It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just another formulaic sitcom.
NBC has turned out some of the most memorable workplace comedies on television. From The Office to Parks & Recreation, NBC has show it can master the form. The network has therefor taken on another workplace comedy, this time set in the world of superheroes. The NBC/DC team-up, dubbed Powerless, seems like a match made in heaven. However, Powerless doesn’t pack the punch you’d expect from such a reputable network. In fact, it’s about the least inventive comedy series to hit the airways.
Powerless is about as basic as a network sitcom could be. It could have been an excellent vehicle to poke fun at the growing superhero blockbuster trend. However, the show spends little time on the heroic universe, and more on regurgitating the basic sitcom formula. The humor feels less potent when you’ve heard the jokes a thousand times. We get it, people sometimes over-use the word “literally.” And sometimes bosses can be laughably more inept than the employees. These jokes have been told over and over again, and nothing new comes out from Powerless’ take.
It’s hard to give critiques on the performances, as the actors clearly have talent. However, the material the stars are given hardly gives them an opportunity to shine. Vanessa Hudgens is a great actress, playing the stereotype well. Likewise, Danny Pudi plays the “bad boy” jaded scientist, with material that won’t let him be either fully cool or clever. Alan Tudyk is a delightful actor caught in an knock-off Michael Scott character. One moment he’s a bumbling idiot, the next moment he’s a power-hungry antagonist. Christina Kirk’s character, meanwhile, serves next to no purpose in the pilot. Ron Funches is a delight, as always, but it’s not enough to save the pilot. These characters might prove to be comedic later on, but the pilot gives them no chance to be either funny or engaging.
Perhaps the unwillingness to poke fun at superheroes comes form its DC connection. Powerless doesn’t flaunt it too much, but the show does have a strong connection to the world of comics. Tudyk’s boss character is Van Wayne, related to Bruce (yeah, THAT Bruce). The show isn’t tied down much by the cinematic universe. It’s definitely not trying to be as gritty as the recent crop of films from the studio. But it is connected by name and universe, so perhaps it doesn’t want to mock its parent company. Aside from one joke about how it’d be cool to have Batman as a boss, it avoids a lot of potentially incisive comedy.
Powerless should’ve taken a cue from The Good Place, another new NBC sitcom. The Good Place is a high-concept comedy, all about a character who’s gone to Heaven by mistake. It’s a funny show, but what makes it work isn’t just the jokes. The Good Place leans fully into its premise, no matter how plot-driven the show becomes. It embraces what makes it unique and great, in a way Powerless seems unwilling to.
As of now, only the pilot is available for viewing. So perhaps these kinks will be worked out over the course of its first season. Maybe the characters will find their footing the longer they get to work. Maybe the adventures of heroes in their world will make the tech company more interesting. But for a pilot, Powerless plays by the rules far too much, failing to evoke anything of interest.