6:00pm PT by Sydney Bucksbaum
'Powerless' Boss Talks Changing Course, Finding the Tone on DC Comics' First Comedy
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Thursday's series premiere of Powerless.]
Powerless, NBC's foray into the superhero genre, has gone on quite the journey since the pilot first debuted at San Diego Comic-Con in July.
When Ben Queen initially created the DC Comics comedy, it centered on an insurance company in Charm City that helped normal people suffering fallout from superheroes fighting villains. But less than a month after Powerless' first public screening, Queen exited the series. Patrick Schumacker and Justin Halpern became the new showrunners, and while Powerless remained a workplace comedy set in the superhero universe, everything else changed.
"Justin and I were brought on as five-day-a-week consulting producers on the original show, so we were there for pre-production when Ben Queen was running the show," Schumacker tells THR. "This is when it was a world of insurance. We just hit a wall because nobody on the staff understood the world of insurance and at best, you're telling stories where, if this team wins the day, it means, like, f—ing somebody out of money. We were really hitting a wall, and eventually when the turnover happened, we were asked to take over the show and we decided we wanted to do something that would more organically bring in the genre elements of it."
Powerless eventually evolved into a series about security products for normal people trying to live their lives and survive in a world filled with superheroes and villains.
"We'll get into the preventative business versus the damage control type of stuff," Schumacker says. "Once we had the security angle, which really came about just sitting down with Geoff Johns and Aria Moffly over at DC [Comics], just having a big meeting talking about blue sky-ing it, really, NBC was actually the ones who suggested the [research and development] angle. Originally we were like, 'Well, we'll have a sales team for a security company,' because 90 percent of what you're going to see on the show you could have a sales team do as well. But we also liked the idea of being able to go to the tech-y side of things and have Teddy [Danny Pudi] and Ron [Ron Funches] be genius engineers and Wendy [Jenny Pierson] as well, coming up with some more fantastical stuff."
Overhauling the basic premise and setting for the characters helped Schumacker realize that this new angle was "an organic way to bring in a lot of the fun, sci-fi, fantasy stuff into the show, into the workplace, and then it's an everyday occurrence," he says.
"They can create an umbrella called a 'rumbrella' that protects you from falling rubble. Or Teddy has these heat gloves that he's working on that end up benefiting them during cold season, which is the time in Charm City when all of the ice-themed villains descend on the city at once and turn it into this winter wonderland. They treat it like it's bad weather."
But overhauling the series was not an easy task.
"It was a long time coming," Schumacker said. "The show actually shut down for a month in between the end of the insurance version of the show and the beginning of the [research and development] security of it all."
The upside was that the new, creatively-retooled version of Powerless allowed for even more DC Comics references and Easter eggs that producers knew would excite comic book fans. However, there are also references those not so familiar with the genre will appreciate, in particular the renaming of Alan Tudyk's character to Van Wayne, making him a distant cousin of Bruce, aka Batman.
"This show covers the whole breadth of the DC universe because it's not just Batman mythology," Schumacker says. "We wanted to use the Wayne name as sort of like this brand recognition so it's kind of an entry point. Everybody knows Bruce Wayne; everybody knows that he's Batman, so having a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises was at least a touchstone for people who aren't so hard-core into DC mythology."
He continues, "Everybody can say, 'I know who Bruce Wayne is, I'll check it out.' And once they're there, we're talking about the Global Guardians and I don't think, if you ask 10 people on the street, I don't know if five would know what you were talking about. But the show is going to be used hopefully as a springboard to introduce a lot of those more obscure characters to the general population."
One thing that did remain from the original pilot was the opening title sequence, which also plays up the DC Comics connection. The credits rip from the pages, literally, of old comic books to show iconic characters like Superman, Batman and the Flash, among others, saving the day as the animated versions of Powerless' core cast looks on.
"I have to give all the credit in the world to Ben Queen, the original showrunner for that, and the title house called Elastic," Schumacker says. "Those guys came up with that for the very first pilot, and it's the one piece that remains completely intact from the original, original pilot when everybody worked in an insurance company. I think it's one of the best parts of the show, but I had nothing to do with it."
However, the opening credits are about the only time viewers will see DC's most famed superheroes on the series.
"The big seven, your Justice League members, they're never going to make appearances on this show other than hints of it," Schumacker reveals. "Like a batarang [one of Batman's boomerangs] plays a big part in one particular episode where Ron and [Teddy] find a batarang lodged in a safe that was part of a break-in that has been sent back to Wayne Security for analysis. They happen to find it lodged inside of the safe and they're like, 'We're going to meet Batman because he puts tracking devices in everything. He wants to leave no traces so obviously he's going to come back. We are going to prepare to meet Batman.' We'll see them and Van, who does not have a clue that his cousin is Batman, try and meet Batman and look super cool doing it."
As far as how much free rein Schumacker has with the "big seven," it turns out to be … not much.
"They're kind of untouchable as far as we play them straight," he said. "We never make fun of Superman. We never make fun of Batman other than, you know, trivial type of stuff where it's like, 'Well, obviously Bruce Wayne is the Flash,' sort of thing, where characters get shit wrong. It runs the spectrum in the first season. We're still trying to find that right tone to strike with how we treat the characters, but it is first and foremost a comedy. Provided we're not, like, shitting all over these characters that are beloved, I think anything's fair game."
Instead, Powerless will mostly deal with the "lesser-known heroes" from the DC Comics universe to avoid overlapping with The CW's DC lineup of Green Arrow (Stephen Amell), the Flash (Grant Gustin) and Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) as well as Fox's young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz). As Schumacker explains, all these shows exist in different "universes."
"[The Powerless superheroes] are self-aware that they are the B-team, that they're never going to be members of the Justice League," Schumacker says. "Crimson Fox is a little pissy that she got the invite to Justice League Europe and not Justice League proper. It depends on the hero. Some of them we do humanize, and they have flaws and egos that can be bruised."
Something that Schumacker hopes to explore in the first season is how these B-list superheroes are treated by the normal people who live in the city they frequent.
"We thought that superhero is kind of an analog for professional athletes," Schumacker says. "We've looked at it several different ways. There's kind of a philosophical conversation that we had ongoing throughout the first season, do we want to keep superheroes as gods up in the sky where they're better than us and don't interact with us that much? But as we move forward, especially with someone like Crimson Fox [Atlin Mitchell], you'll start to see them interact with our main cast."
That distant connection between the main characters working at Wayne Security and the more famed faces of DC Comics is something the writers hope to embrace as a plot point as well.
"[The characters] are never going to get what they actually want," Schumacker admits with a smile. "Van's never going to actually get to go to the Gotham mothership and that carrot is always going to be dangling in front of him. You know, unless we're desperate for ratings."
However, when asked about his long-term plans for the main characters working at Wayne Security beyond the series premiere, Schumacker isn't sure how to answer. "It's hard to say," he said. "I don't have concrete answers for you. I think TV is a living thing and it's taken all of our energy, given the history of this first season, it's taken all of our energy just to figure out the first 12 [episodes], so I think we don't have those answers."
Powerless airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.