Powerless

Developed by Ben Queen, Michael Patrick Jann, Patrick Schumacker (producers)
Vanessa Hudgens, Danny Pudi, Christina Kirk, Ron Funches, Alan Tudyk (cast)
NBC
February 2, 2017

You have no idea how excited I was for NBC’s Powerless, a sitcom featuring Vanessa Hudgens and Danny Pudi (a biracial Filipina and a South Asian actor! In lead roles! As best friends!) as insurance claim adjusters who help normal people recoup their losses caused by the collateral damage of superhero battles. The announcement of Powerless came around the time of Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman, when the discussion about whether or not we’d actually be grateful to have gods flying around was particularly relevant. Powerless aimed to explore the same topic, but with more Office-esque humor and the promise that this time, the focus would be on the lives of the everyman rather than on the superheroes (and their torment and guilt over being superheroes).

Sadly, the pilot I just described is not the pilot that aired on February 2.

In what feels like a troubling pattern now with Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment, the original showrunner, Ben Queen, departed the series a month after they’d already shown the pilot episode at San Diego Comic Con. The series was delayed as they searched for a new showrunner, and eventually the original concept of the show was overhauled. What resulted from all this is a show that feels strangely unsure of itself. It’s a show with a different setting and team dynamics, awkward jokes, unlikeable caricatures, and an ungodly amount of Bruce Wayne references.

Powerless opens with Emily Locke (Vanessa Hudgens). Instead of a longtime claims adjuster at Retcon Insurance, she’s now a peppy young businesswoman who is moving to Charm City to be Director of Research & Development for Wayne Security, a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises. Emily carries a dog-eared copy of a motivational book, Wayne or Lose, and builds her entire persona out of spouting meaningless inspirational quotes like “We must do better!” When a longtime resident of Charm City warns her that the city and its superhero inhabitants are all terrible, she just smiles and smiles.

When a superhero fight suddenly breaks out and her train flies off the tracks, obscure DC character Crimson Fox catches it. But rather than demand Fox right the train so everyone can get to work as she did in the original, here Emily fangirls and takes a selfie to commemorate the moment. Emily is not only sweet and upbeat, you see, but obsessed with superheroes, having grown up in a small town where the supers never visited. Instead of being rightfully disturbed that at any moment a superhero could come smashing through the window, instead she is starry-eyed imagining the next encounter.

Emily feels like a mix between Community’s Annie and Shirley but without any hints of depth. Her character, unbothered by any prospect of getting hurt because of superheroes and their thoughtlessness, feels hilariously out of place post CA:CW and BvS. The pilot episode is only a half hour long and yet somehow I felt worn out by the end of it. Hudgens does her best with the material, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re not actually watching a hyper energetic Disney Jr. character who’s broken through the TV screen and landed herself in the real world.

Emily shows up at Wayne Security — a bright, quirky WeWork-esque office that we’re somehow supposed to believe is owned by Bruce Wayne — and meets Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk), Bruce’s self absorbed manchild of a cousin. Tudyk lands some solid jokes — he describes Charm City as a “godforsaken taint of a city” —  but like Hudgens, it feels like he’s forced to play the character on a higher, more manic register to cover up for the shaky script.

Emily is then introduced to Teddy (Danny Pudi), Ron (Ron Funches), and Wendy (Jennie Pierson). Whereas Emily was best friends with Teddy and had camaraderie with the rest of the office in the original pilot, here she’s immediately disliked by the entire team of scientists. Somehow she doesn’t seem to understand why her whole team groans when, as Head of R&D, she admits she’s never invented anything in her life.

If you’re sitting here wondering how somebody who doesn’t have a science degree and has never invented anything of her own suddenly becomes head of Research & Development under Bruce Wayne, well. Welcome to the party. They explain she’s only there because the other four candidates before her quit, but you have to wonder why Emily herself applied to the position if she was so under-qualified.

Despite having zero experience building anything, Emily somehow comes up with a genius invention idea that literally saves Wayne Security from being suddenly shut down. It’s such a nonsensical and bad idea that I’m not going to share it here, but suffice to say Emily wins her team’s respect, saves the office, and later it’s shown on the news that Batman himself uses their gadget to capture the Joker. He apparently couldn’t come up with the terrible idea himself, and I guess Lucius Fox is on vacation.

Listen, sitcoms don’t have to have deep, Game of Thrones level world-building. But they do need to make some sort of sense. Changing Emily from a sassy but regular office worker to an overly perky and inexperienced Head of R&D who somehow still ends up with a better idea than a team full of scientists just has me scratching my head.

And the rest of the cast’s material doesn’t fare much better. Teddy is mostly deadpan and I can’t recall a single good joke out of him, which feels like a terrible waste of Pudi’s talents. Wendy is downright unlikeable as she undermines and mocks Emily at every turn. (Considering Wendy is also the only main scientist who’s white, and she’s the most vocal about her dislike of Emily, a woman of color, it’s also not a great look.) Ron is the most humorous of the bunch, and he casually delivers the most hilarious line of the whole pilot: “We all know the number one cause of workplace accidents is Superman crashing through office windows mid-fight; it’s just a simple fact.” It’s hilarious because it’s a confirmed dig at Snyder’s Man of Steel and BvS, which was criticized for that very portrayal of an uncaring Superman. The joke feels like a holdover from the original concept, and had the rest of the show been that self-referentially and irreverently funny, this would be an entirely different review.

The show also dropped pretty much every DC reference except for the Batman ones, which is too bad because it feels like we’re already at peak Batman over-saturation. It’s hard for me to emphasize just how much Bruce Wayne’s name is said in the pilot episode. Van Wayne gloats endlessly about his connection to Bruce, Emily’s Wayne or Lose book is literally the focus of several scenes, and at the end when it shows Batman on TV, the team sighs and says “I wish we could work for Batman.” Emily responds with a hopeful, “Maybe someday we will.”

In comparison, the original pilot had Van Wayne’s assistant Jackie (Christina Kirk) fangirling over Hawkman and Aquaman –here she’s just a boring and disillusioned assistant — and there was a running gag that the whole office thought their quiet coworker was really Green Lantern. Powerless tries to lampoon and distance itself from Snyder’s films, but with the unnecessarily heavy focus on Batman it somehow ends up feeling like more of the same. Warner Bros., we get it, you see Batman as your cash cow.

With the rewrites, Powerless feels like a missed opportunity. By changing it from an insurance company to a subsidiary of Bruce Wayne, the show has lost its most alluring and human element, which is the focus on normal people who don’t have powers or a trove of money at their disposal. Bruce Wayne, after all, doesn’t have powers, and yet he’s certainly included in the “superhero” category because of his unlimited access to expensive gadgets.

The original Powerless concept implied that each episode would showcase the different people Emily helps, and would carry the message that even as a lowly, underpaid office worker, you can still be heroic, and kind, and understanding. Here, Emily builds a piece of expensive, villain-stopping technology that we never actually see in the hands of anybody outside the office, but that we know for sure Batman used. We’re suddenly removed from directly seeing how to help the powerless and are instead privy to the very process of how to make a man more powerful.

I don’t know, man. In times like these, where it feels like every day people are under attack by somebody with much more power and money than them, I can’t help but think what an unfortunate change that is.