One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
If you thought The CW wrangling together four shows into a week-long crossover event was peak superhero TV, you probably won’t make it long into Powerless. Although the show isn’t particularly focused on any caped crusaders or men of steel, its lifeblood and humor thrives when its audience will understand why a Civil War dig on a DC Comics show is kind of funny. In reality, NBC’s new not-a-superhero superhero show means well, and has a few moments of clever comic book tie-in gags, but it’s as effective as a syringe of Joker Anti-Laughter Venom when it comes to the comedy department.
Charm City, a taint on the planet in comparison to Gotham according to Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk), is a place crawling with supervillains who cause daily destruction and rain death down upon the innocent – and totally apathetic – citizenry. The problem is that there are just as many superheroes flying around the skies taking down the bad guys, and causing the same amount of damage in the process. Similarities to The Incredibles stop short thanks to the somewhat humorous non-reactions of the people on the street (these people don’t care enough to sue, they barely care enough to stop Tweeting while riding a derailed train), but Powerless feels like a clever idea searching for an episodic reason to exist.
What creator Ben Queen has come up with is essentially Superhero Shark Tank. Entering the tank is Emily Locke (Vanessa Hudgens), a small girl from a flyover state (here that means superheroes never stopped to have a visit, much less do battle) who lives by a mantra her dad imparted her with when she was a kid: “you don’t need superpowers to accomplish great things.” Although that sounds like a rip-off from about half a dozen superhero taglines, it’s a kernel of a cute message that Hudgens infuses with golly-wiz glee from the first shot she’s in to the episode’s cringe-y final line.
She can be inconsistent in the role, riding the over-the-top nature of the show’s world for a little bit too long, making some jokes fall flat, but as a lead carrying everything on her shoulders she makes a weird amount of sense. The alpha males that usually center these sitcoms (Joel McHale on Community, Joel McHale now on The Great Indoors) wouldn’t exactly fit well with the underdog, nerdy bullpen of side characters collected in Powerless‘ Wayne Security R&D department, of which Emily is now in charge.
Her job? Come up with useful gadgets for the people of Charm City that will help protect them from the daily violence rampant across the metropolis. The pilot focuses on Emily’s first day as the head of the R&D department, where she meets her new co-workers, including boss Van Wayne (cousin to Bruce), his assistant Jackie (Christina Kirk), and Emily’s new employees in R&D, Teddy (Danny Pudi) and Ron (Ron Funches). Wayne Security’s biggest innovation in its previous bestselling product was re-releasing it in a slightly darker shade of purple, so Van orders Emily to come up with a radically new, mind-blowing product to put to market, mainly so he can leave Charm City for good and be promoted to a position in the Gotham offices, penthouse included.
As a pilot, Powerless is economical without much heart or charm, despite a few endearing glimpses into its kooky worldview. Although just one episode was provided for review, the suggestion is that each week a wacky product will make the rounds of Wayne Security, causing chaos and drama before Emily ultimately figures out the solution and saves the day. Sitcoms are built to be repetitive, but the best get by on making you want to be a part of that repetitiveness, and Powerless feels exhausting after just 20 minutes. Perhaps hardcore comic fans will be more enticed to stick around in the world than the rest of us, but if the name Crimson Fox doesn’t blow your cowl off, not much else will in Powerless.
It would be easy to give Powerless a pass on many of these problems if the show were consistently funny, but its biggest problem is that it isn’t. It has great actors like Tudyk and Pudi, but on a superhero series where the pyrotechnics matter so little, the writing is at the forefront and the jokes just aren’t there. Tudyk can usually pantomime and contort his face out of a rough spot, and Pudi manages to provide edge to a few lame lines, but neither do much to excuse the show’s roughest spots.
Pudi’s new character has more swagger and sarcasm than his well-known role as Abed on Community, and a prickly friendship with Emily could make Powerless feel less assembly-line crafted than it does at this point, but the show does little to build a central group of co-workers that you want to see interacting and ribbing one another on a weekly basis, and that’s probably its biggest kryptonite of all. As a workplace comedy, the dynamics of the characters fail to engage and their interactions are so immediately outlined in neon – lead software engineer Wendy (Jennie Pierson) and her hatred of Emily grates from the get-go – that the show frequently feels like a lesser version of the best NBC workaday sitcoms.
There are moments of comedic relief, particularly thanks to Kirk’s just-the-right-amount-of-bitchy assistant character, but then there are times when Powerless feels like a total slouch (they literally trot out the “you just used a permanent marker” one-liner to emphasize Emily’s noob status). In terms of the set-up and payoff for each joke, visual gags, writing, directing, the works – the show is shockingly average. Maybe that’s the intention, combat the extraordinary world of superheroes with the plain one of menial office workers, but that doesn’t mean Powerless had to be this… ordinary.
There's room for Powerless to soar based on the energetic world it builds in the pilot, but as a workplace comedy the writing falls short of introducing engaging, endearing, and funny weirdos you care about visiting each week.