command performances

Calista Flockhart Is Supergirl’s MVP

Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant in Supergirl. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS

On the February 29 episode of Supergirl, media mogul Cat Grant, impeccably dressed in high-waisted, wide-leg trousers and a simple black top, strides into her office and summons her underlings for a staff meeting: “Stat, with a side order of ASAP.” She begins the assembly with characteristically verbose disdain for a world that never quite meets her standards. “My massage therapist spent the entire session talking about how her surrogate has celiac disease and my Pilates instructor just informed me that he’s quitting to open up an artisanal yarn store in Vermont,” she groans, still wearing her designer sunglasses. “So! Which one of you hardy souls is going to give me a reason to go on living?”

In that moment, I felt her pain. Supergirl isn’t a bad show — indeed, I’ve argued that it’s a better Superman story than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But it’s often boring and repetitive. The boilerplate love-triangle plot and the villain-of-the-week battles often leave one feeling as irritated as Cat is after sessions with her service professionals. Luckily, Cat is the hardy soul who always gives me a reason to keep watching. Played with bombast and aplomb by Calista Flockhart, she runs laps around everyone else in Supergirl’s roster. As the first season of the show closes and we prepare for a near-certain second one, it’s safe to declare her the superhero series’ MVP.

Before we go any further, let’s address the elephant in the room: Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. It would be foolish to deny that Cat shares a great deal of DNA with Miranda Priestly. Both walk through the world of mass media with a confidence and style that can inspire a mix of awe and terror in anyone who comes into their orbits. Both are intimidating bosses to meek-but-gradually-bolder female assistants (Supergirl’s civilian name is Kara, but Cat inveterately calls her “Kira.”) Both are, in their way, feminist ideals of women in power.

That comparison shouldn’t disqualify Flockhart from praise. First of all, Cat is much more high-strung than the dour and soft-spoken Miranda. Flockhart portrays her character’s disdain with steely eyes and anxiously pursed lips (though she rarely heats up beyond a high simmer). But more importantly, Cat’s echoing of another icon is just part of a long tradition in superhero fiction. Characters borrow heavily from other characters, both on the screen and the page. Batman began as a ripoff of the Shadow and Zorro; seven decades later, the title character of The CW’s Arrow is more or less a ripoff of Batman. That doesn’t diminish the power of the characters — it merely gives the creators the opportunity to play around with existing archetypes in new situations.

And damn, Flockhart really knows how to wield power. She plays Cat with an intensity that can only come from an actor who knows she has another shot at major prime-time exposure after many years away from the spotlight (her last recurring role was in 2011, as Kitty McCallister on Brothers and Sisters). In a show where dialogue is largely built to further the plot, she brings ornate flair to her pontificating mini-monologues. Let’s look at one of many examples. In the episode “For the Girl Who Has Everything,” Cat has to suffer through an interaction with a shapeshifter who’s posing as Kara and doesn’t know her boss’s preferences and routines. The faux Kara is summoned to Cat’s office after having missed a bunch of work due to sci-fi shenanigans (they involve a solar storm, which will be an important fact in a moment) in the A-plot.

“Oh, how lovely for you to come into the office. On a weekday, no less! You are a real hero, Kira,” she muses.

“Was there a reason you called me in, Ms. Grant?” is the tentative reply.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Cat replies. “I’m just dealing with a little story about a solar storm that threatens all global commerce and promises civilian unrest. Yes, book me interviews with Barbara at NASA, Eduardo at NSA, and Gina at the White House. And I want attributable quotes, no press releases. And if they try to evade you, you remind them that I am still holding on to their Hamilton tickets.”

“Who?” the shapeshifter asks.

“Oh, first base!” Cat shouts, casually invoking a deep-cut pop-culture reference. “Keep up!” Just to punctuate the encounter, after the impostor Kara offers to get coffee with whole milk, Cat delivers her response perfectly stone-cold: “Whole milk has not passed my lips since I rode a bicycle with streamers on the handles.”

Cat is even fun to watch when she’s being serious. The show is careful to make sure we admire her as much as we laugh at her, and we’re periodically reminded that she is, in fact, a top-notch journalist. Take, for example, her soliloquy in an episode where she becomes convinced Kara is actually Supergirl. When Kara denies it and offers excuses to explain away Cat’s suspicions, she refuses to have any of that nonsense: “Only a person who is determined to lie can answer all the questions they’re asked. How do you think I caught Lance Armstrong? You see, Kira, you and I both fight for truth, justice, and the American Way. It just so happens that my methods are better. And more fun.”

Fun is exactly the right word, because that’s what Flockhart’s performance is. Especially by comparison to the often-stilted cadences of the rest of the show, which, again, aren’t bad, just not nearly as exciting. Indeed, Flockhart’s performance is a perfect example of a larger phenomenon in the world of the superhero shows produced by Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg: The more experienced performers are way more interesting to watch than the younger ones.

That suite of shows has become a massive and unexpected hit in the past few years. First came Arrow, then its spinoff The Flash, then CBS’s Supergirl (initially unrelated to the first two, but now connected via an interdimensional crossover), then — back on The CW — yet another Arrow and Flash spinoff called DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. The leads are almost always young, sexy people who do young, sexy things like grappling with will-they-or-won’t-they romance and struggling with their inner demons while trying to figure out their role in the world. The actors who wield those roles, understandably, take them very seriously, and their performances are therefore often dragged down by the gravity they’re giving to their lines.

But you can always count on getting a thrill when you see some of the older folks having genuine fun with the bizarre premise of being on a show about superheroes. Victor Garber’s scientist Martin Stein on The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow is an uptight, stuffy delight. When Jesse L. Martin smiles as the Flash’s adopted dad, the whole world smiles with him. John Barrowman has gradually made Malcolm Merlyn (or should I say …  the Dark Archer!) one of the most interesting characters on Arrow. Tom Cavanagh displays a mastery of simmering menace as The Flash’s Harrison Wells. And perhaps the greatest of them all is Wentworth Miller, who has reinvented longtime Flash villain Captain Cold as an eternally condescending, relentlessly wry comedic powerhouse who is basically the main reason to watch Legends of Tomorrow.

There’s no small-screen precedent in superhero fiction for the current explosion of spandex on TV and streaming. It’s nearly impossible to take it all in, especially given how much of a slog it can be to get through 40-plus minutes of superpowered hand-wringing (I’m convinced that the 20ish-page comic book is still the ideal length of a chapter in a superhero story). Supergirl, like its title character, is going through growing pains and finding out what it needs to do in order to be as gripping as possible. But in the meantime, we can all revel in the glory of Flockhart, who knew exactly what she was doing on day one.