Powerless' own shaky premise is its kryptonite

By Shirley Li
Updated February 01, 2017 at 03:44 PM EST
Chris Large/NBC
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In a world of superheroes, supervillains, and pretty much super-everything, what’s it like being the little guy?

As the series’ inventive opening credits illustrate, they’re mostly ducking for cover when showdowns begin and scuttling away from flashy fights. The nonheroes at the center of Powerless, DC Comics’ first comedy, have seen superheroics so often, they no longer find them enthralling — and as employees at a company that must keep civilians safe, clocking in overtime sucks when those in capes and cowls get to have all the fun.

It’s no surprise, then, that Vanessa Hudgens’ sunny and superhero-loving Emily Locke, the new director of research and development at Wayne Security (yes, of that Wayne), finds herself at odds with her new staff. Emily is the Leslie Knope of this NBC comedy: She’s bright, she’s eager, and she’s idealistic about her odds as a bystander. Her introduction involves not only a record-scratch-freeze-frame flashback to her younger days spent gazing up at the heroes soaring overhead in her (heh) flyover state, but also involves taking an earnest selfie after being rescued by a costumed hero while heading to her new job.

Yet, despite all the superheroes and villains, the presence of superbeings is the only, well, super thing about Powerless. Hudgens is fine as the plucky new hire looking to make an impression, Alan Tudyk’s Van Wayne — Bruce’s cousin — delivers some laughs as her cocksure boss, and Danny Pudi, Christina Kirke, and Ron Funches bring an appropriate level of bemused exasperation as her burned-out colleagues.

But what’s keeping Powerless from flying up, up, and away isn’t the performances; its unevenness is more likely caused by the hoops the series has had to jump through since getting a pilot order from the Peacock. In August, Ben Queen (A to Z) left as showrunner, which postponed production, and the new team (helmed by EPs Justin Halpern & Patrick Schumacker) stepped in to produce a pilot that barely resembles the one that screened at San Diego’s Comic-Con International over the summer.

The original cut of Powerless — some of which can be seen in this trailer — was much more enticing than this new version. In it, Emily was an existing insurance employee who snaps out of her office drone reverie when she stands up to one of the superheroes, Pudi’s Teddy was her best friend, Tudyk’s Van was a bagel-station-ruining villain as theirnew boss, Kirk’s Jackie lusted after characters like Aquaman, and Kate Micucci drew laughs as a character who suspects one of her coworkers is Green Lantern. (Micucci is nowhere to be found in the new version.)

Sure, it’s just a pilot, but the changes have watered down much of the darker (and sometimes naughtier) humor that gave Powerless an edge in its comic-book-ensconced world. The current version treats its setting as something viewers have to be reminded of, not something it can skewer, with too much emphasis on the quirky nature of Emily and her team’s work (they invent tools that protect bystanders like themselves from becoming collateral damage), and too many distracting references to heroes both iconic (Batman!) and less so (Crimson Fox?) in every other line just to keep that corporate connection to DC’s comics world intact.

Maybe that will all change once the show finds a balance between idolizing the superhero genre and actively working against it. Maybe this is just the hastily constructed origin story of a much better comedy that’ll finally don its metaphorical mask come episode 4. For now, the series comes off like this new Van Wayne, saddled with a inferiority complex that makes him eager to join the ranks of the superbeings, but unable to cross the line. As it turns out, Powerless wants to be more than a typical workplace comedy, but its own shaky premise (superhero fatigue is hilarious, but you still like superheroes even if the main characters here aren’t superheroes, right?) is its kryptonite. B-

Powerless premieres Thursday, Feb. 2, at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.


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