NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Powerless” are present in this review
Powerless, NBC’s new DC Universe-inspired half-hour sitcom, has gone through some sizable tweaks since it was ordered to series. The original premise of the show, which would have unfolded at an insurance firm specializing in superhero-related deaths and damage (which would have made the series a bit derivative of NBC’s own The Office, frankly), ended up being scrapped after the show was picked up to series by NBC, with the final product of Powerless instead taking place at a Wayne Enterprises subsidiary company, Wayne Security. The network alleges that this allows for greater story possibilities in the future, but naturally, the show does take a bit of a hit in its revised pilot episode, with the original pilot that was screened at several conventions ultimately being scrapped without airing.
It’s clear that Powerless is trying to play the long game with its planned storylines, rather than focus on a pitch that’s good right now before fizzling out later in the season, and that’s probably smart. Like many highly acclaimed ensemble sitcoms on NBC, from legacy shows like The Office and Parks & Recreation, to even current offerings like Superstore, Powerless doesn’t fire on all cylinders in its first episode. The pilot that the series ultimately went with, which is actually dubbed, “Wayne or Lose”, has slightly uneven jokes, and its extra silly, almost Silver Age-inspired light-hearted take on the DC Universe isn’t going to sit right with every DC fan, especially given DC’s modern obsession with making a lot of their stories very dark and serious across most mediums. This definitely isn’t a perfect start to DC’s first sitcom, so if you were expecting another excellent sitcom darling for NBC akin to The Good Place, Powerless really isn’t there yet.
Much like with its lowly leads though, the potential for greatness is definitely there for Powerless. Just as Superstore eventually hit its stride and became a brilliant sitcom for NBC after ironing out the kinks in its first handful of episodes, Powerless could be a pretty good sitcom for both DC fans and general sitcom viewers alike, with a few adjustments. Already, the biggest vote of confidence for the series though is its superb lead cast, headlined by Vanessa Hudgens as Emily Locke, an optimistic, wide-eyed superhero enthusiast who is hired as the new R&D head of Wayne Security, overseeing development of devices for everyday people that protect them from clashes between the superheroes and super-villains (or metahumans in general), of the DC Universe. Having just moved to Charm City, an all-new fictional locale that’s made up for the show and doesn’t exist in DC Comics lore, Emily is determined to make her mark for Bruce Wayne, whom she considers to be her idol.
Hudgens herself is perky and likable in the lead role, and is one of the biggest reasons why viewers would want to tune in to Powerless each Thursday night. Emily’s co-workers meanwhile are much more cynical and beat-down, between both the increasingly mundane nature of metahuman battles in their city and the world, and the crushing corporate ecosystem of their jobs at Wayne Security. Community’s Danny Pudi and Undateable’s Ron Funches also effectively embody much of the corporate cynicism as the company’s two leading researchers, even though Ron (yes, Funches is playing a character that shares his first name), is also strangely portrayed to have a wide-eyed love of superheroes. All of the researchers at Wayne Security, including Pudi’s and Funches’ characters, dislike Emily immediately, though the episode doesn’t clearly explain why. Her optimism is sort of cited to be a factor, but despite their claims of being apathetic, due to how many bosses they’ve gone through, they’re downright hostile towards Emily for seemingly no reason. Why? Emily is nothing but friendly and upbeat, and seems competent, so turning the employees against her out of the gate feels pretty pointless, not to mention unrealistic.
Aside from Hudgens, it’s those outside of the labs at Wayne Security that are actually the big comedic standouts at this point. Christina Kirk is a highlight as secretary, Jackie, who is later revealed to have been just like Emily when she started at Wayne Security, before the corporate culture beat her down and turned her into the ultimate cynic. As much as everyone is trying to be a cynic, it’s Kirk that feels most at home in that role, with her deadpan delivery easily outpacing everyone else’s. Fortunately, Alan Tudyk also stands out for different reasons as Bruce Wayne’s spoiled, egotistical cousin, Van Wayne, who only wants to be promoted to the main Gotham City office, to the point where he doesn’t care at all about his employees’ jobs. Tudyk is a DC regular that has done voice work for several of DC’s OVA’s and video games in the past, and it’s clear that he has a lot of love for the universe, as he seems to be the most engaging actor on the show, alongside Hudgens. Amazingly, Van Wayne actually does exist in DC Comics lore too, and wasn’t made up for the show, having briefly appeared in a 1960’s story arc that also portrayed him as a vain, bumbling cousin to Batman.
Speaking of DC Easter eggs, this pilot episode is full of them, so if you’re a DC fan, there are lots of neat, humourous little nods to the DC Universe’s lore and history from all throughout its near-century’s worth of archived stories. Lesser-known super-villain, Jack O’Lantern plays a key role in the pilot’s story, though it’s disappointing that many of his cooler elements from the comics are stripped out, and he’s simply made to be an over-the-top dickhead in a cheap mask that throws flames in this sitcom incarnation of the DC Universe. You also see cameos from a few other DC characters, including Crimson Fox, Starro (yes, seriously, freakin’ Starro appears in the background in one scene!), and even Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker himself, albeit heavily shadowed and with a bag over his head. It’s probably too much to hope that we’ll see a full-blown story or appearance from the Clown Prince of Crime on Powerless, but the inclusion of Wayne Security developing commercial Joker anti-venom was a nice, surprisingly logical touch for Batman’s company. Finally, former Batman 1960’s series star, Adam West narrates a bit of the intro, which is a great touch for this revised pilot!
This is what I mean when I say that the potential for Powerless is noticeable and promising, but for now, the show nonetheless needs a bit of work. The pilot’s storyline is really basic, being a by-the-book tale of Emily starting a new job, failing to impress, then redeeming herself by inspiring everyone to save their own jobs after they’re threatened with being fired. Van gets some funny comeuppance at the end at least, when he takes credit for Emily’s big invention idea, which directly leads to him having his promotion to the Gotham City office denied because he needs to be, “Inspiring” for the Charm City branch. Beyond that though, Powerless still feels like it needs time to really effectively gel. It also doesn’t help that the show’s paltry sitcom budget leads to an especially low-rent, bargain basement rendition of the DC Universe, so if you’re looking for spectacle akin to The CW’s current quartet of DC shows, or FOX’s Gotham, you’re going to be disappointed.
Judging pilot episodes for ensemble sitcoms is always tricky, like I said, because it’s very difficult to judge an ensemble sitcom from the first episode. Sure, the first episode of Powerless can be trite and contrived, with only some jokes ultimately eliciting healthy laughs, but does that truly mean anything at this point? The first episode of The Office just charmlessly recycled the pilot of its British inspiration. The first episode of Parks & Recreation just felt too weird and unrealistic to relate to. The first episode of Superstore was decent, but it was very hit-or-miss with its jokes. None of those shows’ pilots, or even their first handful of episodes, were all that funny, and they all went on to become hilarious and enormously acclaimed after they hit their stride. That’s just recent examples from NBC too, let alone other networks!
If you’re really not digging Powerless, then that’s fair. I can’t blame you for not being too impressed with the show’s first episode. If you’re invested in the concept though, this seems like a show that’s worth being patient with. Even considering that some sitcoms sometimes need as much as an entire season to find their groove and hit their potential, you can often tell when some sitcom ideas are just dead-on-arrival. That’s not true of Powerless. The lead characters are likable, the better jokes are pretty funny, and the clear, frequently present love and reverence for the DC Universe really is palpable in this show, without alienating casual viewers, even if Charm City currently looks pretty shoddy in contrast to the settings and spectacle of the other five DC Universe-inspired shows currently on the airwaves. I’d say, as far as DC’s first sitcom goes, it could be better at this point, but like so many other budding DC personalities that went on to become big triple-A players in the business, this is a group of underdogs that you can probably feel safe having faith in.
The first episode of DC's first sitcom, Powerless isn't great, but it's nonetheless likable and upbeat, showing plenty of potential for NBC's comedy lineup.
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THE GOOD STUFF
Likable lead ensemble, with Hudgens, Tudyk and Kirk as early standouts
Revised concept makes the series feel more distinct
Lots of reverence and love for the DC Universe's long history
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
The characters' initial hatred of Emily doesn't make sense
Low-rent presentation often looks cheap and unimpressive