'Powers': TV Review

Powers Sharlto Copley Still - H 2014
Very little is super about PlayStation’s first original scripted series.

The PlayStation Network makes an unexceptional streaming-series debut with this low-rent superhero production.

Imagine a world overrun by superheroes. (Not so hard to do with our current glut of Marvel/DC film and TV properties.) But in this case, the leagues of extraordinary gentlemen and ladies are actually a ruling class — known as “Powers” — who wreak havoc more than they save lives.

Writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Avon Oeming came up with this clever alternative reality for a Chicago-set comic book series, also entitled Powers, that began in 2000 and still runs to this day. A film adaptation was discussed when the comic was just a year old. Then Bendis confirmed in 2009 that Powers would be developed as a television series for FX. A pilot was shot in 2011 starring Jason Patric and Lucy Punch as the two homicide detectives, Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim, who investigate nonguardians of the galaxy and their criminal doings. FX ordered reshoots and then … silence.

That is, until the fledgling PlayStation Network, which is primarily a virtual space to purchase video games, stepped in and snatched up Powers as its first original series for streaming. Patric and Punch were dropped. Sharlto Copley (District 9) and Susan Heyward were cast as Walker and Pilgrim. And let’s just say that the long road from page to screen hasn’t exactly borne fruit.

Read more: Charlie Huston on Bringing 'Powers' to PlayStation, Plans for Season 2

The series’ setting has been moved from the Windy City to Los Angeles, and the slick, sun-dappled imagery makes for an ill fit with what is essentially a futuro-noir. We first meet the scruffy, shades-sporting Walker as he is transferring a Powers prisoner into a holding cell. The criminal breaks free, and soon enough, Walker’s male colleague is lying dead on the ground. This makes the already-prickly police officer (it’s soon revealed that he is a former Power whose abilities were stolen from him) even more cantankerous. When he is assigned Pilgrim as his new partner, the tension between them is palpable.

We’ve seen this seasoned flatfoot/saucy protege dynamic numerous times before, and nothing in the first three of 10 episodes sent out for review suggests that any surprises are in store. Walker acts jerky, Pilgrim sasses him back, and by the end of episode two, they’re commiserating over beers. It doesn’t help that both performers are mannered in the extreme, Copley overdoing the 5 o’clock-shadow brooding and Heyward irritatingly amplifying the newbie cheek. As so often is the case in superhero narratives, it’s the colorful supporting characters who generate the real interest.

Michelle Forbes cuts a striking figure as Walker’s steely former gal pal Retro Girl — part downtown dominatrix, part Wonder Woman — who takes one of the cops’ suspects, a wannabe Power named Calista (Olesya Rulin), under her wing. Noah Taylor is a sinister delight as the chain-smoking villain Johnny Royalle, who can teleport between locales in the blink of an eye. (Though the bubble-popping sound that accompanies his every disappearance and reappearance is a point of unintentional hilarity.) And, as he proved on Hannibal, you can’t go wrong with Eddie Izzard in raving psychotic mode: Here he plays Wolfe, a superintelligent and cannibalistic Power now incarcerated in a high-security facility where he is kept in check by repeated ice-pick lobotomies.

See more: This Season On 'Powers'

Would that the commitment of these actors felt like it was in support of something worthy. There’s rarely a moment when Powers doesn’t seem like a cheap knockoff of more fully realized extended universes. The effects work is cut-rate, with obvious green-screen backdrops that hint at a bean-counted budget and glossy gore effects that take the punch out of what is supposed to be a gritty rethinking of caped-crusader archetypes. And the plotting by showrunner Charlie Huston and his team of writers is extremely pedestrian, mostly relying on awkward expository dialogue to define character and incrementally inch the very tedious story forward.

Unlike Bendis’ comic, it’s doubtful viewers will be aching to get their hands on each new installment.

Twitter: @keithuhlich