POWERLESS, NBC’s new workplace comedy is a little different than its past workplace comedies like The Office, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. This one takes place in an entirely different world. Literally. Set in the DC Universe (yep, the one with Batman, Superman, The Joker, etc), the comedy takes the spotlight off the said heroes and villains and puts it on the little guy. The ones who have to put up with living in a world where every other day some psycho is trying to destroy it.
On paper, the set-up sounds great. Add Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Rogue One) as Bruce Wayne’s cousin Van Wayne and Danny Pudi (Community) and Ron Funches (Undateable) and I’m sold. Sure, Vanessa Hudgens in the lead doesn’t exactly thrill me (I am not and never was High School Musical’s target demo) but maybe that’s just because Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, proven comedians through and through, led the last two NBC workplace comedy successes. I’ll give Hudgens a shot, I figured.
Notice above I started with “on paper.” On screen, the show, even with its talented cast, was hit or miss, and at times eyeroll worthy. For instance, we begin by meeting young Emily (Hudgens) on her way into Charm City via metro, hearing her voice over about how she grew up in a fly-over state and is now headed to the big city. While on the train a superhero battle ensues (its Crimson Fox and Jack O’Lantern, actual DC characters, by the way), and none of these hardened Charm City citizens bat an eye. Emily however is all up on the window gawking. Perhaps she’s gawking at just how terrible the special effects look? This really took me out of it off the bat. Looking too cheap to pony up for some believable CGI is NOT the way to open a series, NBC.
Soon we learn Emily is headed into the city for her new job as Director of Research & Development for “Wayne Security.” Yes, as in BRUCE WAYNE. He runs the parent company from swanky Gotham. Meanwhile, his cousin Van (Tudyk) heads up the Charm City branch (which he does not love; he wants to get to Gotham badly). Van hires Emily to whip the team into shape. They are tasked with inventing products and methods for the Charm City everyman to help avoid getting injured or killed when one of these epic Superhuman battles rattles the city.
From there Emily is off to meet the team. Danny Pudi plays Teddy the chief design officer. Jennie Pierson and Ron Funches work in engineering. They are investigating the “Wearbag” which inflates just before being struck by a villain or an object thrown by a villain. It actually works, but they are trying to reverse engineer it as it was made by rival company Lexcorp. Their plan is to make a cheap knock off. Emily does not like this. She wants them to be innovative, to push themselves. In a speech she tries to inspire her new employees, but that’s hard considering she’s the fifth new boss they’ve had recently.
Emily marches back into Van’s office and demands she should have been told about her predecessor’s failures. But not long after, Van gets a call from his cousin Bruce Wayne (or B-Dubs as he calls him). Turns out Bruce has decided to shut down the Charm City branch of Wayne Security. This is good news for Van, as he is being absorbed into the Gotham branch, but bad news for literally everyone else as they’re all fired. “But I take care of my sick grandmother!” Ron protests. “And I like nice things!” adds Teddy, with one of the more lol-worthy moments of the episode.
But the plucky Emily insists there has to be something they can do! They have a small window of time before the shutting down of the branch becomes official. If they can come up with a winning product, Bruce will be forced to reconsider shutting down their branch. Ron offers his “Kryptonite Window” which repels Superman from crashing through skyscraper windows and injuring people/doing damage. It also stops him from getting in the buildings to save the people, so… That’s a no go.
Outside talking with Van’s assistant Jackie (Christina Kirk), Emily talks about her father the florist, who told her you don’t need superpowers to accomplish great things. She smells the card of his she keeps with him, which Jackie notes is weird. But Emily recalls how since he worked with flowers all day long, she could always smell him before he showed up. Just then, villain Jack O’Lantern starts causing some damage to downtown Charm City skyscrapers. Jackie notes “I wish I could smell when that guy was coming.” And that’s how Emily gets her idea!
The next morning she and her team present to Van the Jack-O-Lert. It detects and warns its wearer (it looks like a watch) when Jack O’Lantern is in the area so they can get to safety beforehand. Van tells her it’s too late, they’re shutting down. But Emily argues that if she takes this to his cousin Bruce directly, SHE might get the promotion and sent to Gotham in Van’s stead.
And of course the company is saved! Nobody is fired after all. Bruce loved the Jack-O-Lert and is putting it in beta. Since Van headed up the team that came up with it, he wants him to stay in Charm City.
In a scene over the credits, the Wayne Security team is watching a news story about how Batman himself conquered The Joker with a device that allowed him to pick up his scent before he showed up. “What a coincidence,” Emily tells them. “Batman came up with his own Jack-O-Lert.” Ron adds “I wish we worked for Batman. He’d really get us.” Emily tells them maybe some day they will. Oh, the IRONY.
It actually didn’t hit me right away that they don’t know Bruce is Batman, and I gotta say this moment was endearing. But I also have to say that the show was very light on actual laughs, a little heavy on the cheese factor for my tastes, and the cheap special effects are really cringe-inducing. When I heard of a workplace comedy in the world of superheroes I wanted something like The Office and Parks and Rec that was more or less grounded and shot documentary style, with confessionals and glances to camera. Maybe it could have come off a little too SNL-sketchy but that seemed like the right path. After watching NBC’s version I have to still believe that that may have been the better one. Hopefully next week, since we’re through with all the set-up, the laughs will hit a little harder and more frequently.
Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
Powerless airs Thursday at 830PM on NBC
Paul transferred from the Gotham City branch of The Tracking Board offices where he used to write reviews for shows with actual superheroes starring in them.
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Paul Gulyas | Contributor