'Powerless': TV Review

Too early to tell.
2/2/2017

There's not enough evidence to judge NBC's new superhero-adjacent comedy starring Vanessa Hudgens fully, but the concept is welcome even if the pilot is flawed.

Having ordinary people protect themselves from superhero fallout is a pretty good comic idea if someone can make it work (and if the looming superhero comic company — in this case, DC Comics — allows for real spoofing of its beloved icons), but not much of that is on display in NBC's Powerless premiere.

There's probably an actual working and perhaps even funny show lurking in Powerless. But we may not know that for five or six episodes, and the network only made one episode available for review; extracting some kind of accurate measure of how good it will be going forward would take something beyond superpowers. A pilot isn't a trustworthy representation, especially if, as with Powerless, that pilot was an idea started a couple of years ago and the creator (Ben Queen) has since departed (with Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker taking over).

So, yeah, who knows?

But there's at least an inkling in Powerless that it could be a nice diversion from the superhero onslaught that has expanded from the big screen to the small in recent years. Since Powerless is a comedy, that's already something different, and if there are 17 shows where people with superpowers smash up buildings and the infrastructures of cities, it might be cheeky to focus on the annoyed residents of said cities who have to toil amid the carnage, which is what Powerless is all about.

Vanessa Hudgens (Spring Breakers, High School Musical) plays Emily, the new director of Research & Development at Wayne Security, a low-watt subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises run by Bruce Wayne's spoiled and feckless cousin, Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk, Suburgatory). The latter needs the faltering company to come up with more relevant products that protect citizens of Charm City from the superheroes and villains that fight in its skies and streets. That shifts Powerless into a workplace comedy in which the disaffected workers don't believe or care about the product they make and drudgery is used to comic effect (see: The Office). So, yes, there's hope ahead. But shows that are superhero-adjacent and thus lack actual superheroes as characters tend to be boring (see: Agents of SHIELD) or revamp the concept eventually (see: Agents of SHIELD), so Powerless has its work cut out in avoiding that fate.

What the show lacks early is enough laughs. That's a real problem for a comedy. Powerless tries to be quirky and zippy, to mine a rat-a-tat comedic vein while creating a look and style, but the material is lacking in the pilot (this is true of many comedy pilots, so again, it's unfair to project future unfunny episodes).

For example, Van tells Emily that he needs her specific vision because, "I'm more of a big-picture guy." "Look at this picture," he says, walking over to, yes, a big picture. "This picture is huge." That's a lot of labor for a joke you see coming before it starts moving. Van, who is forever in Bruce's shadow and is annoyed when Bruce won't return his calls, squeals with delight when his secretary, Jackie (Christina Kirk, A to Z), confirms Batman is on the phone. "How do I look?" Van asks. "Like you don't know how a telephone works," Jackie says. That's better — but you need 20 or so of those in a show that wants to be frenetically funny, and there's only a few here worth noting.

That said, what does work for Powerless is the cast. Hudgens is peppy and likeable in her earnestness. Tudyk has played this kind of role before and knows how to nail it. The Wayne Security product engineers — Teddy (Danny Pudi, Community), Ron (Ron Funches (Undateable) and Wendy (Jennie Pierson, Blackish) — are distinctly different and have comic chops; they just need better jokes. All the pieces are recognizable (as they must be for network TV), but at least you get the sense the actors will make something of it. Sitcoms often take a handful of episodes to find their rhythm and footing, so Powerless will need a longer leash if you want it to work.

Cast: Vanessa Hudgens, Alan Tudyk, Danny Pudi, Ron Funches, Christina Kirk, Jennie Pierson
Developed for television by: Ben Queen
Written by: Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker
Directed by: Marc Buckland
Premieres: Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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