When “Powerless” debuted at last year’s San Diego Comic Con, the series made a positive impression on its nerd-friendly audience. Considering the spectacle-heavy superhero franchises that dominate TV and film, it was a nice change of pace for comic fans to see a show dedicated to the unsung heroes behind all the action. But even with the favorable reviews and burgeoning hype, the pilot of “Powerless” was almost entirely reshot and rewritten, leading to the departure of series creator Ben Queen (“A to Z”). These unfortunate early signs of creative differences point to potential cancellation, but “Powerless” seems keen on fighting against the wrath of ratings and mixed reception.
Despite the show’s glaring flaws, it offers some hope for recreating the show’s original charm, with an impressive comedic cast, intriguing premise and cheeky title sequence. Vanessa Hudgens (“Grease: Live”) does her best in leading the cast as the ambitious, spunky Emily Locke, a new member of Bruce Wayne’s security subsidiary, which specializes in creating products for ordinary victims of superhero/supervillain battles. Seeing the destruction of her town Charm City, Locke is determined to bring justice to the city’s citizens with creativity, and the reluctant help of her co-workers. There’s the fast-talking technician Teddy (Danny Pudi, “Community”), the virtuous I.T. guy Ron (Ron Funches, “Trolls”), the hardened personal assistant Jackie (Christina Kirk, “Melinda and Melinda”) and the company’s wealthy, conceited boss and Bruce’s cousin Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk, “Rogue One”). Each of them initially doubt Locke’s ability to get them back on track, but as with most conventional sitcoms, she eventually gains their trust.
While “Powerless” succeeds with strong comedic actors like Hudgens, Pudi and Tudyk, the strength of its cast can’t make up for the overeager, nervous energy that intensifies the show’s messy execution. The first sequence, where Hudgens’s Locke provides some egregiously exposition-heavy narration, is beset with stale dialogue that continues to the very end of the pilot.
“Powerless” attempts to make its characters whimsical and quirky through snappy, fast-paced interactions. And yet, it’s obvious that Hudgens, along with the other cast members, are uncomfortable with the material, as seen through the staleness of each character’s delivery and flatness of their personalities. Because it takes place in the DC Universe, “Powerless” also suffers from making too many overt references to its superheroes, namely Batman and Superman. Usually, self-referential jokes are much funnier when they’re subtle, but on “Powerless,” they’re a bit too on-the-nose, like when Van shows Emily an awkward text conversation between him and Bruce Wayne.
Still, there are very small glimpses into what the show could have been. Thanks to their respective successes on “Community” and “Suburgatory,” Pudi’s and Tudyk’s comedic timing shine through the stilted, cookie-cutter dialogue. An early moment of conflict when the company can’t sell their superhero products bolsters the show’s narrative and could keep it from devolving into a generic workplace comedy. But, “Powerless” is a mediocre fit compared to other new NBC sitcoms like “The Good Place” and “Superstore.” Perhaps it might have benefitted from a place on the CW’s lineup rather than NBC’s, given that network’s bevy of superhero-driven dramas (“Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Supergirl” and “Legends of Tomorrow”). Whatever the circumstances for the change in premise and script, “Powerless” shows a glimmer of promise, but needs a comedic kick or two to conquer its missteps.