Meanwhile, the column...
You know a genre has reached near maximum load when the spoofs begin. In this case, NBC's new sit-com, Powerless, set in the DC 'verse, stands as proof--a mainstream company hopes to get a step up in the ever-uncertain realm of the sit-com by allying with the surging genre of comic-based video. It makes sense: the spoof, goof-ball, and dark-satire titles within both the comic world and the movies have at least held their own, providing audience support for visions as different as The Watchmen to Deadpool to The Lego Movie and Megamind movies. Popular culture "gets" the core assumptions of superhero universes--and also knows the ironic potential involved in those assumptions. A sit-com based on the superhero universe could fly faster than a speeding bullet.
Unfortunately at three episodes in, I would argue that Powerless lives up to its name. You can shout "Up, up, and away" all day, but if there's no lift, there's no laughs. For me that was the key problem with Powerless. That's a shame. Comedy is the red-haired step-child of the arts--far too often honored with back-handed compliments and high-brow scorn. Limp, lifeless comedy only confirms existing bias against the form--and limp and lifeless covers the problems with the new show.
My first concern is the material itself. Spoof material demands precision and awareness. You not only have to build your jokes around the core assumptions of the genre you're spoofing, you have to prove you understand that genre--what makes it work in the parent genre, and what makes it fail anywhere else. What makes it funny when you move even a little from home ground. The popular comic-based movies have, in fact, made great use of comedy to lampshade the more ridiculous elements of traditional comic reality, using smart-talking, quipping superheroes to invite the audience to laugh with them at silly costumes, arcane technobabble, and alliterative mumbo-jumbo, rather than laughing at them. When the characters say for you what the audience is already half-way to thinking, you've got laughs--and affection. It works.
But you have to know that material cold to pull it off. Generic humor tricked out in a silly cape won't do the trick. Powerless primarily a spoof of bad office drama, rather than a spoof of superhero drama. The key relationships, the key conflicts, the key humor, all hang on to the office setting more than the superhero elements. Those elements, when they do appear, come in the form of fairly lame gags--as, for example, the rubble-proof umbrella the team develops in the second episode. It's funny-once, at best, worthy of one quick passing joke. Instead the writers tried to squeeze more like five jokes out of one umbrella, and failed.
Further, they are building jokes based on "knowledge" of the superhero world that's bogus. There's no good reason for natives of Atlantis to favor Brendan Fraser movies the way the French love Jerry Lewis. There's no reason they would not--but--what part of traditional DC mythos suggests that natives of Atlantis even watch movies in the first place? Far too many of the jokes have that sort of tenuous feel of gluing the ridiculous to the traditional and hoping it will be funny. It isn't particularly.
The timing only exaggerates the problem. By my own guess, they need three to five more minutes of material in each show, so the actors and the film editor can't build in those horrifying laugh-line pauses that slow the beat and leave room for you to realize you're not laughing. The stories plod along, with those horrible lags and lulls, seldom getting much value out of either the superhero venue or out of the office venue.
|The actors are trying--hard. You can see the effort in their eyes...poor bubehs.|
What's sad is that this could be a much better show with clever writers who love the genre. An engineering firm devising safety devices for living in a superhero world could be such a superb venue for over-the-top technology, accidental hero and villain generation, employees who waver between minion and mad scientist status, and more. Instead it feels like a faded, wrung-out version of a million bad-boss comedies over the decades.
I wish I could comment on the ability of the actors, but there's a point at which I absolve all performers of leaden work. The team they've cast, including Vanessa Hudgens in the lead as engineering manager Emily Locke, and Alan Tudyk as Van Wayne, cousin of Bruce Wayne, gives it a good, professional shot, but they are carrying the burden of terribly weak writing and terribly slow editing.
This show could improve. It's a shame it's as weak an offering as it is--better thought out, with stronger writers who honestly love both the superhero genre and the sit-com, it could be a treasure. Right now, I have to say it's not.