Although TV is nowhere near as suffused with superheroes as its big screen counterpart, the medium has still had to make room for multiple offerings in a crowded landscape. Netflix and The CW already house multiple Marvel and DC Comics-based series, respectively. AMC’s managed to wring prestige drama out of Preacher, while ABC’s enlisted Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and (eventually) The Inhumans. But somehow, the ever-widening trend’s still viewed as not being quite comprehensive enough. See: the clamoring for the aforementioned Inhumans, or the return of the X-Men to the small screen. Everyone’s waiting for their favorite crime-fighter or mutant to swoop in, because their arrival seems to be a given at this point.
With all that anticipation in the air—not to mention numerous properties to draw from—NBC still chose to remain only superhero-adjacent for Powerless, the half-hour comedy from Ben Queen. The series focuses on some fairly vulnerable beings who are equipped with only pluck and snark (with the latter deployed judiciously). But that combination proves as potent in the pilot as the balance of workplace and action comedy elements. Office politics pose as great a threat to Emily (Vanessa Hudgens) as supervillains like Jack-O-Lantern.
The ambitious Emily is soon tasked with impressing the Wayne family, beginning with her boss Van (Alan Tudyk). Bruce’s cousin has ulterior motives—he wants nothing more than to return to Gotham from his exile in Charm City. As the director of research and development at a Wayne Enterprises subsidiary, Emily inherits a team of brilliant but uncooperative scientists, including Teddy (Danny Pudi), Ron (Ron Funches), and Wendy (Jennie Pierson). But she’s rejected on sight—and smell, thanks to a goofy gizmo. And at first glance, she is an odd choice to head the department—Emily may be a Wharton grad with a dog-eared copy of Wayne Or Lose, but she hasn’t seen many superheroes or foes, let alone figured out a way to battle them.
It’s a premise that works on multiple levels. Not only does her hiring emphasize Van’s bumbling nature, but it also mirrors Powerless’ position amid similar offerings. Like the forthcoming Legion, Powerless will only “visit with” iconic figures like Batman and the X-Men rather than let them take center stage. The heroics will kick off the action, but they’re just a matter of course; innocent bystanders are the focus of this Wayne Security team.
Throughout the pilot, we see Emily, her team, and Hudgens all punching above their weight. Hudgens in particular has her work cut out for her. The High School Musical star doesn’t have much of a comedy background, but she manages to hold her own opposite Pudi, Tudyk, and Funches, in part by orbiting them in the same manner that Wayne Security does the home office. Her bright-eyed delivery will inspire softer laughs than Tudyk’s rampant narcissism or Pudi’s perfectly timed eye rolls, but that outsider’s perspective echoes the series’. Emily’s coworkers are audience stand-ins; they’re inured to the existence of superheroes and their nemeses, and don’t realize how much they need a fresh set of eyes.
Showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker haven’t exactly skimped on the effects, though. The sporadic super-powered brawls are effective, if not thrilling; it’s a nice touch to have Arrow’s Atlin Mitchell show up in spandex and mask. Once again, the execution speaks to the show’s theme; the spectacles are downplayed, with the real fireworks restricted to the workplace. That setup works well in the pilot, where even the self-centered Van’s aspirations are limited to being just another face in the Wayne Enterprises’ crowd.
The drawback is that the novelty of that concept—treating such marvels as mere nuisances—runs the risk of working against itself in the long run. Asking your viewers to be underwhelmed even as you trot out a clash of titans seems counterintuitive to entertaining them. The workplace comedy will have to be dialed up in the long run to maintain interest. But with Pudi and Tudyk—and even Hudgens—at the ready, that shouldn’t be a superhuman feat for Powerless.
Reviews by Dennis Perkins will run weekly