'Powerless': A Workplace Comedy For The Superhero Era

Feb 1, 2017

Used to be, you could count on two fundamental truths:

1. Superheroes were jocks.

2. People who loved superhero comics were nerds.

Sweeping generalizations to be sure, and they grew steadily less and less true every time, over the last 75+ years, superheroes escaped the comic book page for radio, television and movies, where they found themselves embraced by a wider, less obsessive audience.

Yet superheroes remain physically attractive, impossibly fit, and they tend to dress to highlight their low body-fat-percentages. Their-now global audience, on the hand, belong to a stubbornly non-super species that's less hot, more indolent, and far, far lumpier.

So while simple wish-fulfillment explains some of the superhero's appeal, there's always been more to it. Because for as long as superheroes have been around, their creators have striven to make them relatable.

Mostly, this takes the form of infusing these perfect specimens and their dazzling abilities with generous doses of all-too-human hand-wringing. That's the Marvel formula, famously: great powers, great responsibility ... and great agita.

That approach quickly bled out to DC's heroes as well. Today, on movie screens, DC's heroes glower at one another from deep inside black clouds of shame and regret. And even on the comparatively sunny spate of DC superhero shows on the CW (Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow), beautiful heroes get put through familiar trials marked by guilt, jealousy, and feelings of inadequacy.

That's one way to make us care about superhero stories. It's the default approach.

Another way — one adopted by NBC's sitcom Powerless, premiering tomorrow (Thursday the 2nd) at 8:30 ET — is to sideline the superheroes altogether, and instead focus on the mundane, lumpish humans who get caught up in their wake.

Here's To The People Who Flinch

From the genre's earliest days, creators would often shift a story's point of view from that of the title's nominal star to a supporting character, bit player or background extra. The opportunity to tell a story entirely from the perspective of Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Alfred the butler or even an arch-villain doggedly working to defeat his city's resident do-gooder served to add much-needed variety to the formula.

More recently, entire comic book series have featured these street-level views of worlds in which powerful beings fly overhead. In the '80s, Marvel's Damage Control by Dwayne McDuffie and Ernie Colon focused on the workers who repaired property damage caused by super-powered brawls. The 1994 mini-series Marvels, by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, examined the Marvel universe through the eyes of one newspaper photographer. In 1998 DC's Chase by Dan Curtis Johnson and J.H. Williams III followed a government agency tasked with keeping humans safe from super-powered threats, while 2002's Gotham Central by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark and others revolved around the detectives and beat cops who picked up the pieces left by Batman and his enemies.

Powerless doubles down on this little-guys-in-a-spandex-world narrative approach in a way that, while dutifully checking familiar sitcom boxes, manages to inject some much-needed brightness into a genre long dominated by a steroidal glumness.

The show's opening credits serve as mission statement: On a series of iconic comic book covers, the camera pushes past the big jamoke in tights hogging the spotlight to find some hapless background bystander, scrambling for safety.

Here, those hapless bystanders are represented by the jaded, beaten-down staff of Wayne Securities. Owned by the never-seen Bruce Wayne but run by his preening, incompetent cousin Van (a twitchily funny Alan Tudyk), Wayne Securities is a tech firm losing the battle for market share against Lexcorp, whose products it habitually rips off.

This is because the assorted lab techs in its Research and Development department (Danny Pudi, Ron Funches and the very funny Jennie Pierson, who's not featured in the opening credits but deserves to be) have lost their competitive drive after years of having their ideas serially rejected.

Enter: Emily (Vanessa Hudgens) the plucky but in-over-her-head new Head of Research and Development, determined to get her team to innovate — and to like her. Both prove uphill battles.

The bones of this thing are familiar — there's a lot of Parks and Recreation's Leslie Knope in Emily's dogged eagerness, a generous amount of The Office's Michael Scott in Van Wayne's doofy glory-hogging, and the whole product-development-team-chewed-up-by-corporate-greed angle will seem very familiar to those still carrying a torch for the late, lamented Better Off Ted.

But if you're a new workplace comedy determined to find itself, you'd be well served to draft off those three shows in particular. The cast hasn't jelled, yet, though there's every indication that Hudgens's Emily and Christina Kirk's sardonic office assistant will fall into a nice chemistry.

There's pleny of Easter Eggs for the nerds in the audience: a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by Marc McClure (Superman the Movie's Jimmy Olsen) as Emily's dad; a newspaper headline reading "President-Elect Luthor Vows to Make Metropolis Super Again," and a bit appearance by Starro the Conquerer (DC Comics' resident giant space-starfish). These elements work best when they're breezed past, and work considerably less well when the show slows down to wink at them.

There's been some shake-up behind the scenes (creator Ben Queen departed before production began), there's a disjointed quality to the opening scenes especially (marked, unfortunately, by the freeze-frame of main character/"I know what you're thinking" voice-over cliche that promptly, and mercifully disappears), and the show's special effects are not, particularly.

But that's okay. Because the minute this show becomes about its special effects, it will be over. If this show is going to work, it's going to have to stick to what this first episode does best: remain inside the office, with the people who staff it, and leave the derring-do — and the dour depressiveness — outside.

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