Friday, 22 May 2015

Pilot preview: CBS's SUPERGIRL

Friday, 22 May 2015


I've always found gender-bending superheroes to be rather unimaginative, because if you want to appeal to a female demographic why put a woman in the same costume as their male counterpart (with an added skirt), and peddle the same story? Why not create something unique and compelling on its own merits? This is why, for me, Wonder Woman will always be more exciting than Supergirl—and not just because the latter character's best-known as the basis for a terrible 1984 movie, attempting to cash-in on the success of the Christopher Reeve-starring Superman movies.

Echoing that early-'80s scenario, the reason CBS's new comic-book drama Supergirl exists is because other DC properties are doing very well on television right now—namely The CW's Arrow and The Flash—so it makes sense to recruit writer-producers Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg from those hits, together with the feminine touch of Glee's Allison Adler (who has superhero background having also worked on Chuck and No Ordinary Family).

Adler's fellow Glee alumni Melissa Benoist takes the title role, playing 24-year-old Krypton 'immigrant' Kara Zor-El—a girl whose escape pod got stuck in The Phantom Zone soon after evacuating her destroyed homeworld, intended to be her baby cousin Kal-El's guardian on Earth. After this setback, Kara's ship belatedly found it way to our planet decades after her cousin's safe arrival, who's since grown up to become "Superman", so it's the Man of Steel who played protector—introducing 12-year-old Kara to human foster parents, Fred ('90s Superman Dean Cain) and Sylvia Danvers (80s Supergirl Helen Slater). Danvers, huh? That'll confuse people when Captain Marvel arrives in cinemas, which concerns Marvel superhero Carol Danvers. Is there a paucity of surnames in comic-book land?

My biggest gripe with CBS's Supergirl pilot is its decision to run a parallel storyline to Superman's existence, rather than ignore that character altogether, or remove him from play. While it's fun to have silhouetted shots of Supes himself during Kara's flashbacks, the fact he's part of this universe means you spend most of the episode wondering why Clark Kent doesn't show up—but instead sends friend/emissary James "Jimmy" Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) to pass on second-hand advice and gifts. I suspect I'm also going to spend chunks of Supergirl's first season wondering why she doesn't team-up with her illustrious cousin to overcome particularly tough supervillains, and gradually become irritated by the wink-wink references to 'the other guy' in Metropolis. Why couldn't the show just ignore Superman and exist in a world where there's a Woman of Steel flying around saving people? It would be much simpler than devising this weird co-existence that, for presumed legal issues, the TV show is unlikely to fully utilise.

It's a shame about that, because Supergirl itself is a enjoyable take on the familiar ideas it's reintroducing to audiences—since, what, four years ago when Smallville ended? The writers realise that viewer education isn't necessary for one of pop-culture's most enduring ideas, so one of the pilot's best surprises is seeing how quickly it gets on with the story. Kara's guiding a stricken airplane through a city bridge on her back before you know it, and after an hour there aren't many character who don't know Kara's secret identity—including the aforementioned Olsen, her adopted sister Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh), and tech expert Winslow "Winn" Schott (Jeremy Jordan).

All superhero TV shows need a weekly stream of apt villains to face-off against, because bank robbers and kidnappers being easily foiled by a bullet-proof deity is only fun for awhile. Smallville had random people affected by traces of kryptonite from a meteor shower, The Flash has a city full of 'metahumans' created after a particle accelerator explosion, and Supergirl has a crashed prison ship of extra-terrestrial criminals who were also stuck in the Phantom Zone for decades, but are now free and ready to cause mayhem for humanity—the first of which, bald convict Vartox (Owain Yeoman), become Kara's primary antagonist in this hour. And the final scene sets up the show's background nemesis, who has a more personal connection to our heroine.

It's puzzling to me that an entire spaceship of super-strong alien delinquents haven't already enslaved humanity (just look at the chaos three caused in Superman II), but maybe we'll come to understand why they're taking things slow. The existence of Superman perhaps helps keep them in check, but this show also introduces the idea of the DEO (Department of Extra-Normal Operations), led by Hank Henshaw (David Harewood); a sort of CIA-meets-MIB outfit protecting the planet from super-scumbags.

As Supergirl, Melissa Benoist is known to me for her role on Glee, although she arrived at a time when I'd just about stopped watching. (Interestingly, Benoist joins The Flash's Grant Gustin in post-Glee superheroism, so I'm hoping Jane Lynch will pull on some spandex next.) Benoist's casting had to be something very special considering it all rests on her performances, and I'm pleased to say she's a perfect fit; amusingly "adorkable" as media conglomerate assistant Kara, benevolent and striking in her sexy Supergirl costume. She's already more appealing to me than what Henry Cavill's being asked to do in the DC cinematic universe, as Benoist has a much purer and traditional approach.

Effects-wise, we've come a long way from the days of Lois & Clark relying on red-and-blue blurs. You don't feel like 21st-century television is as hindered by monetary concerns, as there are shots and choreography here that wouldn't shame the big-screen. It's true that pilots have extra funds to use, seeing as their primary function is to impress everyone at first sight, but I doubt fundamental sequences of Kara flying through the air, super-sprinting across land, using x-ray vision, and melting things with heat-vision are going to suddenly drop in quality week-to-week. A clever use of greenscreen and digital actor replacements (which The Flash also makes abundant use of), Supergirl looks amazing from a technical standpoint. Also, how nice to see some daylight, brightness, and colour from a DC Comics project.

Reviewing pilots is always a tricky business (I've hated some that became excellent shows over time, and loved a few that couldn't sustain themselves on a weekly basis), but it's hard to see how CBS can go wrong with Supergirl. It's a good version of what you'd expect from the idea, with a few conceptual niggles that will probably feel less irritating with more exposure.

Premieres: CBS • November 2015.