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REVIEW: Black Lightning Raises the Bar for Other Superhero Series

SPOILER WARNING: This article contains minor spoilers for the premiere of Black Lightning, debuting tonight on The CW.

The CW is filled with a number of flashy superheroes from the DC Universe, but none of them tackle the type of real-world issues that are found in the network's newest series, Black Lightning. Those who claim they tune into TV shows to be entertained, to forget about the type of problems they face on a day-to-day basis, may read this and decided not to watch the series premiere. If that sounds like you, you run the risk of missing out on what's shaping up to be the strongest addition to DC's slate of comic book television shows to date.

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Black Lightning stars Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce, principal of Garfield High School and the retired titular hero. The opening minutes of the premiere fills us in on Black Lightning's nine-year absence from crime-fighting via a news broadcast featuring the late Amanda Davis, an Atlanta reporter who recently passed away following a stroke. We also meet Jefferson's two daughters; the civil rights activist Anissa (Nafessa Williams), and rebellious Jennifer (China Anne McClain). The older Anissa is, of course, the more responsible of the Pierce daughters, though Jennifer's wild streak can be chalked up to the enormous pressure she's under to be the "queen of Garfield High."

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Despite the obvious pressures and friction, the Pierce family remains a tight-knit unit, even though the parents are separated. Christine Adams plays Lynn Pierce, who had a small role to play in Jefferson's decision to retire as Black Lightning; faced with an ultimatum from Lynn, he promised to hang up his suit for good. Showrunners Salim and Mara Brock Akil elect against a contentious relationship between the parents, presenting instead one where Jefferson and Lynn are in the midst of rekindling their feelings for one another.

Black Lightning focuses on the Black family dynamic, and many of the issues the pilot tackles are taken directly from current national headlines. Themes of racial profiling, school violence and gang conflict are all touched upon in the hour-long debut, though none of it seems forced or preachy. The topics all feel natural and crucial to the series' direction instead of deterring from the overall story. The episode illustrates how there can be two fundamentally different approaches to dealing with such complex issues, with neither one presented as inherently better or worsen than the other. For example, Jefferson and local gang member Lala each want the best for today's youth, yet they go about it in different ways. One uses a gentle hand, while the other chooses a firmer, more aggressive fist.

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Of course, there are other supporting cast members beyond those found in the Pierce family. Damon Gupton's Detective Henderson we learn is a friend to Jefferson -- and a rival to Black Lightning. It's understandable for a local cop and vigilante to not be the best of friends, but hopefully future episodes are dedicated to fleshing out their relationship and what appears to have happened between them in the past. And just like Batman has Alfred as his right-hand man, Black Lightning confides in Peter Gambi (James Remar), a tailor who is like a father figure to Jefferson. It's Peter who prepares Black Lightning's outfits, and does a fine job of filling the mentor role that so many superhero shows end up employing.

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