Imagine you lived in a world where superheroes were everywhere and all people did was talk about them, reporting breathlessly on the comings and goings of all the spandex-clad do-gooders and villains, as though the fate of the world depended on knowing every last detail of what a character was going to do before they did it. Now imagine superheroes were real. After a while, the once alluring spectacle of their routines would become pretty tedious, so much so that the average citizen couldn’t be bothered to look up from their smartphone as their commuter train was derailed (and saved) by a couple of fifth-rate villains and heroes. That’s one of the underlying themes of NBC’s new half-hour comedy Powerless, a series set well inside the world of DC Comics, but told from the perspective of the average citizen for whom superhero nonsense has become part of the daily grind.
Retooled from its original premise of an insurance company handling claims stemming from superhero-related destruction, Powerless is now set in the Charm City branch of Wayne Security, a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises, the company owned and operated by Bruce Wayne… you, know, Batman. Instead of a group of hapless humans trying to make sense of a crazy superhero-obsessed world within the confines of an insurance company (an occupation prone to its own stretches of tedium no doubt), the series now focuses on a group of hapless humans trying to create the latest gadgets and tech to make the average citizen safer from a near-constant occurrence of metahuman scuffles. Naturally, the kicker now is that those doing the engineering are also unwittingly supplying Batman with the latest tech to chase down criminals with.
Despite the late-game loss of creator and showrunner Ben Queen, Powerless retained its core cast of Vanessa Hudgens, Danny Pudi, Ron Funches, and Alan Tudyk, though their characters were, naturally, altered to better reflect the new, even more comic book-y focus of the series. Hudgens plays Emily Locke, a young, ambitious businesswoman determined to make a difference on her first day at Wayne Security. Emily runs into the sort of workplace shenanigans expected of a comedy pilot tasked with introducing the new boss to a group of disenchanted employees who’ve witnessed an astonishingly high turnover rate in potential supervisors as of late. Though stymied at every turn by her team – especially Jennie Pierson’s Wendy, whose inexplicable distaste for Emily and guileless expression of it is the beginning and end that particular joke – Emily’s arc in the first episode is reminiscent of Dave Foley’s character in the premiere episode of NewsRadio. She’s a sane person given the keys to the asylum and told to make it work. It’s a familiar set-up that doesn’t offer big enough laughs the first time out, but succeeds in demonstrating its potential… to be a traditional workplace comedy set within the confines of a comic book universe.
The show is still figuring that out its first time at bat. Pudi and Funches aren’t given enough to do in the pilot. Their presence hints at important and expanded roles in the future, but here they more or less provide a better understanding of the show’s milieu. Pudi brings a similar too-smart-for-the-room charm as he did in Community, while Funches offers raw enthusiasm and unbridled good-naturedness that few sitcoms or their characters have right from the start. The writers would be wise to capitalize on Funches’ amiability to leaven all aspects of the show, not just the soul-crushing nature of working for bosses for whom the bottom line is the only line.
The boss in this situation is Van Wayne, sycophantic cousin to Bruce and desperate to move up the corporate ladder to Wayne Tower in Gotham City. A comic book character, Van raises the obvious question of how, if Bruce Wayne has a cousin (and therefore an aunt and an uncle), did he end up raised by his butler? But he also offers the series its most compelling character so far. That’s almost entirely owing to Tudyk, who makes Van’s hollowness and utter reliance on the Wayne name to provide his only sense of identity a character trait, rather than a defect. He’s the most fully formed of all the characters in the pilot, meaning Tudyk does the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to bringing the funny, which likely won’t be a problem for the show’s target audience.
But the show’s desire to please that audience is also its undoing in the first episode. Powerless is overwhelmed by the need to drop comic book references or Easter egg into the mix, leaving the comedy to feel disproportionately geared toward fandom when going in the opposite direction works much better. The first episode is so busy name setting up the basic premise and moving characters into place that the brief appearance of Starro seems like an afterthought, while the thin presence of Crimson Fox and Jack O’Lantern in the story’s margins highlights the extent to which the series was overhauled since its first promo was released last year.
Emily is no longer standing up for the little guy who’s tired of living in a world dominated by super-powered beings. Now she’s a plucky businesswoman tasked with discovering ways to make life with metahumans safer, while also unwittingly giving Batman a leg up on crime. It has a long way to go before its firing on all cylinders as either a workplace or comic book comedy, but in world dominated by superheroes and their endlessly repetitive adventures, Powerless finds potential humor in being aware it’s part of a bubble that may one day burst.
Powerless continues next Thursday with ‘Wayne Dream Team’ @8:30pm on NBC.