Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A disappointingly ordinary Powerless plays superhero fantasy league

Jennie Pierson, Ron Funches, Vanessa Hudgens, Danny Pudi (Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/Warner Bros/NBC)
Jennie Pierson, Ron Funches, Vanessa Hudgens, Danny Pudi (Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/Warner Bros/NBC)
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In its entertaining premiere, Powerless showed that its goofball superhero toy box has plenty of colorful pieces to play with. The cast is stacked with unique comic talents, the super-geek science trappings make for a promisingly silly spin on the traditional office comedy dynamic, and then there is the fact that the whole enterprise is plunked down in a world of recognizable DC Comics superheroes. (No matter how completely unseen, briefly glimpsed, or affordably obscure.) The issue coming out of that first episode was always going to be how deep Powerless was prepared to go—not only into its superhero milieu, but in finding new wrinkles in the workplace comedy formula. Unfortunately, “Wayne Dream Team” is a discouraging step back on both counts.

On the superhero front, Charm City is still plagued by the mid-level destructive antics of Jack O’Lantern (he blows up a cupcake cart), but resident hero Crimson Fox is nowhere to be seen, and Powerless doesn’t drop in any new DC D-listers to keep our interest. Instead, what superhero fun there is to be had comes from tech geeks Teddy, Ron, and Wendy’s obsession with their annual superhero fantasy league. It’s not a bad way to flesh out this decidedly human little corner of a hero-filled world—I mean, there’d definitely be superhero fantasy leagues where people wagered on how many saves, say, Superman versus The Flash would rack up each day. But, while Powerless is going to have to live or die on the merits of writing and acting rather than novelty, there’s precious little use made of the fantasy league conceit. While the pilot hinted that Powerless would delve into the human effects of living in a chaotic world of constantly battling behemoths, the fantasy league here is just an excuse for an especially tired plot about new boss Emily’s attempts to find that elusive “friend-boss balance,” something she screws up by getting the office internet cut off, in the name of productivity.

If you’re going to do office comedy, Emily’s dilemma is a central one. Not to bring up The Office too often, but if Powerless wants to do stories about boss Emily trying to make friends with her reluctant and skeptical oddball employees, then there’s a gold standard to be met. Vanessa Hudgens continues to sparkle with pep as the chipper, well-meaning Emily, but the character needs more colors than she’s been given so far. When the twin crises of her internet debacle and the crew’s deadline (making a Wayne Security anti-rubble bystander umbrella for superhero fights) have been overcome, she explains exactly what her conflict has been to the forgiving lab geeks, and they forgive her. And that’s it. Sure, Jennie Pierson’s happily tactless Wendy punctures the sentiment, with a blunt “You’re definitely not our friend,” but Emily’s whole move of messing with the workers’ internet and shifting the blame to someone else (Michael D. Cohen’s HR guy, Samuel Greene) just has nothing new to recommend it.

The episode’s B-story could take place in any nondescript office sitcom, as well. Although, as with the main story, the cast finds ways to liven things up. Alan Tudyk’s Van Wayne gives the actor an opportunity to ply the beady-eyed, frozen-smiled dick Tudyk can do so well, as, here, Van obsesses over the fact that he was cropped out of the Wayne Security executive lobby photo that gives the episode its name. Watching the entitled Van squirm is proving reliably funny, as this sap of the Wayne family tree revels in his famous name and miraculous wealth while proving himself unworthy of the respect (groveling, really) he thinks is his birthright. (If ever a TV character embodied the cliché “born on third and acts like he hit a triple,” it’s Van Wayne.) Still, the predictable prank that Teddy, Ron, and Wendy play on his enthusiastic “finger-guns” photoshop work (they “meme” him) isn’t especially funny or ingenious for a bunch of supposedly hyper-intelligent and mischievous science geeks.

The same goes for the “rubbrella,” which, like last week’s smell-based super-villain detector, is an awfully lazy gag. Part of the fun of a similar show like Better Off Ted was in seeing how a company full of undeniably brilliant eccentrics spend their time coming up with insane projects while straitjacketed by corporate America. Here, the sight gag of a crash test dummy repeatedly being beheaded during the testing phase barely registers as a joke. For Powerless to survive past the initial novelty factor, there just has to be more effort into making Teddy, Ron, and Wendy’s talents special enough to stand out. That Wendy’s longshot scheme to restore their internet might take out the building’s air conditioning, power, and sewerage is more like it, eccentric-genius-wise.

There are a lot fewer laughs in “Wayne Dream Team” than there were in the premiere, but what’s there sees the cast delivering the sort of unique personality they were hired for. Pudi’s Teddy is the unlikely alpha of this ragtag group of lab rats, and, while Teddy’s grouchy persona hasn’t much room to breathe, Pudi’s still eminently watchable. “We bitch and procrastinate because that’s what we do,” he explains to Emily finally, before assuring her that the crew’s seemingly lackadaisical attitude will always come through in the end. They do get that umbrella to work, even though the deflected rubble will crush anyone nearby not carrying one. (Van, seeing a fear-based marketing opportunity, is thrilled.) Ron Funches’ unsinkable optimism and all-around delightfulness makes even Ron’s anger adorable, as when he adds the found-out Emily to his “very short list of things” that upsets him. (“It’s you and the shockingly high price of shark ownership.”) Christina Kirk’s super-competent assistant Jackie deadpans like only a very smart and capable person forced to work for an idiot can, even as she reveals that Van, occasionally, can do something nice. (He paid someone to put down her sick pet once.) But, ”Wayne Dream Team” is a prime example of the second-episode blues. After the shiny world-building allure of the pilot, this second outing is pretty dull.


Stray observations

  • We do learn a little more about Charm City. In keeping with Van’s description of it as a “taint of a city,” Emily’s apartment-hunting makes mention of an abandoned insane asylum, a run-down spot overrun with pedophiles, and the neighborhood “MuTo,” which Emily thinks sounds trendy, but which Jackie reveals is a shortening of “Murder Town.”
  • In Name That C-Lister tonight, we’ve already met Jack O’Lantern and the absent-here Crimson Fox. (Emily wins day one of the fantasy league, as her pick Crimson Fox is out of town saving an entire cruise ship full of people.) The only new onscreen addition is Prince Evillo who may or may not be the same bad guy who menaced (or will menace, as the case may be) the 30th century Legion of Superheroes. Clearly as part of some community service, we see Evillo on the six-hour anti-bullying video Emily subjects herself to (four times) to get the internet back from Mr. Greene. There, Prince Evillo clearly recognizes that his chosen moniker is pretty lame.
  • I did not realize that there was a Van Wayne in the comics. He is not brought up much.
  • Apart from passing references to big guns Flash, Superman, and Batman, the only confirmed DC characters introduced are Flash nemesis Professor Zoom, and Sinestro. The latter is an A-list Green Lantern baddie who, Teddy is bummed to discover, has trapped Teddy’s pick Flash in the Phantom Zone for the foreseeable future. Bad luck, Teddy.
  • Ron, explaining the intricacies of superhero fantasy league, says that, while picking Superman seems a safe play, “some weeks, he only saves Lois Lane.”
  • Ron, deadpanning to Emily’s ill-advised “whip-crack” gesture: “Oh, were you making that whipping noise to other black people?”
  • Van: “Do you see what’s wrong with this picture?” Jackie: “There are no women or minorities?” Van: “You don’t even feel shame properly.”
  • Van, as Jackie has him close his eyes so she can reveal the fixed photo: “I swear to God, if I open my eyes and you’re wearing that Scream mask, I am literally going to piss myself.”