[This is a review for the first three episodes of Powers. There will be SPOILERS]
When developing a television show, is there one sure-fire formula for success? You certainly need a compelling core story, complicated and interesting characters, sharp dialogue, an original visual style, and a likable and (most often) well-know lead actor. Fortunately for the PlayStation Network, its first episodic series, Powers, seems to have at least some of these qualities stitched into its fabric, which is woven from source material in the form of a popular and generally well-received comic book of the same name. Unfortunately, in the case of the TV show Powers, the sum of its parts is left less than whole, because those parts are flawed and unfulfilling right from the get-go.
For those who know any of the troubled history behind the project, it’s easy to understand why the transition from comic panel to the small screen has been a bit rough. Originally at FX, Powers cast Jason Patric (Narc) as its lead and even shot a pilot, but after setting up plans to recast and reshoot that pilot, the network ended up passing on the series, which landed at PSN a year ago. Yesterday (March 10), the platform finally released the first three of Powers‘ 10-episode first season, and the final product is a hodgepodge of styles, genre tropes and thematic ideas that ultimately amount to a mess of a TV series – albeit a somewhat unique and interesting one.
Co-created by Brian Michael Bendis, the writer behind the source comic, Powers centers on Detective Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley) of the homicide department’s Powers Division, a law enforcement branch dedicated to bringing super-powered criminals to justice. Through some clunky exposition – which is awkwardly delivered by Extra‘s Mario Lopez – we learn that Walker was formerly known as a superhero (or “power”) named Diamond who tragically lost his powers (we later learn that he was actually stripped of his flying ability by the sinister villain Wolfe, played by Eddie Izzard).
Of course, Walker doesn’t like to talk about his haunted past and still longs to become a power once again, so the only way the audience clues into his backstory and his feelings on the world around him is through his new rookie partner Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward). She asks all the relevant questions on behalf of the viewers, serving as the main exposition delivery system to get the rest of us normal human folk up to speed on powers, villains – including Walker’s other nemesis Johnny Royalle (Noah Taylor) – and the “wannabes,” a group of society comprised of kids who lust for powers, but have none.
The world that Powers drops us into in the pilot – while visually unaffecting, for the most part – is actually quite interesting. The societal dynamics at play present some engaging drama, as the wannabes will do anything they can to gain super-human abilities and the celebrity status that comes with being a power. Then, there are the villainous powers, like the teleporting Royalle, who can’t help but use wannabes to further their own agendas (in his case, expanding an illegal drug enterprise).
Unfortunately, some of the intriguing ideas the series is playing with initially – including what it means to have real power – aren’t given a chance to develop as the series attempts to work under two genres simultaneously. Firstly, Powers is a police procedural, with our two detective characters working a main case involving a series of drug-related deaths tied to Royalle, and some B-story monster-of-the-week cases involving other villainous powers. Secondly, it’s a superhero show about a fallen hero and his quest to exact justice (and also revenge?) on evil powers. This mash-up is certainly unique, but one that doesn’t really work, mainly because the detective story (the actual case) and Walker’s own hero story are both underserved in the process, resulting in excruciatingly slow pacing that has only inched both narratives along through three episodes.
Embedded in those slowly-developing narratives is also an abundance of TV procedural clichés. With Powers, we have the main protagonist (some would say anti-hero) with a mysterious and troubled past, the eager but inexperienced newbie partner who could put them in danger, villains who have rich personal histories with the detectives, and a complicated love interest who reluctantly saves our protagonist from himself. Sure, these tropes aren’t deal breakers considering the overall premise of the show is different enough, but they are also familiar enough to zap some of the originality out of what is an otherwise original idea for a series.
For those who buy in to the set-up and are able to overlook some of its clichéd elements, there are still plenty of flaws that are simply too glaring to ignore. The most obvious and apparent is the visual effects, which are understandably budgeted but still underwhelming compared to other superhero-based adventure shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Costume and set designs are also lackluster, consisting mostly of the types of homemade-looking superhero getups you’d see on Halloween, and a series of drab empty rooms, like Royalle’s “secret lair.”
When it comes to tone, Powers is a bit confused, and to some, will be off-putting. With an ample helping of profanity-laced lines (many of which seem unnecessary and out of place), gruff characters, some extreme gore and a protagonist with personal demons, the series wants to be grounded, dark and ultimately, cool, but the amount of cheesy one-liner dialogue, clunky transitions and silly sound effects (the “pop” sound as Royalle teleports) get in the way, resulting in a strange blend of unintended goofy campiness covered in street-level grit.
The thing is, just three episodes in, Powers hasn’t discovered why it’s cool yet. The creators may want to believe that having characters with powers and bringing a twist to two genres is inherently enough to make the series cool or interesting, but with a plethora of comic book shows and movies to choose from these days, audiences need a better reason to tune in. At this point, there’s just not enough substance behind the premise. So, what will make Powers really stand out from the crowd?
What do you think of Powers so far? Will it be a hit for PSN? Share your thoughts in the comments!
The Powers series premiere is currently available online, and the show’s first three episodes can be seen on the PlayStation Network.