NBC’s “Powerless” lays out its premise with its title sequence, which opens on an image DC Comics fans will recognize as an homage to the cover of “Action Comics #1,” the first appearance of Superman. Instead of setting its focus on the Man of Steel, however, the camera pans to a civilian in the background, cowering in terror, because in this comedy it’s not the caped crusaders but the endangered civilians that get the spotlight. But there isn’t for the citizens of Charm City to fear, as the worst dangers they seem to face are delayed morning commutes caused by super-tussles, and maybe the occasional punch-line groaner.
As Warner Bros.’ DC-based films stray further from the whimsical side of comic book superheroes, this new show leans into it, soaking the screen in bright colors and broad comedic characters. It even makes its connection to the fanciful side of DC heroes explicit by featuring ’60s “Batman” star Adam West as a narrator. Through the eyes of Vanessa Hudgens’ Emily Locke, a wide-eyed transplant to the big city, we find a world where, for many, even the most extraordinary has become mundane. Locke has just taken a leadership position with Wayne Security, a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises run by Batman’s wayward cousin, Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk). The company specializes in supervillain countermeasures for the common man and woman, but its employees have hit a creative dead end, and if the new research and development director can’t turn things around, big boss Bruce Wayne could shutter the division.
It’s certainly one of the more ambitious high-concept series network TV has tried in recent years, and in many moments that conceptual strain shows. There’s always a lot of exposition in any pilot, but in “Wayne or Lose,” nearly every frame contains a sight-gag and every line harks back to a chapter of “Who’s Who in the DC Universe.” Still, the cast, led by Hudgens and Tudyk, are game, and the product team of Teddy (Danny Pudi) the chief design officer, Wendy (Jennie Pierson), the lead software engineer, and Ron (Ron Funchess), the head of engineering, provides the kind of good-natured, slapstick high jinks required of a workplace sitcom. Tudyk plays his Wayne like a Bizarro Bruce who has fully bought into his cousin’s carefree public persona, and wants nothing more than to move to Gotham and emulate it. His assistant Jackie (Christina Kirk) is appropriately put-upon, and Hudgens has a Kimmy Schmidt-like earnest streak befitting her pastel surroundings.
It’s notable that, in comparison to Marvel’s stable of shows, from “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” to Netflix dramas like “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones,” “Powerless” goes to great lengths to make sure everything feel referential, rewarding knowledgeable fans with more than just the occasional nod. As novel as it is for the exploits of Crimson Fox or Jack O’Lantern to make it to your TV screen, the best payoffs come from smaller citations of DC canon, like an off-hand reference to Shazam or a Kryptonite plate-glass window. There’s obviously a lot to be distracted by in this world, for both the characters and viewers, but the best laughs come from the quieter moments, where the extraordinary premise recedes and the characters can simply live in their highly aggravating world. (Although, to be fair, seeing Starro make his television debut was pretty great).
In a way, the story of “Powerless” feels like a testament to the diminishing returns of intellectual property, and how to stave off creative stagnation. As much as Van skates by on the Wayne name, and as essential as the company’s Joker poison-neutralizing auto-injector might be, resting on their laurels will only lead to dead ends. It will take some genuine innovation to keep things afloat. “Powerless” attempts to reimagine the world of superheroes for mass audiences, and with a charismatic cast that shows a capacity to develop greater chemistry it still might, but it will need to work out some internal mechanics to get there. You can’t survive on a brand name alone.
“Powerless” airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.