Fans of fantasy, sci-fi and superhero TV shows know very well the pain of saying good-bye too soon. “Firefly.” “Jericho.” “Pushing Daisies.” “The Dresden Files.” Too many genre TV shows have seen themselves thrown onto the canceled pile long before their “sell by” expiration date. NBC’s “Powerless” is the latest casualty. It debuted with just over 3 million viewers, but every week saw a significant drop.
One problem was that NBC didn’t market “Powerless” correctly. It was more of an office comedy than a superhero TV show. That meant superhero fans were disappointed in the lack of Justice League-sized superheroes, and people who like regular comedies didn’t bother to tune in once they heard “Powerless” had anything to do with superheroes. “Powerless” fell into a category all its own, so NBC had no idea how to really showcase it, which is a shame, because “Powerless” was much better than you think it was, arguably even the best superhero show DC has on TV right now. Here are 15 reasons why.
15. WHO WAS THAT MASKED WOMAN?
“Powerless” was about normal folks living in Charm City, which was home to DC superheroes and villains alike. While TV shows like “Supergirl” and “The Flash” are about their titular super-powered stars, “Powerless” focused on the story of Emily Locke, a girl who was new to the big city, and the office politics she faced every day. Episodes centered around nepotism, social dynamics and ambition. Anyone who ever worked for a boss who knew less than the mail clerk could relate to Emily’s frustrations.
To keep the focus on Emily and her coworkers, DC’s most famous superheroes weren’t called in for duty. “Powerless” used lesser-known superheroes and villains to demonstrate what day-to-day life in Charm City was like. Audiences were introduced to Crimson Fox, Green Fury and Jack-O-Lantern. No doubt Google searches went up during the first commercial break in the premiere episode, when Crimson Fox rescued a train car from crashing to the ground. DC had a prime opportunity to spark interest in superheroes other than the ones starring on the big screen.
14. HOLY ANONYMITY, BATMAN!
In a world where Batman stars in a dozen animated series, a kitsch TV series and several feature films, it’s hard to believe there’s anyone left who doesn’t know Batman’s true identity. Michael Keaton revealed himself to Michelle Pfeiffer. Christian Bale let Gary Oldman in on his secret. Val Kilmer even gave up the Batsuit for Nicole Kidman, until she was kidnapped, anyway. It seems like once the bat is out of the bag, everyone in Gotham knows Bruce Wayne is batman.
That’s why it’s refreshing and funny to visit a group of people who have no idea that Bruce Wayne, the billionaire founder of their company, is Batman. Ron and Teddy, and even Van Wayne, share a near-obsessive bromance and gush over the Caped Crusader. They use one of his Batarangs to lure him into a dark alley, only to miss seeing him when he saves them from a crazy crony. Van even dons a replica of Robin’s suit in hopes that Batman will recruit him as a sidekick, never dreaming that Batman is his very own cousin.
13. SINCE U BEEN GONE
Who doesn’t love musicals? Most die-hard fans of any TV show love to see their favorite characters break into song. Joss Whedon garnered a ton of critical praise and fan adoration when he wrote “Once More, With Feeling,” the musical episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Just recently, fans of “Supergirl” and “The Flash” got their kicks watching the Girl of Steel and the Scarlet Speedster, as well as their friends, sing and dance their way out of a predicament.
“Powerless” didn’t go full-on musical, but featured several key musical moments. For instance, the humming at the end of the theme song sounds suspiciously like air slipping through the sultry nasal passages of star Vanessa Hudgens. Then, in “Sinking Day,” Van broke out his guitar and riffed on how badly he wanted to win the love of his father. But the ultimate musical scene was one Hudgens fans had been thirsting for. In “Emergency Punch-Up,” the staff lures Emily to safety with her favorite party pasttime: karaoke. Emily rushes in and belts out “Since U Been Gone” like the pop star Hudgens is in real-life.
12. COLOR WONDER
Comic books are bright and colorful, unless they’re drawn by Frank Miller, but by and large, colorful. DC Comics most famous superheroes, the member of the Justice League, have a color scheme that uses primary colors almost exclusively. Superman has a bright blue and red costume. Wonder Woman’s is similar, with some yellow mixed in here and there. The uniforms for Green Arrow and Green Lantern have a lot of… Well, the color is right in their names. The DC Comics color palette is very recognizable.
“Powerless” made it very clear that it was situated in the DC universe by using bright primary colors almost exclusively in the set design, props and costumes. The industrial decor of the office, and all the office supplies, were a bright yellow. Emily’s clothes were solid shades of bold greens, reds and blues. Although Van mostly wore gray or navy blue suits, his ties and shirts leaned toward blues and yellows, and in one instance, a very Joker-esque purple. The color palette was a subtle and fun reminder that Charm City could be visited by Superman at any moment.
11. A STAR IS BORN
Hollywood is a lot like high school. Plenty of smart, talented kids sit the bench or lose elections while the good-looking popular kids — all six of them — nab all the best gigs. Studios and casting directors don’t like taking a chance on an unknown actor or actress. Everyone wants to cast the same person they just saw, who was so good in that other thing, hoping that person can bring the same joie de vivre to their TV show. The result is that audiences wind up seeing the same faces over and over again.
Like a palette cleanser, “Powerless” had a refreshing lack of big stars. True, Vanessa Hudgens is somewhat famous after starring in the “High School Musical” franchise, then stealing scenes in NBC’s live version of “Grease.” Most of the supporting cast are almost complete unknowns, but terribly talented. Christina Kirk as Jackie, Ron Funches as Ron, and Jennie Pierson as Wendy make their character unique, all the while hitting punchlines like pros. CBR loves seeing new talent rise to the top of casting lists, and “Powerless” gave these actors a well-deserved spotlight.
10. DO YOU KISS YOUR MOTHER WITH THAT MOUTH?
The CW airs most of its superhero TV shows at 8 p.m., when kids are usually still up and awake. The early primetime slot means that “Supergirl,” “The Flash” and even “Arrow,” which tends to have darker stories, have to follow stricter rules when it comes to what they can say and what they can show. “Supergirl” and “The Flash,” especially, are tailored to families, who can watch the show together without worrying too much about exposing kids to situations that will spark a lot of nightmares that night, or a lot of awkward conversations.
“Powerless,” on the other hand, unapologetically planted itself firmly in the TV 14 category with its salty dialog, which had a sense of freedom. Cursing wasn’t prevalent in any given episode, but “Powerless” didn’t pull any punches when it came time to separate the boys from the men. For instance, one of Emily’s t-shirts read “Bitch I’ma” (Jackie had a matching t-shirt that read “End You”). Watching Van beg a little girl to be nice to him so he could have sex with her mommy was like entering an exclusive club, where you could order a beer and swear like a stevedore without repercussions.
9. IT ISN’T CALLED “FRIEND BUSINESS”
Danny Pudi was a relatively unknown actor before he starred in the oft-canceled, but beloved, “Community.” Prior to that, he had small roles on “Gilmore Girls” and the short-lived “Greek.” He was the go-to comedian on “Community,” representing nerds and movie fans everywhere. As Abed Nadir, he provided an awkward outsider’s take on whatever the class was mixed up in. He was at once endearing and loathsome, and he gained quite a following of fans.
On “Powerless,” although Pudi portrayed a very different character, he still nailed every scene, every joke. In just nine episodes as Teddy, he was able to draw a clear picture of an angry nerd who failed with the ladies, but still had a big ego, thanks to his romantic delusions. For instance, he was convinced he was in the same league as Green Fury, even though his friends assured him he wasn’t. On the other hand, when it came time for more serious moments, Pudi delivered. In “Cold Season,” the audience found out why Teddy was so touchy when his family came to visit. Danny Pudi was a valuable asset to “Powerless.”
8. HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, KID
Occasionally a TV show comes along that his a comedy style all its own, rather than relying on a worn-out format, like the traditional sitcom. “Arrested Development” was wholly unique, because it parodied a narrated family drama, but its comedy was a combination of satire and sketch comedy. “The Office” was also a ground-breaking TV comedy, because it was filmed with a single camera, documentary-style, with talking-head interviews and all. Plus, its humor stemmed from painfully awkward social situations.
“Powerless,” too, had a distinctive style of comedy that was at times hyper-realism, and other times more like cynical stand-up comedy. Emily, Ron and Van belonged to an over-the-top world, with big expressions and off-the-wall declarations. Their cock-eyed optimism and high energy were undercut — to hilarious effect — by Teddy’s, Jackie’s and Wendy’s deadpan delivery, complete with well-timed eye-rolls. The juxtaposition of characters with high hopes against characters with nothing but ambivalence made for a very entertaining dynamic.
7. WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Name-dropping is a time-honored tradition among celebrities and politicians. As an audience member, it’s a lot of fun to hear Tom Hanks talk about his conversations with President Obama, or to follow a friendly Twitter war between Chris Evans and Chris Pratt. Name-dropping gives the speaker a certain caché, but it also gives whoever is watching a quick reference that helps fill in the blanks when it comes to context or the setting.
Celebrity name-dropping is one thing, but superhero name-dropping is even more fun. On a TV show about the mortals who have to live in a superhero’s world, hearing their names dropped casually, as if one is talking about one’s neighbor, is thrilling, especially for comic book fans. For instance, a group of Atlanteans visits Wayne Securities and gets excited when Van mentions that A to the Q, a.k.a. Aquaman always attends their Sinking Day parties. It’s also fun to hear the team argue which superhero is a better pick for their fantasy league. The TV news in Charm City even covers what the superheroes are up to, and hearing about Batman using a new device cooked up by Wayne Securities is just fun.
6. WATCH ME PULL A RABBIT OUT OF MY HAT
Every good TV show has at least one running gag, if not several. “The Simpsons,” for instance, has several, but none more iconic than the opening couch gag. “Friends” had quite a few running gags, including jokes about how Monica used to be fat. Running gags are a great way to reward loyal audiences, and to help foster a feeling of intimacy between characters and the audience.
“Powerless” only aired nine episodes, but had already established quite a few running gags that were only beginning to pay off. One of them was Wendy’s lust for Van. She frequently shoe-horned that topic into benign conversations that would leave Van looking somewhat discomfited. The show also made fun of her degenerate lifestyle on more than one occasion. Another joke that had several callbacks was how Emily was oblivious to how pathetic she was, while the others found endless enjoyment in her despair. One episode found clever ways of joking about how she rode up and down the elevator just looking to meet people. No doubt “Powerless” would have harvested even more comedy from their just-burgeoning crop of character-based jokes.
5. HOLY RUMBRELLA, BATMAN!
Gadgets are a superhero’s best friend, in many cases. Unless you’re Supergirl, you need a gadget, or a device, or even a piece of jewelry, to help you take down the bad guy. Generally speaking, said superhero is also some kind of genius to invent his clever toys. Batman is arguably the most famous gadget geek in comic books. He has one for every occasion, even shark repellent.
The team at Wayne Securities, however, didn’t invent stuff to help superheroes. They came up with things that would help the normal, everyday citizen of Charm City get through the day without having their head fall off. The Rumbrealla, for instance, was an umbrella that protected people from the rubble that rained down after a superhero battle. They also invented Joker Gas Anti-Venom that looks like an epipen, for when you’ve been hit by some laughing gas and need to cure yourself. The gadgets are not only a fun way to parody the world of superheroes, but also a clear indication that “Powerless” was very self-aware of the sometimes ridiculous antics in comic books.
4. ALWAYS A SIDEKICK, NEVER A SUPERHERO
Comic books very rarely turn the spotlight on anyone other than the starring superhero. Superheroes are surrounded by normal people, but their stories never take center stage. Why would they? Comic book fans want to see superhuman feats and read stories that push the boundaries of reality. A comic book series about Aunt May, for instance, might see Peter Parker running to and from school, but would mostly be about coupons and laundry.
“Powerless,” however, did focus on the people who had to deal with the consequences of living in a world of superheroes. It was fun seeing a completely different side of what it’s like dealing with, say, cold season, when all the sub-zero villains come to Charm City. That’s when everyone donned parkas and Ron looked forward to going sledding. Those scenes were like saying “what if” for the audience. Like, what if a superhero saved you? Would you develop a crush? Teddy sure did on Green Fury, when she caught him falling to his death from the balcony. “Powerless” put a fun, meta spin on the world of superheroes.
3. I’M READY FOR MY CLOSE-UP
As mentioned above, “The Simpsons” opening credit sequence is iconic, as recognizable as the Simpson family themselves. Most people on the planet know that it starts with Bart writing lines on the blackboard, followed by his trek through Springfield on his skateboard, ending with the family gathering in some crazy way on the couch.
As one CBR staffer noted, the opening sequence to “Powerless” was a thing of conceptual beauty. On first viewing, it takes a few moments to realize what’s going on. Each star of the show is introduced in a wholly unique opening sequence. A typical comic book frame appears that shows a famous superhero doing something spectacular. Then, the camera zooms in on a random person in the background, who turns out to be one of the actors on the show. It’s a terribly clever metaphor for the show’s concept, and even better, it’s gorgeous to watch. The bright colors and the use of DC superheroes draw viewers into the show before the episode even rolls.
2. DO I LOOK LIKE I’M JOKING?
Marketing departments of studio films and TV shows are notorious for sending the wrong message to potential audiences. After seeing so many clips about the Sinister Six, plenty of “Amazing Spider-Man 2” fans thought they were going to see a movie about a group of villains, but ended up watching endless scenes about Gwen and Peter, and whether they should keep dating.
“Powerless” definitely suffered from the wrong kind of marketing. True, the hook was that these were average people living and working near people with powers, but “Powerless” wasn’t about superheroes. The promotional clips talked about Superman and kryptonite windows, or showed Emily being saved by the Crimson Fox. Most folks who watch NBC shows aren’t into superheroes. They tune in for “Superstore,” about minimum-wage workers, not supernatural battles. However, if that crowd had watched “Powerless,” they would have discovered a smart office comedy that only used DC as a setting, with just a few cameos by second tier superheroes. The jokes on “Powerless” were clever, as well as on-topic, without trying too hard. Fans of TV comedies missed out on a great show because they didn’t want flights and tights, which there weren’t.
1. ALAN TUDYK
In every great TV comedy, there is a stand-out actor who steals every scene. For instance, Steve Carrell, although he had shined in small roles, ran away with “The Office,” which wasn’t nearly as funny, or as successful, after he left. “Big Bang Theory” stars a stellar ensemble cast, but it’s Jim Parsons who has won a gazillion awards for his performance as Sheldon Cooper.
Alan Tudyk was immensely funny as Van Wayne, cousin to Bruce Wayne. He created a character who was filled with ticks and quirks, who was unbelievably egotistical and painfully insecure, all at once. His line delivery was never predictable, and his facial expressions were so malleable he might as well have been a Muppet. He had one memorable scene after another, so much so that “Powerless” could have been a one-man show. He wasn’t afraid to be outlandishly silly, like when he tried to speak Greenlandic, or when he wore a PVC suit like Robin’s (while drinking a coffee). He knew how to wrest laughs out of every syllable he spoke, every gesture he made. The man deserves an award.
What did you love about “Powerless?” Tell us in the comments!
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