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Wednesday 8 February 2017
Powerless is DC Comics' latest television show on NBC. Unlike the teen soap-opera dramas crowding the CW lineup, this one's a situation comedy, a cynical workplace lampoon similar to Fred Savage's late-90s Working. Fresh-faced Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical) is the newly hired straight woman setting up punchlines for by a fantastic cast of comedians led by Alan Tudyk (Suburgatory), Danny Pudi (Community), and Ron Funches (Undatable), among others.
The series (at least the pilot episode) was tooled to long-time DC Comics fans like me. Many fan reviews online claim the show is a DC version of Marvel's Damage Control comics, but that's not quite fair. For decades, one of the biggest differences between the Marvel and DC comic universes was the way the general public responded to super heroes. Marvel citizens lived in distrust and fear, while DC citizens tended to embrace their supermen (at least until DC saw how much money they were losing at the box office to Marvel movies and made their worlds much, much darker places to live). The characters in this sitcom are definitely old school DC denizens, the sort who would be employed by Hero Hotline.
If you're the sort of person who has heard of Damage Control and Hero Hotline, this show is aimed squarely at you. Since the series takes place inside a four-color comic book world, characters are bright, and reminders of DC's enormous cast of heroes and villains are dropped early and often. A heavy emphasis is placed on the trappings of Batman comics — which only makes sense given that Batman has been DC's best seller for going on thirty years. But that's not really the good stuff. This is the good stuff:
Look! It's Starro the Star Conqueror, the first Justice League villain, making a throwaway cameo appearance! Starro is essentially a giant purple space starfish who mind-controls heroes to do his bidding by putting tiny clones of himself on their faces. That's the Silver Age of comics in a nutshell, a generation better suited to comedy than dour Zack Snyder action films (which, frankly, aren't suitable for anything).
The Powerless pilot also references such minor DC characters as the Global Guardians' Jack O'Lantern and Justice League Europe's Crimson Fox, neither of which is exactly a household name even among people who consider themselves DC Comics fans. Most of these references are used as setups for punchlines, but it's still a pretty niche market.
Unfortunately, Powerless dedication to aging comic book fans may mean it's not long for broadcast television. The pilot only attracted about a million viewers. That's not a good start. TV By The Numbers gives the show a 50/50 chance of making it past May, which is a shame. Even Working got three seasons.
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