Powerless is a half-hour workplace comedy that also happens to be the latest television show from DC Comics. The series traffics in typical office concerns, but is set within a world where superheroes and villains regularly spar just outside the company’s glass windows. The first episode, which premieres Thursday at 8:30 on NBC and is the only one the network made available in advance, is peppy and full of promise. But like every future crime fighter does in his or her origin story, this sitcom is clearly still trying to get a firm grasp on how to use its abilities.
The pilot briskly establishes the cast of characters, led by Emily Locke (Vanessa Hudgens), the newly hired head of research and development at Wayne Security, a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises focused on launching products that keep individuals safe in the current conflict-heavy environment. (Please, feel free to insert your own cheeky comment about how Powerless seems designed to provide reassuring yet relevant escapism during this jittery political moment.)
During her first day on the job, Emily meets her quirky direct reports, played by Danny Pudi, comedian Ron Funches, and Jennie Pierson, and learns they’ve been saddled with multiple bosses in recent months and, therefore, are super-skeptical of her. She doesn’t get much more in the way of support from her supervisor, Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk), who is more fixated on impressing his overseer and cousin — Bruce, you may have heard of him — and on getting the heck out of Charm City so he can live larger in Gotham. Within what feels like 30 seconds of Emily’s arrival, there are already rumblings that Wayne Enterprises could fold, which forces Emily and her team to come up with a gadget that will [says in superhero announcer voice] save the company!
Within that fairly pat framework, there are some clever moments. Brief glimpses of the creations spearheaded by Wayne Enterprises and their competitor, LexCorp, suggest that the cleverness of the show’s gadgets, always one of the pleasures of any story related to Batman, will be a running source of delight. (A wearable bag designed to protect its owner from collateral damage caused by superhero-villain battles looks an awful lot like Tom Brady’s deflategate coat. Or, if you prefer, Baymax from Big Hero Six.) The dialogue also suggests that the writers have a good feel for start-up speak. When Emily is introduced to Pudi’s Teddy, Wayne Security’s chief design officer, she asks, “What do you do here?” His immediate, smug response: “I disrupt.”
As uniformly talented as the cast is, the characters feel quite thinly sketched at this stage, though, again: I’ve seen only one episode. Hudgens in particular is stuck with a familiar plucky, straight woman part that needs more depth and sharper edges to really pop.
To the surprise of no one, Tudyk is the not-so-secret comedic weapon here. The former Firefly star and voice of Rogue One’s K2SO gets the best lines — “I call him B. Dubs,” Wayne says of his cousin. “We’re very close.” — and buzzes with an obvious insecurity and obliviousness that, of course, makes him the perfect choice to run an entire company.
The special effects in Powerless are a few notches below what most are accustomed to seeing in comic-book movies and on other big-budget TV epics. In the opening sequence, there’s a less-than- impressive showdown between the dastardly Jack O’Lantern and Crimson Fox that briefly shuts down the subway and leaves a lot of CGI seams showing. The moment exists primarily to establish Emily’s awe of Charm City, which contrasts with the nonplussed reactions of her jaded fellow commuters who are used to such explosive inconveniences. But it also underlines the fact that a show like this doesn’t necessarily need to mimic the sort of epic fight scenes we see in Zack Snyder movies. Actually, it should be aiming as much as possible to play to what makes it different from most of the other comic-book fare out there: the fact that it’s a character-driven comedy.
Powerless is better off investing its energies into its people, and R&D’ing the dynamics between them. At one point, Van Wayne refers to a product that’s been put “in beta, wherever that is.” That’s exactly where this show is, too: in beta, but maybe almost ready to launch.