ever since Man of Steel drew backlash from fans for the wanton destruction wrought by Superman, movies like Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War have been keener about confronting the issue. Even if the world is saved, being caught in the middle of a superhero brawl on your way to work sucks. If only there were some way to make life a little easier while the super-types do their thing.
That’s the basic premise behind Powerless, NBC’s new comedy set in a world where Superman crashing through office windows is the number one cause of workplace accidents. It’s up to ordinary people to make the world a more livable place for each other. For any comic book fan who doesn’t take the medium too seriously, the show is charming, though it’s also entirely calorie-free. Don’t expect it to dig too deeply into what it means to be a hero.
Powerless stars High School Musical veteran Vanessa Hudgens as Emily Locke, the plucky new director of Research and Development at Wayne Security, an offshoot of Wayne Enterprises located in Charm City. Born in an unnamed flyover state (as in, superheroes fly over it), Emily is desperate to make a difference in her own way, and Bruce Wayne’s ne’er-do-well, amazingly canon cousin Van Wayne (Firefly’s Alan Tudyk) has brought her on to whip the company into shape. So it’s up to her, chief design officer Teddy (Community’s Danny Pudi), chief of childlike wonder Ron (comedian Ron Funches), cynical co-worker Jackie (Christina Kirk), and the rest of her crack team to design innovative products that can save the lives superheroes accidentally threaten while taking on villains.
Right off the bat, the show feels like Better Off Ted, but with capes and cowls and without that show’s deep cynicism about corporate life. Hudgens brings an energy and sunny disposition to Emily that informs the whole show. She’s so earnest and committed to bettering the lives of others that the first episode is a bit like watching a Disney Channel character solve a crisis. (Which is somewhat expected, given Hudgens’ history as a Disney Channel star.) Pudi and Funches play their characters with a playful world-weariness, while Kirk turns Jackie into the jaded co-worker who’s seen it all. They’ve all given into ennui at Wayne Security, so Emily’s there to get the company back on track with some out-of-the-box ideas and a good pep talk.
And then there’s Van Wayne, as close to a nemesis as the show can produce without giving him a death ray. His power is more or less his incompetence and need for validation from his far-smarter cousin Bruce. Tudyk, as ever, is clearly having the time of his life playing an ineffectual jerk who’s only out for himself, and his zany negativity (he’s more than prepared to fail up in order to leave Charm City for good) is the perfect counterpoint to Emily’s almost palpable hopefulness.
“Zany” is a good way to describe the series and its limits. Series creator Ben Queen clearly wanted to have fun with comic book conventions like heroes saving train-loads of helpless people. His departure last summer meant certain aspects of the original concept changed: at one point, the show was about an insurance company instead of a security firm. However, the new version, with showrunner Patrick Schumacker ($#*! My Dad Says) now at the helm, is still very much a light-hearted comedy that mostly succeeds. It gets its digs in at the superhero genre here and there, but where Batman v Superman took its heroes to task for failing the people they set out to save, this show is content with making jokes about living in a world with Aquaman and Wonder Woman. That’s fine. A meditation about the cost of superheroics doesn’t pair easily with gags about Wonder Woman’s invisible jet. But there are times where a more thoughtful approach would make the comedy hit even harder.
Late in the premiere, it turns out Bruce Wayne has decided to shut Wayne Security down. “Now it’s all just supervillains trying to destroy the Earth, and superheroes fighting one another for vaguely defined reasons,” Van explains to his staff. “Our products are powerless to stop that.” So Emily decides to rally the troops and create a product that will save the company. Her solution? A wearable that can detect supervillains by their unique smells. The show treats her idea as a unique show of genius. Even Batman uses it! But it’s a terrible idea. Is there a database for supervillain smells somewhere? Is the Joker’s smell on file? A better show would have had fun with that idea, finding a way to put a positive spin on how ridiculous it is. But maybe that’s a small complaint for a show that’s just getting started.
In the end, Powerless is a decent show so long as you don’t think too hard about it. Given how many superhero TV shows are on the CW alone, a show that focuses on everyday people in their world is a welcome breath of fresh air. (Don’t expect any crossovers, though, since show exists in its own world outside of the Arrowverse.) The series is light and uncomplicated, full of relatable characters getting into wacky situations. For now, maybe that’s all fans of the genre really need. And if the show finds its audience, there’s still plenty of room to grow.
Powerless premiers on NBC tonight at 8:30pm ET