Who wouldn't want to live in a superhero universe? You could have incredible powers, the chance to save the world, and live an all-around fascinating existence. Sadly, not all of us have that luxury. In a world defended by the super, some people have to be average. For every Bruce Wayne out there doing something extraordinary, there's a Van Wayne just trying to get by. Those folks are the central focus of NBC's new workplace sitcom Powerless, and while the DC comedy certainly gets off on the right foot, it still has a way to go to find its voice.
All Emily Locke (Vanessa Hudgens) wants to do is help people. She's an energetic young woman with a head full of good ideas, and an optimistic outlook on just about every situation in life. This pursuit of personal and professional fulfillment eventually leads her to take a job at Wayne Security (as in Bruce Wayne) as the head of Research and Development for the failing Charm City branch. With the help of brilliant scientific minds Teddy (Danny Pudi) and Ron (Ron Funches), and against the wishes of her boss Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk), Emily soon finds her purpose in life by developing gadgets that can help protect people in a world populated by super beings.
That's about as deep as the premise for Powerless goes. While it doesn't strike as profound of an emotional chord as other DC series currently on television, it brings enough vibrant and colorful office hijinks to make its concept work.
With that in mind, setting itself within the laboratory of a Wayne Enterprises facility makes the most of Powerless' comic book universe while keeping the appropriate amount of distance from the actual superhero action. The pilot alone takes surprisingly full advantage of well-known and established DC ideas like The Joker and LexCorp, and follows our (not so super) heroes as they toy with ways to make lives easier for the citizens of the DC world. If you're a fan of the Q Branch scenes from the James Bond franchise (particularly during the Pierce Brosnan era), then you're going to enjoy watching these characters tinker with these outlandish gizmos.
Again, I cannot stress how much more you will enjoy this series if you're already a fan of the DC lore. Powerless is packed to the brim with references and homages to all sorts of classic DC elements -- from Starro to Shazam. The series even sets up Batman's presence in the universe as a very relevant aspect of Powerless' long-term story, and that's the aspect of the show that has me the most willing to stick around and see how this plays out.
Powerless keeps things lighthearted, and there's a clear case one can make that DC needs that right now. Even the comic book giant's more whimsical properties like The Flash have a tendency to get pretty dark at times. However, I would argue that Powerless has a nasty habit of overcompensating and swinging too far in the direction of sweet and cheerful. The show simply needs more of an edge to reach its full potential. Alan Tudyk specifically gets one notably morbid joke in the pilot, and it's unquestionably the standout line from the episode. The hope here is that once Powerless has fully established its world and characters, it will show a bit more willingness to play with different tones.
That ties nicely into one of the bigger issues that Powerless currently has to contend with: the characters still need a bit more depth. A pilot's primary purpose is to set the table with regards to a show's characters, and while Powerless does a solid job of establishing a fun premise, its core ensemble still needs the necessary time to shine. Emily Locke is a likable enough protagonist, but her eternal optimism sometimes rings a bit cartoonish. On one level this works because the show does feel ripped straight from the pages of a comic book, but we still need to see a more human side to these characters to get on board with them.
Special credit is due to Alan Tudyk for his portrayal of Van Wayne. As Bruce Wayne's dimwitted cousin, he somehow manages to be a less competent boss than The Office's Michael Scott, while showcasing enough of his inner turmoil to make him likable. Tudyk straddles the line between villain and sympathetic rival nicely, and Powerless does a nice job of setting up his personal goals as an excellent counterpoint to Emily's more altruistic intentions. If Powerless currently has an ace in the hole that it should expand upon, it's Tudyk's portrayal of this lesser Wayne.
All in all, Powerless isn't a perfect series, but it's a worthy endeavor from a comic book universe that has mostly defined itself by high stakes doom and gloom. If the new NBC workplace sitcom can sharpen up its humor and play to its strengths (a.k.a Alan Tudyk), then Powerless might prove to be what DC needs to round out its current small screen lineup in the long run.
Powerless premieres on Thursday, February 2 at 8:30 p.m. EST on NBC. For more information regarding all of the other highly anticipated spring television debuts, make sure to check out our midseason premiere guide.