Into the heated fray of representation that has lit up the superhero franchise landscape lands "Supergirl," CBS's weekly action-adventure series fronted by an enthusiastic hero striving to live up to the standards set by her famous cousin. And much like its eager protagonist, the series is charming, but wobbly on its feet.
Years ago, when she was just 13, Kara Zor-El -- like her baby cousin before her -- was rocketed off her doomed home-planet of Krypton to Earth. Her mother tasked the brave little girl with protecting her cousin Kal-El once she landed, but shock waves from Krypton's destruction threw her into the time-frozen Phantom Zone. It wasn't until years later that Kara touched down. From there, Superman set her up with a foster family before soaring out of her life. Since her cousin didn't need her protection, Kara made the confounding decision to hide all her superpowers and who she really is and just try to be "normal." This -- for better and worse -- leads her into the path of rom-com heroine cliches.
Now 24, Kara's (Melissa Benoist) existence is very "Devil Wears Prada" meets "Bridget Jones's Diary." According to her foster sister Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh), Kara has it all. "You've got a good job. You're cute and thanks to alien DNA you can't get pimples!" Naturally, this "good job" means being the thankless assistant to a merciless media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), who is snarking about a latte not being hot enough when she's not lecturing her wide-eyed assistant about female empowerment and the importance of branding. Just as she did as the mini-skirted attorney "Ally McBeal," Flockhart dishes a version of "female empowerment" ripe for debate. But for all of Grant's barbs and threats of firing, she's not the worst one at the office. (At least her one-liners are funny.) That would be the tiresome and sexist Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan).
Winn is Kara's friend/IT guy/"Nice Guy" stalker. Because he can see that Kara is a knockout even with her glasses and ponytail (at least it's not full-on "She's All That" paint-covered overalls), he feels entitled to her romantic attentions. When he discovers she has a blind date, he condescends to her about online dating and then none-too-subtly suggests true love might be right around the corner. Later, when she comes out to him about being Supergirl, he interrupts to spew, "You're a lesbian! Kara! That's why you're not into me." Ugh. From this point on, the only reason I want to see Winn is to see him die in a fire. "Supergirl" doesn't need such Neanderthal thinking or such lame jokes.
Yet as gross as Winn is, he was right about one thing. Potential love is right around the corner for Kara, and it comes in the form of the strapping James "Jimmy" Olson (Mehcad Brooks). A photographer who transferred from The Daily Planet, James is very familiar with the cousin whose name no one on the show dares speak for reasons unknown. And he's the first at the office to recognize Kara -- even with her glasses and ponytail! I know it's a trope of Superman that's carrying over. Still, it feels a bit too absurd in the age of hi-res photos.
But office romance and a boss from hell are just one side of Kara's life. The other emerges when her sister's plane begins to experience engine trouble. Ditching a dud of a date, Kara soars to the rescue in an action scene that feels like it should be the pilot's finale, not its act break.
There's an intense rush to setup Kara's origin, causing this first ep to feel like a full-length movie crammed into a 40-minute recap. A lengthy voiceover explains who Kara is before we see her emerge in the present with a big smile and a penchant for bright red and blue clothes, and the occasional crop top (all nods to past Supergirl costumes). Scenes meant to develop the sisters' complex relationship aren't given time to breathe, dulling their impact. And the montage of Supergirl fighting crime/figuring out her costume is so fast it feels like it was cut for a teaser. By the time the pilot gets to the series' purpose and its big bad, you might feel a bit punch drunk on exposition. But no worries: the script repeats key pieces of information two to three times, so you won't miss a thing.
All this rushing muddies some key motivations, like why Kara chose to hide in the first place. While the end of the ep tries to revisit this and give it more context, it feels a sloppy move, as does dialogue like, "Can you believe it? A female superhero! At last my daughter will have someone to look up to!" Yup, that's a real line on this show.
And that's my real issue with "Supergirl." Despite its good intentions, its debut is a mess. It's racing through story and character, tossing in nods to iconography as requisite fan service as well as talking point for feminists, all in an effort to show you why you should keep coming back week after week. But neither its season wide arc of revenge/world conquest, nor allusions to DC comics and progressive (yet possibly problematic) politics are not why I'll be following "Supergirl." Benoist is.
Even saddled with rom-com cliches -- which maybe the show is setting up to subvert -- Benoist is endlessly affable. When Kara strides forth in her Supergirl costume for the first time, it's a big moment cemented not as much by music cues as by Benoist's beaming face. Watching her fly and fight feels like a victory of more than fictional merit. She gets to be heroic and girly. With superheroes still outnumbering superheroines by a wide margin, "Supergirl" will bear the burden of representation, and that means many think pieces dissecting its every move. But for this critic, it was a true joy to see Kara as a young woman and a newbie superhero, figuring out who she is in both realms. I want to witness her journey.
As Kara, Benoist is flustered yet determined and charming, like Bridget Jones with superpowers. As Supergirl, she's believably badass, whether flying with her cape rippling behind her, or taking on a battle-ax wielding alien ex-con. But I think I like Benoist best in her scenes with Brooks. Admittedly, this is in part because I cringe to imagine Kara with that asshole Winn, but moreover because this incarnation of Jimmy Olson is exciting, alluring and new. These two promise a corner of the DC Universe I've never seen, and would like to.
All in all, "Supergirl" is a lot of fun. Sure, its first episode is bogged down by much, much exposition. But now that the pins are set, Supergirl is poised to bowl them down.
"Supergirl" premieres 8:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 26 and moves to its regular time period (8 p.m.) on Monday, Nov. 2 on CBS.