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Supergirl makes her mark as a team-player

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Second episode of CBS hit shows Kara getting to grip with her identity.

INCLUDES SPOILERS FROM EPISODE 2

Zooming through a desert sky, Supergirl / Kara ponders her mission in life, her place in the universe.

When people see the red cape, she monologues, they expect a definitive level of outstanding superhero-ness, as demonstrated by her perfect cousin, Superman.

In last week's pilot of CBS's new series, we zipped through Kara's back-story and her metamorphosis into a costumed defender of Earthlings. In this second episode our hero struggles to connect with what that really means.

The episode begins with a training mission, but throughout this whole 45-minute story, she's finding her feet.

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Brand Super

Kara is a thoroughly modern, cosmopolitan hero with a 21st Century perspective. So it's inevitable that she speaks of the world through the lingo of marketing and branding. She does, after all, work in the media.

That point she makes about brand expectation of the red cape almost sounds like the words of a keen retail assistant-manager extolling the virtue of the beloved corporate mission statement. We must all live up to the grand promises of the logos we represent.

Later in the show, Supergirl wonders if donning the famed 'S' upon her chest might have been presumptuous. The S even has a slogan: "Stronger Together." Is she really Super enough?

So here's how Supergirl addresses her crisis of identity, in three bullets:

  1. Training regime that ensures sustained brand excellence.
  2. Public relations campaign designed to assure the public of her trustworthiness.
  3. Outreach to significant Supergirl stakeholders to gather guidance on future direction

She doesn't quite present this triptych to us as a business plan, but such is the hold of brand-speak over this earnest woman, that's how it comes across. As a viewer, you almost begin to suspect that CBS is in the hands of marketing people, oscillating gleefully in their seats because a superhero finally gets them.

In the dock

Her general crisis is framed in a great blaze at National City's docks. Supergirl attempts to drag an oil tanker out of harm's way, but she doesn't know her own strength. The tanker breaks, spilling crude goo into the city's virginal waterways. Supergirl is now a media mockery. "Miracle or menace?" screams the next day's Tribune.

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As Kara, she attempts to defend Supergirl's reputation from the scorn of her acerbic boss, Tribune chief Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) whose marshmallow-like camera focus belies a steely ambition to control everyone and everything.

"I branded her," yells the monstrous media mogul. Grant wants an interview, and woe-betide the quaking minions who fail her. In the end she gets her wish, though only after a one percent version of the Lois Lane cloud-ride.

She's got friends

So, back to that three-point plan to rescue Supergirl's reputation.

Turns out, they all involve some form of collaboration with her support network. Unlike most mainstream (male) superheroes, Supergirl is collaborative and touchy-feely about the people in her life. Not for her the distant gaze of the lone wolf, standing alone on the precipice.

You can decide for yourself if this is the cliche of women wisely nurturing essential relationships or if it's a sexist kow-towing to the male as tough loner who needs no help. I mentioned last week that it looks a lot like an infantilizing, or at least a juvenilizing of Supergirl, who is, after all, smart and extremely powerful. But perhaps there's more to this.

For the moment, let's go with the idea that even an alien being with almost limitless powers needs a team.

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Kara turns to Alex to hone her combat skills. In a holo-suite type room, they go at it, with Kryptonite emitters turned to 18 percent, just to even the odds. (Someone needs to do a mathematical analysis of Kryptonite, because it seems to have highly variable effects on its victims.)

Kara is kind of a crappy melee fighter, which is not ideal in a superhero. Alex is a trained Department of Extra-Normal Operations agent, and has all kinds of neat tricks. We get a mentor-mentee fight-scene.

Supergirl then hangs with her man-pals James and Winn. Winn is the nerdy, funny one while James is solid and handsome. They scour the city for potential Supergirl missions, sending her out on a montage of store robberies, highway foul-ups and a pet called Fluffy stuck in a tree (you think it's a cat, but it's not!).

Supergirl's various one-to-ones with her people give us some sense of their vulnerabilities and personalities, while also transmitting to us that she is a people-person who is willing to listen to other opinions. This is not the sort of thing Batman does, or even Superman for that matter.

Confederates include James, Winn, tough DEO chief Hank and even, in a roundabout way, Cat, who offers Kara some sharp-heeled advice on getting ahead in a man's world.

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Most especially, there's her sister Alex who sits at the center of her life. Once again, the scenes between these two women give us crucial and engaging truths about their feelings for one another which, while not exactly complex, are reasonably layered for a prime-time TV action story.

We're also introduced to an AI representation of Kara's dead mom who offers a database of intergalactic information as well as poster-slogan pep talks. Unfortunately, she can't supply the necessary emotional support.

Kara asks for a hug, even though she knows the sadly inevitable answer. "I'm not programmed to do that," says Mom.

The big theme then, is that if you want to get ahead, get some pals. It's all about teamwork people.

Oh yeah, the action

There's also a plot, which involves an insectoid alien who escapes the clutches of evil alien-puppeteer Astra (also Kara's aunty) and goes on a pesticide feeding frenzy. This fellow has one of those gross, huge mouths that frighten the life out of small children. There's a bunch of toing and fro-ing until we end up in an abandoned factory where Astra has captured Alex and Kara shows up for the big fight.

Something interesting is going to play out between Astra and Kara in the coming weeks, beyond wall-busting punches. Both are in the business of saving humanity, though from very different perspectives. Astra saw her home planet destroyed, and won't allow Earth to go the same way. It's genuinely perplexing why she thinks nurturing a group of super-villains is going to achieve this end, or destroying her niece for that matter, letting alone the matter of terrorizing human cities.

Anyway, just to make sure you didn't miss the episode's big message, Supergirl is aided in her brief victory over Astra by both Alex and Hank doing their thing.

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Kara makes the excellent point that, while Superman has lived his whole life with powers derived from being a Kryptonian on Earth, Kara was 13-years-old when she left the planet. "He's so used to going it alone, he doesn't know any other way," she says. "Part of being your own man is knowing when to accept help."

Supergirl's enemies will doubtless view her attachment to humans as an extreme weakness. But as far as this story goes, the opposite is true. Unless you're a child, there's only so much pleasure to be derived from fight scenes, laser eyes, freezy breath and flying. Supergirl's almost limitless array of powers makes her, potentially, kind of a dull TV character.

But she's surrounded in this show by half-a-dozen like-able people with their own take on her and their own problems, as well as another half-a-dozen recurring characters. The pilot won a big audience who showed up to watch a flying woman, but they're going to stick around to see a character who grows into the relationships around her and reacts to them.

One of those relationships is with Hank. This week we see him being grouchy and inflexible toward Kara, of course. But we also find out that he once had a family. Oh, and he's a secret alien.