Tackling Human Inequity: Why 'Supergirl' Is More Than Just a Comic Book Show

"They have taken an incredible opportunity to talk about sexism, an incredible opportunity to talk about human inequity, whether that's race or gender, and knowing them, I think we'll probably get into sexual preference," co-star Mehcad Brooks tells THR.
Cliff Lipson/CBS

Supergirl is aiming to defeat more than just her fair share of comic book villains.

CBS' DC Comics drama has also tackled such realistic issues as sexism and racism in small-but-powerful moments in each episode since the series premiered. Every Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) speech about modern feminism to Kara (Melissa Benoist) has a lasting effect on viewers. And Monday's episode featured James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) bringing up an important point about modern racism.

When Kara confided in James about how Cat told her that women can't get angry at work, he responded by telling her that as a black man, he can't get angry in public. It was just one seemingly throwaway line, but it resonated with viewers long after the scene ended.

"We're talking about what people are talking about out there, in the world," executive producer Ali Adler tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We like the verisimilitude of mirroring our world with the real world. As much as we can do that and as much as people can relate to who these people are despite superpowers, that's our goal."

And those small moments are something that Brooks wants to see more of on Supergirl, which recently earned an additional six-episode pickup.

"That's a testament to [exec producers] Andrew Kreisberg, Ali Adler, Sarah Schecter and Greg Berlanti," Brooks tells THR. "They come from a generation that understands where we are today in our society. They have taken an incredible opportunity to talk about sexism and human inequity, whether that's race or gender, and knowing them, I think we'll probably get into sexual preference. But it's been a really incredible opportunity to be able to be subversive in a good way."

Brooks reveals that James' line about how he can't get angry in public came as a complete surprise to him, with the actor first learning of it at the show's table read, during which he stood up and applauded.

"I was really impressed by the fact that we brought that up," he says. "It doesn't need to be a show where we're teaching lessons about our social constructs in our society. But I think that, if we can, if we can put that line somewhere or put that scene somewhere, it can make a kid who looks like me understand that he's understood. Or a young lady who looks like one of you can feel like she's understood. I didn't have that growing up, really."

News that the series would take on such weighty issues comes as outgoing CBS entertainment chairman Nina Tassler has made showcasing the stories of strong female characters a high priority. (The exec, who will exit at year's end, is leaving a legacy of similarly themed shows in development, including a new take on Nancy Drew.)

Monday's penultimate episode of 2015 will also take a closer look at who James was before he moved to National City. "You'll see a part of James' past," Brooks says. "He's got some issues with his father. It's not so much of a dark place as it is a sad place."

The episode also finds Kara forced to live as a human for a few days after she realizes she used up all her powers defeating the Red Tornado. And in a case of terrible timing, that's exactly when an earthquake hits the city. 

"She's still the hero," Brooks says. "The cool thing about the episode is you realize you don't need powers to be a hero. She relies on something else that even Superman couldn't do, which is a certain sensitivity that she has that he doesn't."

When the earthquake hits, Supergirl's lack of powers pushes James into a heroic position. And that meant Brooks had to train for stunts.

"The harness, I won't mince words, it's probably easier for a woman," Brooks says with a laugh. "Use your imagination."

Supergirl airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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