Powerless, Season One Episode One
Starring Vanessa Hudgens, Alan Tudyk, Danny Pudi, Kate Micucci, Josh Fadem, Christina Kirk, and Atlin Mitchell
Directed by Michael Patrick Jann
Written by Ben Queen
Produced by NBC
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10
NBC’s upcoming DC superhero workplace comedy Powerless may be the most aptly-named sitcom in recent memory. It starts from a quirky premise - the characters are employees of an insurance agency set in the DC Universe that protects people from superheroic disasters - and squanders that potential by simply using it as an excuse to pepper its rote humor with off-handed mentions of Hawkman and Green Lantern.
Not even the show’s cast, which is populated with both genre favorites and sitcom mainstays, can turn Powerless’s toneless, anti-thematic script into a viable 22-minute experience. Firefly favorite Alan Tudyk’s usual charm is on display with a decent enough twist as he plays the Retcon Insurance Agency’s domineering and ruthless new boss. It’s just a shame that he has to play off of Vanessa Hudgens’s unformed and uninteresting lead, an insurance adjustor whose pure heart won’t allow her to deny claims to Tudyk’s oppressive standard, but does allow her to kill him with kindness. They’re both writ large and without nuance, but Tudyk’s character at least has some passion, and a sense of humor.
And it’s not necessarily Hudgens’s fault Emily Locke falls flat; her performance has room to grow over the course of the series, but Powerless’s script sells her short by making her yet another uncomplicated female lead whose best arc seems to be learning that she can be competent without being mean. In other words, a typical sitcom cliché that hopes to get by on having its cast lust over Aquaman instead of a celebrity hunk du jour. In a genre that is constantly striving to empower and do right by its women, yet another female character that has no voice and little agency seems like a step backwards, even in the context of lighthearted comedy.
Even the rest of the cast, a Justice League of comedy ringers, are left with nothing to work with. Only Kate Micucci’s wide-eyed weirdo and her equally odd brother, played by Josh Fadem in roles that aren’t named even in the show’s credits, get anything interesting to do, working to convince their co-workers that another officemate is secretly the Green Lantern in a bit that culminates in the show’s best gag.
That’s when Powerless works; in the moments where it embraces its superhero pedigree as a vehicle for exploring a new angle to a sitcom we’ve all seen before. When it fails is when it tries to get by on simply reminding everyone that superheroes exist in its world, and isn’t that fun? The Powerless pilot plays like an episode of The Office where that show’s heart and wit were exchanged for The Big Bang Theory’s staccato blare of formless nerd references and cheap-seats level geekdom. Powerless’s legacy will undoubtedly be the small contingent of fans who stand up in every Comic-Con panel and ask for a second season for the next ten years.