Editor’s Note: Here there be spoilers…
The first three episodes of Powers have arrived on the PlayStation Network, which means that it’s time to put on my review hat and see what’s up. Understandably, there’s a lot of fuss about this show. Not only is it PlayStation’s first original TV series, but it’s also based on the beloved and award-winning comic book series of the same name by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming.
The premise of Powers is simple: a police procedural in a world full of superheroes. Two detectives in the LAPD’s Powers Division must investigate superhero- and supervillain-related criminal activity. Find a dead superhero? Need to catch a dastardly supervillain by the book? Call Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim.
What makes Christian so good at investigating superheroes? The fact that he once wore an awful costume, had the ability to fly, and fought crime as Diamond. But after mysteriously losing his powers, he’s forced to go into retirement and become a cop.
That’s pretty much all of the foundation you need to jump into this review. I’m going to try my best to not fall down the rabbit hole of plot here. Watch the show and read the first few volumes of the comic book series. You’ll be okay.
Shall we then?
1×01 – Pilot
Yes, there is A LOT of plot in the first three episodes of the show. And the pilot does a sort of okay job at introducing all of the threads we’ll be following this season. My big problem with the introduction is that it’s a bit convoluted. There’s SO MUCH going on at once that I couldn’t focus in on any of the characters in a meaningful way. Mostly, I made notes for myself: Walker was crimefighter Diamond once, but lost his powers; Walker loses his partner in an altercation at the precinct, which sends partner’s son on a quest for revenge; Walker had a fling with Retro Girl back in the day, and now they’re brought back together because of a mysterious girl names Calista; Calista is wanted by the police because of the death of ex-superhero Olympia, who she fellated to gain some of his powers…
I said I wouldn’t tumble down the rabbit hole of plot, right? And I haven’t even touched the brim. There’s still the whole thing with Wolf, who’s chained up in this mega prison underground for criminals with powers. And don’t forget Johnny Royale, who at first is basically a cartoon character with the awful street accent and gold chain (he’s supposed to be like the gangster version of a supervillain, right?), but will slowly grow on you and become your favorite character. Oh dammit, I forgot to mention the power-enhancing drug that is being dealt to superpowered teenagers…
Yeah, and I completely ignored whatever is going on with Deena, who’s new in the Powers Division, lives with her dad after a break-up or whatever, and specifically asked to work with Christian so that she could learn how to deal with the “powers” (what they call everyone who has a power on this show, obviously).
Okay, that’s everything…I think.
My point is that how is anyone supposed to follow all of these storylines in one sitting? Powers really lays it on heavy in its first hour. That said, it’s nice to know that this isn’t going to be CBS primetime television with a monster-of-the-week format. There’s a lot of story to cover and mythology to establish. And Powers is full steam ahead.
1×02 – Like a Power
I can’t state enough how gritty this show is. There’s enough sex, drugs, and rock n roll to get the juices flowing for any adult audience. If HBO were making a superhero show, it would be Powers. Yes, there are a lot of cheesy, eye-rolling moments that make it more True Blood than True Detective, but it really starts getting fun once you look past of all of the flaws.
Flaws? The CG effects run rampant on the show and look worse than anything on The CW (whose effects actually look pretty great for TV), and the acting is often a bit overstated. Perhaps my biggest problem lies with the two main characters. Sharlto Copley, who I love, often takes the tortured cop thing too far, opting for a very fake and raspy American accent. And when he’s delivering these monologues about his past as a superhero or providing much-needed exposition about the world around him, it’s usually very self-aware. It’s like he and Susan Heyward, who plays Deena, are trying very hard to take this thing super seriously. But how can one take the heavier moments seriously when all of a sudden superheroes are flying over the characters’ heads?
That grittiness is really delivered by the portions that feature Noah Taylor’s Johnny Royale, a power who can teleport anywhere he wants. The first time we meet him on the show (in the pilot), he grabs on to someone’s head and teleports away, decapitating the dude and leaving him spurting blood on the floor. It’s awesome. And in the second episode, the plot really starts focusing more on Royale, as we begin to see this world from his perspective. He especially has a strange relationship with Calista, a wannabe who wants to have powers and be like the uber-famous Retro Girl more than anything else. Although we watch Johnny murder someone in cold blood (for putting Calista in danger), he’s warm to Calista. He seems to have genuine feelings towards her.
It’s a great contrast to the rest of Johnny’s interactions with other characters. Most of them, like Christian and Deena, are very threatened by Johnny, who was thought to be dead, but has actually been dealing a drug called Sway from his underground club. When Johnny reveals himself to the world, he and Calista really become the focus of the main characters, who were at first trying to solve Olympia’s murder. But really, Olympia is a well-placed MacGuffin that reminds me of The Comedian’s death in the opening pages of Watchmen.
Things start to slow down and focus in, and Powers seems to find what it really wants to talk about. The second episode is much better overall than the first.
1×03 – Mickey Rooney Cries No More
And the third is even better, as we get down and dirty with Johnny, Calista, Retro Girl, and Wolf. Christian and Deena are just not as fun to watch as these superhero and supervillains that probably should be a bit more in the background of the show. But the superhumans really start stealing the spotlight, and Powers is all the better for it. And it’s nice to have a non-superhuman “hero” like Triphammer to balance out the cast and add a bit of balance to the scale.
We’re introduced to the “video game-y” element that every superhero show or film seems to need, as Triphammer tests a ray called “The Drainer” on supervillains imprisoned in the Shaft — an underground containment center for naughty superhumans. Although the Drainer allows good guys like Triphammer to drain superhuman powers, it also causes them to explode…
Poor Blue Magma is the first victim of the process, and Triphammer feels awful about the results of the test. But it’s the chief of the Powers Division that orders him to continue with the experiments. Up to this point, we’ve seen normal humans worship superhumans at parties or on the streets or pretty much everywhere, so it’s nice to finally meet some people who don’t like superhumans at all. You get a bit of that when someone asks Christian if he’s killed any powers lately, and he repliesm “That’s not the job.” Some people certainly seem to think so.
But on the superhuman side, we have the epitome of evil chained to the floor, the guards sticking a pin into his brain to keep him sedated. What kind of badass motherfucker has to be lobotomized every couple days in order to be kept at bay? His name is Wolf, and he likes to eat people and steal their powers. He’s also the source of Sway and the reason Christian is no longer a superhero. Wolf can both devour a person literally and also suck up his/her energy somehow. You certainly don’t want this guy on the streets…
You start getting a sense of the different sides: Retro Girl is a good guy, Christian sort of encompasses this gray area that favors both superhumans and the law, Johnny is also in the gray (although he’s definitely trying to wipe out superhumans), and Wolf is pure evil. And that’s why Calista’s predicament is really becoming another great storyline on the show.
Calista wants to be a superhuman more than anything else. She is convinced that any day now, her powers will simply kick in. So when she has to choose a side at the end of the episode (Christian, Retro Girl, or Johnny), it really is all about who she wants to be once she discovers her abilities. She goes with Johnny, who has surprisingly been the most honest with her so far. Christian and Retro Girl are trying to use Calista for their own gains, but Johnny just seems to want to protect her.
But would you trust Johnny?