Network comedies have tended to push in a more daring direction over the course of the last several years. Without going so far as to say that Community was some sort of harbinger for a more accomplished age in sitcom history, it certainly seems like the NBC comedy (together with its older cousin Arrested Development) opened the door for a new breed of single-camera sitcom. In the years following, we've seen entries all over the spectrum. Some of them have been total whiffs like Outsourced, and some have been critical darlings like the fantastic Fresh off the Boat. Whatever the case may be, the rise of genre fare on TV and increasing comfortability with the single-camera sitcom meant we were eventually going to get a rich combination of the two...which makes it super frustrating to learn that Powerless absolutely isn't it.
Despite a stacked cast — including vets like Dani Pudi, Ron Funches, Alan Tudyk, and Christina Kirk — Powerless is one of the more broad comedies I can remember being excited to sit down to watch in a good long while. And this complaint isn't limited to the jokes. Somehow, Powerless manages to serve up one of its most forehead-slapping moments within its opening few minutes: our lead character Emily, sitting on a packed commuter train in a brand new city, wears a highschool-drama-class-level grin as she blurts "JUST MOVED HERE FOR A NEW JOB! REAL EXCITED!" at the dude quietly sitting next to her. This type of wide-eyed toothiness would work if this were a show wherein everyone was going to burst into song once or twice per episode. Maybe even then it still wouldn't. But when her conversation is cut short by a supervillain attack that Emily responds to by rushing to the traincar window, hands on the glass, wide eyes and Broadway grin in tact as she watches a situation play out that could easily result a ton of deaths, hers included...well, it's really hard not to glance at your watch and wonder how much time is left in the episode. Which just started.
Things don't really pick up from there, despite the presence of actors who knock most of their screen time right out of the park. Alan Tuyck plays Bruce Wayne's dumbshit nephew. He's (somehow) in charge of Wayne Security, which is Emily's brand new company. They make products that help everyday citizens deal with the constant threat of supervillains, but a longstanding creative dry spell has the team Emily has been brought in to manage hurting for a product that will actually give their jobs a reason to continue existing. In fact, what almost assuredly isn't the only subtle dig at DC comics (one character mentions that "superheroes fight each other for vaguely-defined reasons" as he's describing life in the show's comic book universe) comes when somebody remarks that the product development team at Wayne Securities has basically just been stealing ideas from LexCorp and making their own cheap knockoffs. This would make for a great way to explore creativity within the comics industry itself. There's some rich soil for subtext here, but it's wasted when the mechanics of this show, from scene to scene, just don't work in the least.
Nobody on Emily's team likes her, which is something they all immediately determine on the very first day. She's insubordinated by nearly everyone around her, and treated like total shit, we're told, because of her boss' inability to find and keep a qualified candidate in her position. They of course take this out on her, with one of the characters continuing to be cartoonishly mean, even after all the others have dropped that whole act, and Emily's reaction is like, a Rodney Dangerfield-style exaggerated shrug.
Better Off Ted is a show that played with this very same type of heightened reality, and the trick is all in the execution. It wouldn't matter that nobody on Powerless behaves like an actual human being if the laughs were more consistent and the universe made even just a little bit more sense. We need at least one person to be grounded and act somewhat human...and we learn that this definitely isn't going to be our lead character when she runs to the window to watch a superhero fight at the beginning of our pilot episode. This is exemplary of the show's problems: showing us a world where everyone is used to, if even a bit sick of superheroics totally works...but you still need to have people expressing concern for their well-being when they're in direct danger.
Another example of the show's broad, lazy writing involves a moment during the show's opening breath. Emily's dad, in a completely isolated flashback, says to her, "What you do, in your own quiet way, can change peoples lives. For the better!" We're never told what it is she does. In fact, it's made clear that the job she gets at the beginning of the show is one that she is in no way qualified for. Repeatedly. But the show doesn't care enough to show us what she actually can do, or is passionate about. In the end, her "let's rally the team and make something!" moment is in on way inspired...and what she makes already explicitly exists in the DC TV universe. Cisco made it, over on The Flash.
None of this would matter, of course, if the show were operating on a solid comedic level...but it really isn't. I couldn't help but think of that "cliché joke whiteboard" from the Workaholics writers room as I cringed my way through this show's rough jokes. We get a literal "big picture" joke. We get your standard "HOLD ON MY ASSISTANT NEEDS ME" followed by said assistant immediately deadpanning "I don't need you." We get a "Um...that's permanent marker" joke, which Frisky Dingo did like 12 years ago.
So Powerless is a bit of a tough watch, at least in its opening go. This might apply doubly if you're big on superhero lore and comics...but even with my relatively thin knowledge, I'm pretty sure this was light on deep-cut DC references (puh-lenty of Batman jokes, though). I might check back in with this show once or twice to see how it's doing, but as it stands, this is an example of frustratingly wasted potential.