Tuesday, April 19, 2016

'Supergirl' Season 1 - (2015)

Starring Melissa Benoist, Mehcad Brooks and Chyler Leigh
Developed by Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg

Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) is, like her cousin Kal El, an orphan from the planet Krypton. Just before that planet's destruction, Kara's parents put her in a spaceship headed for Earth where she would be tasked with raising and protecting her infant cousin Kal. Unfortunately, Kal's ship made it to Earth first, and he grew up to become the world's greatest hero — Superman.

Kal stashes Kara with two kindly scientists, Jeremiah and Eliza Danvers (Dean Cain and Helen Slater, in a cheeky bit of casting) who teach her to hide her powers and fit in with humans. Kara grows quite close with her new human sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh). As an adult, Kara gets a job at a media company run by the glamorous and powerful Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), alongside her best friend Winn Schott Jr. (Jeremy Jordan) and Superman's best friend James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks).

By day, she's mild-mannered Kara Danvers. By... well, also often in the day, and night, she is also Supergirl defender of justice for National City. New to the game, Supergirl must figure out not just how hone her powers against villains that threaten the populace but also to be the hero that National City needs, and maybe even that the entire world needs.

"Supergirl" is a show and a concept ripe with potential. Many incarnations of the character have come and gone, including some where she's not actually Superman's cousin but a shapeshifting alien (don't ask), but this one pulls from the most famous, that of Superman's younger, less experienced cousin. Coming from the makers of the successful "Arrow" and "Flash" series on the CW, "Supergirl" seemed poised to make a big bold debut for CBS (the "C" part of CW).

Unfortunately, despite years of experience making superhero television and especially a bang-up job on the first season of "The Flash," the makers of "Supergirl" stumble a bit here. There's a lot to like about this show, and when it works, it works extremely well. The problem is that for every part of it that is a total hoot, there's something else about it that is so wrong that it's mind-boggling.

The elephant in the room, for example, is Superman. The Man of Steel appears very briefly in this series, but never speaks a word of dialogue and we never even see his face. There are some cute moments where he texts Kara to congratulate her on a job well done or to ask if she is okay after a particularly harrowing encounter with the villain of the week, but otherwise the show does an obvious and terrible job tiptoeing around Superman that it becomes aggravating. The producers obviously want Kara to stand on her own — indeed, one of the main themes of the show is Kara's independence and strength not just as a superhero but as a woman — but this is the worst way to go about it. In one scene in the season finale, it's almost laugh-out-loud hilarious that Superman is lying comatose on a hospital bed while Kara and J'onn J'onzz (David Harewood) have an emotional discussion about saving the world, and all we ever see is Superman's feet.

In my mind, a much better way to handle having Superman not steal Kara's thunder is to put him in a supporting role. There were so many ways to have Superman be helping out but not having him be the primary figure. Let him be the loving, supportive cousin we're constantly reminded that he is. But actually having him as unconscious set-dressing is just terrible. The show wants so badly for Kara to stand on her own that it hamstrings itself in the process.

Indeed, the series makes a number of gaffs that mostly involve Kryptonians. The season's main arc focuses on escaped villains from the Phantom Zone, led by Kara's aunt Astra (Laura Benanti) and her husband Non (Chris Vance). These two actually have an army of Kryptonians who are always conveniently absent during their showdowns with Kara and the others. In the finale, Non very stupidly puts all the other Kryptonians into stasis in anticipation of his victory over Supergirl. What? 

The show stumbles in other places as well, but to be honest, none of them really break the back of the show. It makes "Supergirl" a frustrating experience, albeit an entertaining one.

For one thing, the characterization and portrayal of Kara herself is wonderful. Melissa Benoist is excellent, and clearly having a blast playing this character. Most of the best scenes in the show involve her in one way or another, whether it's her wonderful chemistry with her other castmates or her surprisingly adept special effects-aided superheroics. In particular, most of the scenes between Benoist and Flockhart are wonderful.

The series also does a wonderful job mining the DC universe for characters, much like its CW counterparts, and has a lot of fun bringing in villains like Silver Banshee (Italia Ricci), Livewire (Brit Morgan), Indigo (Laura Vandervoort), and Toyman (Henry Czerny), and characters like Sam and Lucy Lane (Glen Morshower and Jenna Dewan-Tatum), Lois Lane's father and sister, Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli) and, in one of the season's best episodes, Grant Gustin as the Flash.

The Flash crossover is one of the season's best episodes because it eschews the tried-and-true method of having two heroes fight the first time they meet. Instead, Flash and Supergirl almost instantly become best friends, leading to a number of scenes that are just a joy to watch as Kara and Barry geek out about their powers and the idea of alternate universes. This episode also features what is the series' absolute funniest moment so far, which is Kara's reaction to being handed an ice cream cone at super-speed.

"Supergirl" is a bright and generally upbeat TV series, which is great. The tone of the whole thing works great, and the whole thing is slickly produced and features a lot of great performances. But it is a wholly inconsistent experience. Almost every episode has a few moments that will cause the audience to scrunch up their face and ask, "Huh? Why?" The pieces are there for "Supergirl" to have a wildly fun second season, but it took a while for this first go-round to find its feet, and even then it seems on shaky ground.

I want this series to succeed because it's so very close to being great. I hope it gets a second season and really takes a hard look at what's working and what isn't. For right now, the show doesn't really soar, even though its back half is significantly improved from its beginnings.