If you'll recall, a few of the staffers and I got the chance to attend Comic-Con this summer. That meant exclusive access to press rooms, parties, and seats in panels. It also meant that we had the opportunity to screen new pilots during Wednesday night of the convention — commonly known as "Preview Night" for the attendees. We saw Riverdale's first episode, as well as Time After Time, People of Earth, and Frequency's pilots. And we also saw a charming, hilarious pilot called Powerless.
We were obsessed with it. That might be because it came after Riverdale, a pilot that was unanimously loathed in our row of viewers. But it was also because the pilot oozed with charisma and promise. And, most importantly of all, it was hilarious. The crowd raucously laughed at the one-liners delivered and we giggled at all the subtle D.C. Easter eggs that we spotted in the background. It had the same kind of charm that NBC comedies are known for — subtle, smart humor and bright, bold characters. In retrospect, it was the kind of show that would have paired extremely well with The Good Place.
Unfortunately, between the time we screened the Powerless pilot in July and its debut last week, everything about the show (minus the names of the characters themselves, for the most part) has changed. Powerless underwent new creative direction — a new showrunner meant that for some reason, the show had to be re-tooled. The entire premise was shifted, even: once a show about RetCon (come on, how brilliant is that?) Insurance company workers living in a superhero world, the new Powerless is a series about the scientists and creators of inventions at Wayne Security. Emily (Vanessa Hudgens) goes from a quirky, fun co-worker to a nervous, uncertain new boss. Everyone hates Emily in this version of the pilot. In the Comic-Con version, Emily is beloved by everyone and has a close relationship with Teddy (Danny Pudi) which is reminiscent of a Jim/Pam office fling.
And really, that's what Powerless was — an Office-esque series about normal people living in a world where superheroes are just part of life. The villain was an internal one (played hilariously by Alan Tudyk who can do no wrong wherever he goes), and the original pilot was very much of an office vs. Del (Tudyk's character) situation. That was both amusing and had the potential for growth. Now, Tudyk still plays the villain — a man named Van Wayne, who is the cousin of Bruce Wayne. But he's less compelling, to me, than the original character of Del.
It's really difficult to give a proper review of Powerless, as you might assume, when I have the old one still playing in my head. But I'll try my best to let the rest of this review focus on the new pilot and not the old one. The problem that I have with Powerless right off the bat is that the pilot wasn't funny. The only time I chuckled was, unsurprisingly, during an Alan Tudyk line ("Jackie, if you are lying to me, I will put rocks in your pocket and throw you in the ocean."). In addition to that, the character of Emily seemed very stock — she's a do-gooder who believes she can be a leader based on her textbook knowledge of it. Tudyk's "villain" has some potential, but that's because there's the opportunity to make him a little bit more cartoonish.
It's the supporting cast — the stars of the show — who kind of get lost in the shuffle. The entire pilot is very stiff, rigid, without the natural ease and charisma that should be prevalent in a workplace comedy. Even during The Office, when Michael Scott was off on his own eccentric tirades, the supporting cast shone. And because this is the first episode, I'm giving Powerless SOME leeway. It's a new show that needs to determine exactly what type of comedy it is. The jokes, currently, seem way too generic to be funny (that's an issue that NBC has in general with its comedies, and it happened when Community underwent new creative direction and attempted to be a "broad comedy"), and the constant emphasis on Bruce Wayne in the pilot was draining.
What I would love to see from Powerless moving forward is the rebuilding of a workplace comedy. I don't want the show to go for the easy jokes, because I believe it's better than that. And I think that the cast is immensely talented and each has their own comedic nuances (Tudyk and Pudi have very different types of comedy, and Vanessa Hudgens is a delightful actress with great comedic potential too). I hope that the show realizes this and utilizes them to their full potential soon.
In altering its premise significantly since the debut at Comic-Con, Powerless has fallen into the category of "stale, forgettable comedy." It's a shame, since this show definitely has the opportunity to be good. I'm hopeful that this pilot — and the disconnect I had with it, having seen an entirely different version this summer — isn't indicative of the show moving forward.
Powerless can be powerful. And I hope it chooses to be.
Pilot Grade: D