12:04pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: 'Supergirl' Makes a Smooth Landing at The CW (and Introduces Superman)
[This article contains some spoilers for the second season premiere of The CW's Supergirl, but nothing you wouldn't find in a basic pre-airing review.]
Supergirl premiered last fall as CBS' buzziest pilot in several years, with most of the conversation centered on some obvious questions like: What does a superhero show on CBS look like? Can a superhero show on CBS survive? And shouldn't this show really be on The CW?
After 20 episodes and one season, the results were in and the answers were: "Pretty much any other superhero show." "Apparently not." "Apparently so."
Supergirl debuts its second season in its new home on The CW on Monday (Oct. 10) night at 8 p.m. There's no question that when it comes to promotion, The CW's "We already have 83 superhero shows, so isn't it nice that Supergirl is here too?" ads make a heck of a lot more sense than CBS' "Hey young female viewers watching young females getting terrorized on Criminal Minds, here's something empowering" campaign, which was inspirational and emotional but preached to a choir that was already praying in a different church.
Ahead of Monday's premiere, let's look at a few new key questions relating to the new season of Supergirl.
Can you jump (or, rather, fly) right in if you missed the first season?
Sure. Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) is Superman's cousin. By day, she works for media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), but she also fights crime in a tasteful costume and with a support team that includes her adoptive sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) and a Martian (David Harewood's J'onn J'onzz). Oh, and James Olsen is played by Mehcad Brooks, and if you have a problem with that, you're probably not watching anyway.
There's almost literally nothing else that you really need to know about Supergirl. For a quick catch-up, I'd tell you to watch the pilot, the Flash crossover episode in which Kara got really excited about ice cream and maybe the red kryptonite episode, which wasn't perfect but offered a good showcase for why Benoist is so good. But the new season starts immediately with a reminder of last spring's cliffhanger and finds several characters either getting new jobs or pondering new jobs. This is not a steep learning curve if you felt like you wanted to learn.
And is Supergirl worth watching as it starts its CW run?
Sure! If you like this sort of thing. I'd say that as current DC Comics TV adaptations go, the first season of Supergirl was probably less good than the first season of The Flash, perhaps on par with the first season of Arrow, better than the first season of Gotham and almost incalculably better than the first season of Legends of Tomorrow.
First seasons are all about establishing rhythms and tone and a core ensemble, and Supergirl did that reasonably well. Benoist remains the show for me, the piece without which nothing else can function. Her often innocent exuberance — see: the ice cream that launched a million gifs — sets the tone for the show and sells the thematic quest for meaning and a place in the world. She's the star of the show, so it doesn't matter that nobody else is really at her comfort level, though Flockhart has no trouble ripping into Cat's tart dialogue, and I also quite like Leigh and Harewood. The first season spent too much time disentangling James Olsen from his relationship with Lucy Lane and making him a potential love interest for Kara to get around to making him a character, while with Jeremy Jordan's Winn, there was just a lot of justifying his general presence. But it's still a decent ensemble.
The tone is best when it's light, and the premiere is fairly light and maintains the first season's empowerment message, which is baked into the show. So if you don't like that, you just probably need to watch a different show. Asking Kara and Supergirl not to ponder her identity as a young woman is like asking Oliver Queen to stop worrying about people who fail his city or telling Bruce Wayne to get over his parents already.
The second-season premiere has some laughs and a couple inspirational moments, and it moves a lot of pieces around the board, including the introduction of Katie McGrath as Lena Luthor and Tyler Hoechlin, sadly without his Everybody Want Some!! mustache, as Superman. More on that in a second.
Does Supergirl feel different/reduced on The CW?
Not really. Or not in one episode.
One thing that needs to be said: As bad a fit as Supergirl was on CBS, it's not a perfect fit on The CW either. It's a sunshine superhero show, and Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow are all nighttime superhero shows. I haven't loved The Flash's push into increased darkness, and I really hope that Supergirl can avoid having to go down the same path. I know that daylight isn't always the friend of the effects artist, but I'll take some less-than-convincing effects to keep Supergirl and her pals operating against sunny blue skies. I don't need Supergirl to brood.
Speaking of the effects, when Supergirl jumped to The CW, budgetary considerations and a move to Vancouver were part of the talk. Can you tell the difference? If I wanted to, I could pretend that I was bothered by big changes to the geography of National City or the quality of the computer graphics, but … shrug. Of the DC shows, the one whose effects I most respect is The Flash, and even that is because the premise offers leeway for cartoonishness, and I don't expect the giant gorilla or the marauding shark to be photorealistic so I can just enjoy seeing how relatively well-realized they are. The effects on Supergirl have never been spectacular, but they've always been exactly satisfying enough. I felt the same about the effects in the second-season premiere. The premiere doesn't go for anything epic, and it doesn't feature one of the superpowered fights we got last season, and that occasionally felt ambitious, but nothing about the scope or execution here felt diminished in any way that bugged me. Maybe the premiere has a few too many drones because drones are easier to animate than flying people, but there are still some flying people, too. The effects in Supergirl remain good enough for what they're trying to do. It's not a $250-million movie, but it's OK.
Cat Grant is in the premiere amply, but there are hints at what will be done to reduce Cat's presence since the new filming location means Flockhart won't be as available this season. Down the road, the absence of Cat will probably be felt, but it's a nonissue for the premiere.
Last question …
With few spoilers, how is Hoechlin's Superman?
I didn't want Superman to be involved with Supergirl at all. To me, that character felt like a needless distraction from Supergirl, whose story this was and is. Making Hank Henshaw into J'onn J'onzz already felt like a minimizing of Supergirl's uniqueness in this universe, though it hasn't hurt yet. So when it was announced that Superman was coming to Supergirl, I worried this would be a violation of what Ali Adler and company had been building here.
That's the background for my saying that while I still don't find Superman even slightly necessary to the show, his introduction has been very smartly handled. Of paramount importance, he's been brought in in a way that doesn't damsel-in-distress Supergirl. The minute in which Supergirl has to turn to Superman out of desperation was going to be the minute I stopped watching. Fortunately, Superman's arrival justifies a collaborative effort without weakening Supergirl at all. He definitely has some attributes and experiences that Supergirl lacks, but she knows things and has advantages and connections that he doesn't have.
Hoechlin plays Superman/Clark as both hunky and clumsy enough to be a match with our expectations of the dual role, and he brings back the innocent lightness that the character had in the Christopher Reeve (and even Brandon Routh) incarnation that just never interested Zack Snyder. And that, by the way, is perfectly fine. If you like what Snyder has done on the big screen with Superman, what Hoechlin is doing has no connection to what Henry Cavill has been doing, and there's no reason why these interpretations can't exist simultaneously. It's a Kryptonian partnership and not a mentorship, which is good.
I still don't want Superman being a regular part of Supergirl, but he doesn't kill the show. At all.
So there ya go. Supergirl premieres on The CW tonight.