Supergirl pilot: 5 highlights, 5 pitfalls

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Good news:  Supergirl definitely did not suck. The much-anticipated show premiered last night on CBS, and was a ratings success that drew positive reviews. Overall, the pilot episode had a lot of what I cringe to call “heart,” which carried it past some rough spots. The two biggest flaws with the episode are related to the need to set up a really complicated status quo:

  • Krypton go boom
  • her adopted family
  • her current daily life/day job: Assistant to an obnoxious media tycoon (Calista Flockhart), suddenly befriended by an unusually dashing James/Jimmy Olsen
  • a disaster that gets her to reveal herself (airplane in distress)
  • her relationship with her sister (jealousy issues, and her sister has a secret …)
  • the existence and role of the DEO, a shadowy government agency that fights alien menaces (and seems to mistake Kara for one)
  • the existence of escaped Phantom Zone villains on Earth
  • a big fight against this ep’s villain (Vartox! The obnoxious antifeminist!)
  • the reveal of the series’ Big Bad (this time–it’s personal!)

That’s a hell of a lot for 45 minutes.  As a result, two painful flaws: The episode feels rushed at points (but not as often as you might expect), and too much of the writing is on the nose. “I feel this way, and this is how I feel!” “This is a moment with meaning, and this is what it means!” “I believe in you, and I believe that you need me to say that right now!”

Supergirl04If these are challenges suffered only by the pilot, they’re forgivable—and really, the show is pretty solid for a first episode. But the ham-fisted scripting, especially, needs to improve. You can’t serve an audience this kind of cheese week after week.

Not only would it be bad for the show, but it’s a weakness of the genre. Superhero comics were originally written for children, and that perception lingers—no matter how much the current iterations flirt with horror and soft-core porn. A show lacking emotional or thematic subtlety, in which cheap, blunt writing delivers artless points plays to those perceptions. It also sells short the power of superhero narratives to speak to who we are and dream of being–a tradition at least as old as Gilgamesh.

The pilot has a number of highlights. The brief appearances of Helen Slater and Dean Cain as Kara’s adoptive parents was a great nod to super-franchises past. Supergirl02And the switch of having her Kryptonian mother, Alura, rather than father, Zor-El, be held up as the parent with the “important” position back home: very nice. Finally, the evolution of her costume had some lovely meta-commentary. The first version makes her look like a pornstar’s idea of an aerobics instructor, and it reflects the way the character’s redesigned costumes in recent years have felt like the work of creepy grown fanboys running the comics business. Since Kara’s costumes here are all designed by her friend Winn (who has a crush on her and is, thus, a lusty fanboy), it’s funny in a back-channel way.

The pilot has more significant pluses, as well as a number of notable minuses (the role of male figures chief among them). Overall, I’m optimistic about Supergirl’s chances because I really want to be optimistic—to, y’know, believe that a girl can fly. Here are the five reasons the show should succeed, and five reasons why it might not.

THE SUPER STRONG

  1. Melissa Benoist. The show’s star gave an excellent performance. Especially with an undersubtle script, she managed to sell the character’s enthusiasm, uncertainty and essential goodness in a way that was powerful but not sappy or mawkish. Her Kara Danvers feels believable, and feels separate enough from her Supergirl to make the dual identity concept feel plausible and fun.
  2. Supergirl07Decent action. For what we expect of episodic television, and considering this was the pilot, the action seemed solid. The direction of the airplane sequence seemed a little dull, and Supergirl’s first fight with Vartox could’ve been more dynamic, but these were solid first tries, with good visual effects.
  3. The bad-guy story engine. The Phantom Zone prison angle seems potentially too convoluted, and it makes you wonder why Superman doesn’t step in, but by providing a reason for a bunch of superpowered menaces to come gunning for Kara, the show can avoid the “freak of the week” syndrome that plagued the early seasons of Smallville, where every episode seemed to have some new bystander develop menacing powers due to kryptonite exposure.
  4. The feminist stance. The show bluntly embraces feminism, both in the script and in media promotion (such as Benoit’s Colbert appearance). That’s important, and it should be a guiding principle of the show. However, feminism is easy to reduce to caricature, positive as well as negative, so it’s up to the creators to actually explore what that means, and not think “Our hero is a super-powerful woman” does the trick.
  5. The show is bright and positive. Supergirl is a bright character in a bright city who embraces the idea of being a bright public symbol. So much better than Christopher Nolan’s idea of superheroes, and so much better for a show that’s going to appeal to girls (and boys) who deserve to look up to a character not too mired in the mud recently caked onto our dark knights and men of steel.

THE KRYPTONITE

  1. Total absentee Superman. The show won’t let anyone say his name, and that’s stupid. Maybe it’s an affectation, maybe it’s contractual, but it’s dumb. And the producers’ inability to use him as a character means he’s so very, very distant from her. He can’t talk to her, even off-camera? Instead he sends Jimmy Olson, in weird stealth mode? This, from her only blood relative, and her fellow survivor of their entire planet’s and culture’s destruction. Makes him seem like kind of a dick.
  2. It’s ALL in the family. We learn that her adoptive sister works for the sinister government agency monitoring alien activity and concealing it from the public. Supergirl06And then we learn that the villain behind all the Phantom Zone business is her hitherto unknown aunt. It’s nice to wrap things together to make them more emotionally resonant, but there’s such a thing as tying that bow too tightly.
  3. The DEO as mission control. I get that, as with The Flash, it fits a narrative need to have people tell us what’s going on, or what’s at stake, while the heroine is in action; and in general, she needs to be able to talk shop. But ito have her work with this shadow agency is a step into the darkness that I don’t like. However, if her lightness can play off the DEO’s darkness, it’ll be worthwhile.
  4. Sidekick Crushboy. Kara reveals herself to Winn, the newsroom IT guy who has a huge crush on her. Neither the actor nor the idea are appealing, unless they quickly abandon the crush aspect. The whole “guy pines for girl who doesn’t acknowledge his feelings, but she basks in his adoration” is weird, and if we see him keep bringing up his desires, he quickly becomes creepy. It also tends to reinforce the idea that men and women can’t just be friends. So while the character just feels wrong in all ways, he’ll come off better if he can just move past the crush and acknowledge that he’s been trusted with an amazing secret, and has an amazing friend.
  5. Men’s opinions matter too much. This is the thing that bugged me most, because it undercuts the feminist message. That Superman’s absentee approval would matter to Kara is natural and probably unavoidable. That he comes off so distant and disinterested is a constriction the show’s creators can’t avoid. But then there’s Hank Henshaw, the gruff, alien-hating boss of the DEO. The degree to which Kara defers to Henshaw, and the way her sister literally basks in his approval of her at the episode’s end, makes me think the show has a way to go in evolving toward its feminist aspirations.

The show obviously has a lot of possibilities. And many of these thematic weaknesses may be deliberate–the beginning points for a strong character arc. That “male approval” thing, especially, is ripe for evolution. Will the show live up to its initial promise? Tune in to CBS next week …