I wanted it to work. I gave it chance after chance to belly up to the bar and make something of itself to differentiate itself from the other comedies on TV. But it was all for naught. Powerless is over. DC’s first foray into comedy has been cancelled, and frankly, with good reason. So what was Powerless, and how did it go so spectacularly wrong?
The first weakness of the show was that it represented a non-canonical organization; Wayne Security. An original idea, and arguably loosely based around the concept of the Marvel property Damage Control, Wayne Security is a logical organization to exist, but as an original creation for the series, lacked firm underpinnings in the larger DC universe. This a problem that was compounded by placing it in another non-canonical creation, Charm City. Where it might have been expected that this choice would give the writers a chance to explore new avenues, instead it gave the show the feeling of being loosely connected to the larger DC world.
Wayne Enterprises is well established, but the feeling between it in the comics, and its subsidiary Wayne Security in the show, was disconcerting. In the comics, Wayne Enterprises is one of the major technological and industry giants of the world, second only to LexCorp and S.T.A.R. Labs and arguably leading ahead of Queen Industries/Queen Consolidated/Q-Core. What it isn’t is a rinky-dink operation that funds, for some reason, an R&D group that spends its time trying to figure out how to rip off LexCorp technology to make cheap knockoffs. The company, as a setting, was simply not up to snuff to create the feeling that they could compete with the “big boys”. It felt more like a badly run start up than an established group with the backing of Wayne Industries.
Charm City was equally flawed. The idea of introducing a new city is fine, even understandable, but the result is that you have to create a new city. History, neighbourhoods, all that stuff that gets taken for granted when a show happens in Metropolis, Gotham, Star City, Central City, or Coast City. Or what is being done with National City, where the Supergirl TV show is based. Charm City on the other hand, is completely ungrounded. It has no firm geographical location. It seems to have attracted some B and C list heroes and villains, but has The Riddler operating there too? Combined with the blasé attitude of the citizens, it comes across as too jumbled and confused to be an effective location in a universe as well detailed in many aspects as the DC universe.
The characters in this show were absolutely painful. Instead of coming across as interesting, realistic, or well build, they felt more like 2D cutouts that had had tropes and stereotypes fired at them by the generic comedy LOL-cannon. Even having watched the series, I literally cannot remember any of their names, only their terrible characterization. About the only positive here was that they truly embraced diversity, but even then only in the sense that they filled their token allotments and called it a day.
The main characters were cast around the core R&D team of Danny Pudi as Danny Pudi, lisping Sexually Non-Threatening Black Guy, and Horrible Impulse Control/Genuinely Terrible Person Not-Conventionally Attractive Woman; and the management team of Rich Jackass Frat Guy now Rich Jackass Boss, sexually predatory Cougar Single Mom, and finally Irritatingly Cheery And Optimistic Small Town Girl Who Was A Worn Out Archetype In 1950. Following the recent trend in sitcom creation, the writers appear to have decided that making really in depth, unique, and nuanced characters that an office based, non-sketch style comedy needs to succeed was too much, and that it was easier to try to bludgeon ahead with basic caricatures because the series was based in a comic book world.
The results speak for themselves. The characters were horrifyingly predictable. And worse, they were boring and completely interchangeable with any number of other comedy shows that were on around the same time slot. At one point while watching I sat up with the sudden realization that in about an hour and a half of watching sitcoms, I’d seen the exact same characters, or variations of them, in every show. And for a show lacking heavy star power, and as heavily laden with new, original ideas in an established universe, that is not a good thing.
This should have been a no-brainer. Instead it went brains free, and remarkably tone-deaf. What I was looking forward to was a smart, snappy, well put together sitcom. Something along the lines of a cross between the original UK run of the IT Crowd and ABC’s well received but short lived series Better Off Ted, mixed in with some Flarrowverse action. That was what I pictured when the show was described. Instead, we got more jumbled mess. Now, maybe the writers were new. Or maybe they felt that they “knew” what comics were, and didn’t think they had to do any research. Maybe they were just intensely lazy and decided to phone in a broken mess so they could make rent. Maybe they just wrote what they were told, and developed serious drinking habits to try to ignore their work. Regardless, the final result was a poor showing.
“Predictable” was a term that came up a lot when discussing this show. “Unimaginative” was another. “Hackneyed” and “disappointing” were there a lot too. I knew things were in for a downturn when the opening of one episode had a very status quo supporting, very “the writer’s don’t actually know what racism is, but by god looking it up would be hard, so let’s just go with what white internet nerds say about it” moment, followed by “Black Manta Matters” scrolling past on the screen they were watching. It was very tone deaf, and frankly, as a POC and someone who is involved in trying to combat racism, insulting. It effectively dismissed racism as a “problem”, and worked to reinforce the already well established, and very flawed if not completely invalid, narratives around racism that already plague the comic book and larger fandoms.
Past that, it became increasingly clear as the series progressed that the writers, or the direct they were being given, was to create an end product that clearly did not take its source material seriously. The DC universe is rich in material, and the the TV shows running concurrently, Arrow, Flash, Supergirl, Gotham, and Legends of Tomorrow, should have provided ample clues for how to put a show together. But no, instead, it was something that, quite honestly, I would have expected from the 90’s. The dialogue tries to sound witty, but comes up short. The treatment of topical issues is ham-handed, at best, and callously ignorant at worst. But the formulaic, sad, unimaginative approach taken just worked to make it all worse somehow, highlighting weaknesses and flaws more than if actual effort had been taken.
The Heroes and Villains
In a show about a company that exists to design technology to counter the threats encountered by average, normal people in a world with aliens, magic, and superpowers, the show needed a small supporting cast of heroes, and a set of regular villains. This would have acted to further ground the show in the DC universe, and given B and C list characters some quality air time. It also would have given the show a better way of juxtaposing the reality of the superpowered versus the plight of the normal people of the world.
The villains are easy, they’re what the company is building tech to counter, but they also need to present a credible threat, even in a comedy. This just didn’t happen. Jack O’Lantern comes off more as a dickish Green Goblin knock off rather than anything else, and other examples don’t do much better. Charm City, like the other cities in the DC universe, needed its own set of villains, gangs, and other threats. Having this would have provided not just better overall, but also provided opportunities to for comedy around live field testing technology.
Heroes are a bit more complex to introduce, since they need to be present, but can’t overshadow the main characters. That said, they needed to be there. Again, drawing from B and C list characters, but in the roles as regular extras, and as employees to help test things. Again, this would have better grounded the series than the occasional appearances of Crimson Fox, and provided a non-combative way to demonstrate what the characters have to live with.
As I said in the preamble, I wanted this show to work. DC has proved it has some serious skill with its TV and animated work, and this should have been an easy win. Unfortunately, it appears that the show was a victim of sloppy design and indifferent execution. Cancelled before it even showed its full season, hopefully this will stand as a warning and guide to future attempts at this type of project.