Chyler Leigh, Melissa Benoist, David Harewood

The Supergirl viewers meet in the pilot of this new CBS superhero drama is recognizably the same character who first appeared in Action Comics so many years ago: Kara, Superman’s cousin, good-hearted and optimistic to a fault. The misguided conventional wisdom that makes recent versions of her cousin such a dour mess on the big screen is nowhere to be seen here, and that’s for the best. Many have tried to change Supergirl over the years, but it never sticks. Supergirl doesn’t glower or brood, and she couldn’t do grim-and-gritty if her life depended on it. She smiles, dammit.

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Melissa Benoist smiles, too, and her guileless performance as the Girl Of Steel is enough to elevate what could otherwise have been a fairly pro forma exercise into something a lot more compelling. The show will live or die by her performance, and based on the evidence of the pilot she appears more than capable. Her Supergirl is spunky without an ounce of corn (or maybe just the right amount of corn): smart and competent but still at this point a beginner, not yet fully aware of her own abilities. She doesn’t know how to fight, so she spends a good part of the premiere getting the stuffing knocked out of her. But she’s learning, and watching her grow into the role in the coming weeks and months promises to be a treat.

As for the rest of the show? Well, it’s certainly there.

It almost seems unfair to criticize a plot-heavy genre show like Supergirl based solely on the pilot. With so many things to accomplish in the span of a scant 44 minutes (and boy does that running time fly by), the best it could hope for would be to have all the pieces of the premise laid out with alacrity to match its cheery protagonist. It does that, if barely. Kara’s Krypronian birth mother Alura (who appears in holographic flashback, played by Laura Benanti), and her adopted Earth parents, former Supergirl Helen Slater and former Superman Dean Cain, are introduced. We meet her adopted sister Alex (played by Chyler Leigh, herself rocketed from the doomed planet Grey’s Anatomy), her office mate Winslow (Jeremy Jordan), and a surprisingly hunky James “Jimmy” Olsen (Mehcad Brooks). We also meet her boss, the seemingly despicable Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), and the head of the inevitable government agency tasked with being suspicious about superpowered aliens (Homeland’s David Harewood). In short, a lot of characters are introduced. At some point, it might actually have been more efficient simply to cut and paste pages from the series bible onto the TV screen.

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Somewhere in between all these endless character introductions, the episode actually manages to have a plot, with Kara’s first appearance as Supergirl and her first confrontation with a superpowered foe, Vartox. The pilot covers so much ground that many of its most important beats get buried in the rush. Kara decides to reveal her secret identity very early to someone she probably shouldn’t. There’s a conversation between Kara and Cat about the appropriateness of calling a grown woman “girl” that passes by so quickly its brevity is itself notable. Kara seems to get over being betrayed by someone very close to her and then being tracked and tagged by the vaguely sinister government agency a little too quickly.

It’s a testament to Benoist’s charm in the central role that the dogpile nature of the pilot can’t be held against her. With at least some of the exposition out of the way, the show can hopefully now assume a more relaxed pace. Much of the setup is familiar—from the establishment of Supergirl’s support crew (seemingly de rigueur for every superhero following the success of Arrow and The Flash), to the shadowy government forces that will surely one day turn against her (groan), and the army of Phantom Zone criminals who will serve as the show’s primary antagonists (in a plotline that will be more than a little familiar to Smallville fans). But even if it’s dangerously overstuffed, and a bit too familiar in places, the Supergirl pilot still does such a nice job of establishing its protagonist that viewers will want to forgive the show its (numerous) clunky bits. Now that all that’s out of the way, the show can hopefully turn to the business at hand: letting Supergirl be, well, super.

Reviews by Caroline Siede will run weekly.

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