"Supergirl" is here, and she's great. So is the actress playing her. There are a lot of things that make "Supergirl" super (or at least make the pilot super, and yes, expect the word "super" to get dropped a lot from here on out) but the top of the list is Melissa Benoist. Pilots are tricky: they have to make you care about someone right away, and make you invested enough in that person, or in the story as a whole, to get you to tune back in a week later. It's a tall order, not one that's easy to leap in a single bound, but when you've got a performer with as much natural warmth and easy charm as Benoist, it makes things a whole lot easier.
It also helps to be incredibly efficient. In less than 13 minutes, we get Kara Zor-El's origin story, a glimpse at where she is now, the reveal that she's not using any of her powers but wants to change the world, a family member in peril, and bam: she's lifting a plane. But while accomplishing all that, it never stops being breezy and self-assured. The rest of the pilot continues in much the same way, but even if it didn't, the opening would remain a remarkable achievement.
The origin story in question: as a young girl, Kara was sent to earth to protect her baby cousin Kal-El, but her pod got trapped in the Phantom Zone for years. She din't age, but everyone else did, and she emerges without a mission or a purpose. Her now famous (and super) cousin places her with the Danvers family (Helen Slater and Dean Cain!), who have a daughter of their own. Kara grows up and blends in, never using her powers -- even if it means that lattes get delivered cold. She's got a perfectly average life.
That life comes with a perfectly terrible boss (Calista Flockhart, much more Miranda Priestly than Ally McBeal), a cute co-worker ("Smash" star Jeremy Jordan), and a sister/best friend (Chyler Leigh of "Grey's Anatomy"). Into that pack wanders James, not Jimmy, Olsen (the terrific Mehcad Brooks), who totally coincidentally left Metropolis for National City. All four performers turn in great work, though Leigh stands out in particular, and her scenes with Benoist carry a surprising amount of weight, considering how little time we spend with the characters.
Kara's on a bad blind date -- seriously, that guy is the worst -- when she hears that a flight bound for Geneva is in distress. Realizing her sister might be on that plane, then using her powers to confirm it, she flies into action -- sort of. It's a great sequence, in which we learn that Kara's maybe sort of forgotten how to ride the metaphorical bike, but she picks it back up just in time. Watching Benoist whip those glasses off was as big a thrill as watching Kara steer that plane through the city and into the water (causing not a little damage to the Otto Binder Bridge along the way). Just like that, the mystery flying woman is a star.
While Benoist is great throughout the episode, she's never better than in the scenes immediately following her first big save. She's elated, flush with excitement and adrenaline. Whether whooping with delight at the news coverage yelling at the reporter who calls her a wrecking ball, she's incredibly engaging, and those moments, perhaps more than any other, serve to get the audience firmly on board. When you add in the scene that follows, in which sister Alex skips past "I can't believe you saved my life!" and heads directly to "don't do this, you're an idiot!", the resulting combination makes it nearly impossible to do anything but cheer for her to strap on a cape already.
Interestingly, the appearance of a new hero saves some jobs, as well as some lives. Realizing that boss Cat Grant will shutter a paper if circulation doesn't increase -- yep, even in fiction, print journalism is dying -- Kara decides to throw a little coming-out party with the help of the aforementioned cute co-worker. It may be a bit precious that Winn Schott has skills as a hacker, as well as an eye for capes, but Jordan's natural appeal makes it easy to buy into that friendship. He helps her find the right ensemble after a few misfires, and steers her from local crisis to local crisis. He's basically Supergirl's stylist and manager, all in one.
At least, that's who he is until the show's first big reveal. While headed to a fire, Kara gets knocked right out of the sky by some Kryptonite darts, and soon after discovers that she's been apprehended by the Department of Extranormal Operations -- and that one agent of said department is her very own sister.
If there's one note that felt out of tune, it was Fort Rozz. Nearly everything is a procedural these days, and obviously "Supergirl" will be focused on the character's overall story, not merely on a case-of-the-week, but after being burned by one too many cool ideas turned into formulaic garbage (I'm looking at you, TV adaptation of "Minority Report," and even sometimes at you, "Sleepy Hollow") I'm a little gunshy about any plot device designed to set us up with a string of bad guys.
DEO bigwig Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) gives Kara all this information, then promptly grounds her: they don't want her assistance, and Henshaw's dismissive in a way that isn't overtly sexist -- which doesn't mean that it isn't a little bit not-so-overtly sexist. Between that and the revelation that her sister's a part of it all, Kara's feeling pretty down, and it takes a weird, high-frequency broadcast from the episode's bad guy (Vartox) for her to fly off again. She doesn't have much practice at super-ing, and almost loses the battle (and her life) when Alex and the DEO swoop in and save the day.
There's one upside: Kara's scare convinces Alex that the world does need her. She shares a holographic message from her birth mother, confiscated by her agency from Kara's pod, and that little pep talk, combined with Alex's support, convinces Kara to fly, fly again.
That leads to the second great action sequence, in which Kara awesomely blows up Vartox's tanker, among other great things. Vartox takes his own life, but not before telling Supergirl -- as she's now called, thanks to Cat -- that she's got a whole lot worse headed her way. It's a great little tease, but not as great as the big one: our Big Bad is Kara's aunt (played, like her mother, by Tony-winner Laura Benanti), and she's maybe not very nice.
While the episode ends on an ominous note, it didn't leave me with anything but warmth. Part of it was just that I had such a great time watching, but it was helped in no small part by the one last reveal -- James-Not-Jimmy Olsen is, of course, there on purpose, and he's got a present for Kara from her cousin what's-his-name. Watching delight and longing wash over Kara's face as she picked up Superman's blanket -- destined now to be her tatter-free cape -- was yet another of Benoist's great moments.
It's a promising pilot, albeit one that's trying perhaps a little too hard to prove its feminist bonafides. Still, that's a great problem to have, and with that -- and the hint of the routine in the series's structure -- as the only sour notes, my hopes are flying as high as a bird, or a plane, or... well, you get it. Bring on episode two.