Powerless Episode 1 Review

NBC's Powerless is a superhero workplace comedy that seems to have missed one crucial element.

Powerless Episode 1

The first episode of NBC’s new comedy makes you feel every one of its 22 minutes, from an opening sequence that is the single camera sitcom equivalent of a headline that reads “Pow! Biff! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!” to an ending so simple and telegraphed that you actually lose respect for the characters for not realizing it first, Powerless is little more than an obvious attempt to cash in on the popularity of a hot genre.

The humor broadly falls into one of two categories: attempted winking nods at genre conventions that are absurdly ham handed; or nonsense, but in the spirit of Family Guy, repeated ad nauseum despite not being funny the first time. Most of the attempts at characterization (and most of the jokes) fall into the first category – characters lampshading the fact that they live in the DC universe (“Hey wouldn’t it be nice if we all worked for Batman, guys?” is one such serious attempt at eliciting a chuckle) but forgetting the punch line, like the reference is the entire point. It’s pandering aimed at creating a shared connection based on common knowledge of our insular culture in the hopes that nostalgia might paper over what a bland sitcom this would be otherwise.

Needless to say, it doesn’t work. The closest I came to a laugh was at a disparaging mention of Man of Steel, though the joke was so washed out I’m not sure it’s a slight on them to point out that DC’s lawyers seemed to have missed it.

The color scheme was offensively bright to the point where I understood retroactively why the first X-Men movie chose black leather, except only two people here were in costumes. The only thing as oversaturated as the gaudy colors of the show is the acting, or as literally anyone on the show would say, “the AC-ting,” which everyone did as hard as they could for all 22 minutes. 

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This is a show full of likeable actors, talented professionals who have all done good work in the past, yet somehow it’s devoid of any likeable characters. Danny Pudi, the heart and soul of Community, here plays a soulless malcontent, a pastiche of tech industry stereotypes you immediately and continually root against. Ron Funches plays a nerd stereotype. Alan Tudyk plays a generic prick who gives an inconsistent performance on top of the already bad script he was handed – it’s almost like he could sense himself bumping up against Portia di Rossi’s Veronica Palmer from Better Off Ted, and decided that rather than be too obviously derivative, he should just be a buffoonish asshole.

Vanessa Hudgens is so indefatigably twee in the role of Emily Locke that I yelled at my dogs because I needed to take out my anger at someone better capable of understanding negative emotion. She’s a rote and utterly predictable character, and I think she may have been harmed by shoddy editing. In scenes focused on her, the camera seemed to be pulled back to her character a half a beat before she was ready to be filmed. So you’d catch her winding up into her can-do point at the team, or mid breath before another rousing, predictable, tired, not actually rousing at all pep talk for the team.

If we want to nerd-nitpick, there is plenty here to work with. Burning a member of Grant Morrison’s Ultramarine Corps and turning him into a schlumpy middle aged blob of a villain where the entire JOKE is…the uNIQUE…paCING and proNUNciation is unconscionable. Crimson Fox’s costume is like Thea’s on Arrow, only uninteresting and impractical. The concept of Joker Anti-Venom is cool except for the part where its existence would rob the Joker of any malice or threat, when instead of a mass murderer he gives people a mass chronic disease.

Also, Lexcorp is in it. Do you guys remember Lexcorp? Boy, we sure did have a good time at Lexcorp, that thing that we both remember from the comics. Please just keep remembering this thing we have in common as I sail past where the punchline to this bit should be. Everyone in Powerless deserves better than this. So does the audience.

Powerless premieres on Thursday, February 2nd on NBC at 8 pm.