OVERPRAISING A FRUSTRATINGLY FLAWED PILOT DOESN’T DO TV VIEWERS (OR FEMALE SUPER HEROES) ANY FAVORS
AIRS MONDAYS AT 8PM E/P ON CBS
The good news: SUPERGIRL doesn’t totally suck. It’s no ARROW or THE FLASH but it is more fun than that torpid Marvel clunker AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. The bad news: SUPERGIRL is on CBS. Everything has been run through their de-fanger and given a sanitizing scrub-a-dub; a process perfected by the official network of “TV That’s Never Thinky.” It’s not quite DC-CSI, but the opener plays it too safe and isn’t worthy of the overpraise being heaped upon it by some critics.
While everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, we’re all spinning our pearls of wisdom off the same pilot. It was “leaked” online months ago and subsequent episodes have not been made available for review. So, right off the bat, let’s stop pretending SUPERGIRL is the first coming of She-Christ or a significant feminist milestone. It is neither of those things and ignoring a host of frustrating flaws does a disservice to an audience hungry for a series with a fully-realized female super hero at the helm. SUPERGIRL is the right gender for the job, but she’s trapped in a vehicle that refuses to let her soar.
As we’re reminded repeatedly in hour one, Supergirl (aka Kara Zor-El and Kara Danvers) is Superman’s cousin. Originally sent here to watch over Kal-El, she ended up getting sucked into the Phantom Zone en route and arrives years later than planned. By the time Kara does touch down on Earth, the citizens of Metropolis are already in thrall to the powers of Superman, a development that renders her original mission obsolete. She’s shipped off to be raised in safe anonymity by the Danvers family. Jump to present day. Twenty-something Kara is now living in National City where she toils away as the put-upon assistant to media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart).
If almost none of that sounds familiar to fans of the DC Comics heroine, that’s because series creators Greg Berlanti, Ali Adler and Andrew Kreisberg have jettisoned almost the entire Supergirl backstory. Absolute purists are never going to be happy with TV adaptions of their beloved favorites so trying to please them is a pointless exercise in frustration. Besides, as we’ve seen with ARROW and THE FLASH, when something is re-imagined well, it doesn’t really matter how much you tweak the source material. The problem with SUPERGIRL? For every creative master stroke there’s an even bigger misstep.
To be fair, part of the blame for what doesn’t work here has to be attributed to licensing issues. Superman is a big-screen character and it’s quite obvious CBS was not granted permission to use him for much more than cursory mentions. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the producers got the memo about necessity being the mother of invention. The whole Superman/Supergirl thing is awkward and messy throughout the first episode. The writers end up contorting themselves so much that you can almost hear the multi-layered legal vetting process chugging along in the background.
Speaking of writers, though Berlanti, Kreisberg and Adler share credit for the pilot script, way too much of what ended up on screen sounds like the words of the latter. Ali Adler joined the writing staff on GLEE in season three. That’s about the same time things started to go downhill fast at William McKinley High School. The series went from infectious to insipid and never recovered. Adler also teamed up with her GLEE co-conspirator Ryan Murphy to create THE NEW NORMAL, one of the absolute worst television comedies of the past twenty years. She’s one of those lazy wordsmiths incapable of thickening her thin treacle with anything that might stick to your mental ribs. That could explain why big chunks of SUPERGIRL feel more akin to WONDER WOMAN circa-1975 than they do a primetime drama debuting in 2015.
What saves SUPERGIRL from its own creative Kryptonite is the one-two punch of Melissa Benoist in the title role and Mehcad Brooks as James “Jimmy” Olsen. The pair have delightful on-screen chemistry and do some pretty amazing things with what amounts to a script full of empty calories . They’re the reason you’ll come back for seconds.
Benoist oozes charm and charisma. If you’re not rooting for her, you’re a hard ass with no heart. She deserves every bit of the effusive advance buzz you’ve been hearing. There’s so much more to her exuberant performance than perkiness and pluck that it’s a real bummer every time she’s swatted down by a shaky plot thread or weak writing.
Brooks has finally been cast in a role that lets him shine. He brings a potent combination of good looks and gravitas to the proceedings. His portrayal of Olsen is modern and refreshingly mature. Both he and Benoist will be among the biggest break-out stars of the fall TV season. That says more about them as actors than it does the vehicle they’ve arrived in.
Elsewhere on the call sheet, Flockhart and Chyler Leigh (playing Kara’s adoptive sister Alex) don’t fare so well. Riffing off limited range, Leigh gives us a slightly less annoying take on her Lexie Grey. It’s an unwelcome nostalgia trip that also results in unintentional laughs. You see, Alex Danvers is a doctor and scientist who (wait for it) also works as a secret government agent. She’s on staff at the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, a group tasked with keeping tabs on interplanetary aliens living among us. FYI, none of it comes off any less asinine on screen. The reveal of Alex’s double life is handled in such an off-hand manner that I’ve chosen to take it as tacit admission by the creators of their epic casting fail re: Chyler Leigh.
Fans of bitchy dialogue and hammy acting will probably love whatever it is that Flockhart does with the role of Cat Grant. Personally, channeling Alexis Carrington seems out of sync with the sunny-bright tone of the series. The “powerful woman as uber-witch” meme is also the kind of lazy stereotyping SUPERGIRL should have avoided. Oddly, whenever a “girl-power” message does slip out, it usually comes from Grant. If I had a daughter, I’d prefer she not take life lessons from a one-note character played by someone who looks like she chews more scenery than she does food.
Action sequences are wildly uneven and run the gamut from bang-up (like a thrilling passenger plane rescue) to bust. Taken as a whole, this incarnation of SUPERGIRL plays very young and runs the risk of alienating as many genre fans as it might attract. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with appealing to teen and pre-teen girls, don’t expect the whole of the 18-49 set to stay engaged long term if fisticuffs between hero and villain continue to look like they were filmed and choreographed by alumni from the MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS.
When something like SUPERGIRL comes along, there’s a tendency to overstate the role it’s supposed to play in the pantheon of television milestones. While it might be wrong to burden a piece of pure entertainment with the task of correcting all the wrongs and slights that came before, it is more than fair to expect a series to walk the walk of its own PR talk. CBS has not been shy about parroting the mush-gush of delusional critics (like Daniel Fienberg from The Hollywood Reporter) who have convinced themselves that what amounts to the TV equivalent of a Katy Perry song is also a significant leap forward or progress of some kind. Sorry, it isn’t. Want further proof? Check out the atrocious companion website for the series. It’s an embarrassing crap hole of cheap looking creative, shameless network synergy (“The 12 Hottest Bad Boys On CBS”) and vapid “mommy and me” content (“15 Mom Superpowers We Will Always Appreciate”). The headless close-up of Supergirl’s chest in the sidebar is especially tacky.
Just as women should receive equal pay for equal work, they should also be depicted as complex, multi-dimensional characters in popular entertainment. On that front, SUPERGIRL does a face plant. Sure, it takes more work to inject some substance into frothy style, but our mothers, sisters and daughters are more than worth the effort. They certainly deserve better than what is currently just a cutesy flight of fancy masquerading as the next big thing in superhero lore.
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