'Black Lightning': TV Review

It's electric.
1/16/2018

The CW's latest DC Comics adaptation boasts a strong lead turn from Cress Williams and looks to stand alone in welcome ways.

The four series that make up The CW's collective DC Television Universe culminated their fall with an unexpectedly successful multi-night crossover that delivered a lot of heart and comedy across shows that have, for the most part, been overwhelmingly dark, tormented and muddled in recent seasons. Legends of Tomorrow, the show in this group that I liked the least when it premiered, has become perhaps my favorite by virtue of my accepting its silliness.

It could be argued that what The CW needs least is another superhero show, much less another murky superhero show.

The pleasant surprise, then, is that Black Lightning, based on yet another DC Comics property, is smart and relevant and full of an attitude that's all its own. It takes its characters and their world seriously, but thus far doesn't take itself too seriously. And, best of all, it's ostensibly entirely separate from Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Arrow and Supergirl, so the risk of time-consuming crossovers or key plot points delivered on a different show is currently nil.

Developed by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, with Salim Akil writing and directing the pilot, Black Lightning focuses on Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), dedicated principal at a public school that he has turned into an oasis of peace in the gang-ravaged city of Freeland. Jefferson is doing his best to mold and shape the kids who come through his school's doors, but he's often powerless to keep them from falling in with the One Hundred gang after they're gone. He's had more of an impact on his daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams), a medical school student and part-time teacher, and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), a politically active and athletically gifted high schooler.

Years earlier, Jefferson had fought crime as the masked Black Lightning, using his ability to harness and control electricity — and also a funky suit. Black Lightning's campaign against gangster Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III) fell short, however, as he was hounded by Henderson (Damon Gupton), a detective with a distaste for vigilantes, no matter how righteous, and eventually coaxed into retirement by now ex-wife Lynn (Christine Adams).

Naturally, circumstances are about to force Jefferson back into the suit again, aided by Gambi, a tailor and Black Lightning's mentor, valet and operations manager. Gambi, played by James Remar, serves as the show's token white character.

Black Lightning is set in a fictional city and maybe lacks the budget or time to capture the visible scope of its imagined setting. Even if I don't have a feeling for the skyline and terrain of Freeland in the same way that Vancouver immediately embodied Starling City and Central City in previous CW shows, the first two episodes of Black Lightning establishes certain parts of this crumbling city well. The refuge of the high school, the den of sin and illegality that is the Seahorse Motel, and several of the streets run by the One Hundred gang are captured well. We also get hints of the institutions fighting the rot, including the media and politicians and other educators. Unlike The CW's other DC shows, Black Lightning lives in a comic book world that also can encompass problems of the year world. I'd point to how poorly Arrow has attempted to tackle things like gun control in the past to salute the things Black Lightning appears to do effortlessly.

In familiar comic book fashion, the first season of Black Lightning is set up as the battle for the heart of a city, and like Netflix's Luke Cage, the use of a predominantly African-American urban space for commentary on gentrification, community organizing and tense relationships between law enforcement and civilians. The series is driven by some solid action scenes, a bass-pumping soundtrack, stylish treatment of Black Lightning's sizzling powers and character pragmatism.

Jefferson is constantly wondering whether he does more good in a suit beating up hoodlums or in the hallways at Garfield High inspiring pupils. He knows that being Black Lightning jeopardizes his chances for reconciliation with his ex and puts his girls at risk. He also knows that whatever his powers might be, he's getting too old to be brawling with young punks.

It's a wonderful thing that, familiar as D'Shawn Hardell on Beverly Hills 90210 and Lavon Hayes on Hart of Dixie, Williams is getting the chance at 47 to play a character who kicks ass, quotes Martin Luther King Jr., raises two daughters and gets to turn the head of every other woman onscreen. He's never lacked for charisma and his physicality has always been central to his performances, and he slides effortlessly into what is a meaty star turn. Williams and Remar make the most of their dynamic, an amusing inversion of minority sidekick conventions, and I look forward to getting a better sense of the Black Lightning/Gambi partnership.

Adams makes Lynn feel more like a caring wife and mother than hero-defying wet blanket, which is about all she can do with a thin part. Both McClain and, especially, Williams show a lot of potential, and we see very early that Jefferson may not be the only person in the family with gifts. The two younger Pierces have character twists that give them immediate complexity. In the second episode, though, they also both have large chunks of dialogue that verge on painfully tin-eared, contributing to my liking that episode a lot less than the premiere.

Especially in recent seasons, The CW's DC shows have stumbled in introducing and developing villains as anything other than Threatening Masked Vigilante With Stupid Name, and Black Lighting avoids that problem entirely. Its villains are outsized but, like the show around them, grounded. Played by Jones, a relative acting neophyte better known to some hip-hop fans as Krondon, Tobias couples menace with abrupt violence and, as both actor and character have albinism, the character's imposing threat feels unfamiliar. Even more unfamiliar is the exploration, only started thus far, of a character whose racial identity in a predominantly black community is challenging and challenged in a way new to television. As Lala, one of Tobias' midlevel underlings, William Catlett makes a fast and chilling impression even if his character's mixture of threat and paternalistic nurturing of Freeland's impressionable kids feels lifted from a David Simon show. It's when Lala accuses Tobias of hating black people and you stop and think of what that means in the context, that you stop and think of the interesting lines Black Lightning is drawing.

The slippage in quality in the second episode worries me a little bit. I still think that in the Akils, Black Lightning has creators with a specific vision; that in Williams it has a leading man capable of carrying a variety of story approaches; and that as long as it can resist the need to tie in with The CW's other superhero properties, it has a lot of potential as a unique stand-alone.

Cast: Cress Williams, China Anne McLain, Nafessa Williams, Christine Adams, James Remar, Damon Gupton, Marvin Jones III
Creators: Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil
Premieres: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (The CW)

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