clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Powers review: PSN's first scripted TV series flies past a shaky start

New, 38 comments

The PlayStation Network made a television show based on a comic book for a video game console, and you should check it out.

The PlayStation Network made a television show based on a comic book for a video game console, and you should check it out.

If you're not familiar with Powers as a comic book, that's because it was a creator-owned title from Image that started running in the year 2000, a long way from today's comics market, where titles like Saga and The Walking Dead can make up half of a given month's top-selling trade paperbacks. Written by Brian Michael Bendis, who would go on to create Jessica Jones (soon to get her own Netflix series from Marvel) and Miles Morales, and drawn by Michael Avon Oeming, who contributed art and story to a number of Portal 2's tie-in comics, Powers is an examination of how superheroes might work in the real world.

That's probably a premise you've heard before. From Watchmen, to Kick-Ass, to Super, to SHIELD, we all know the promise of a "realistic" superhero setting. But Powers had an extra hook: It was also a police procedural, following the work of partners Deena Pilgrim, the spitfire rookie, and Christian Walker, whose deep dark past is that he became a police detective in the "Powers" division after losing the superpowers that made him the famous hero Diamond. The comic has been close to being greenlit as a television series for years now, getting as far as having a completed pilot go to reshoots for FX before Sony announced that Powers would be the first original scripted content to debut on the PlayStation Network, with Bendis and Oeming coming on as executive producers.

Walker and Pilgrim cropped

It was this news that pricked the ears of a lot of folks, and not just people like me who are constitutionally fascinated by character-driven, post-modern reinterpretations of the super hero genre. Maybe you were intensely curious about the PSN's first foray into original content, muscling in on Netflix and Amazon. Maybe you were simply intrigued and heartened by the show's commitment to faceblind casting (Deena Pilgrim, played by Susan Heyward, was drawn as a white woman in the comics, and Christian Walker, played by District 9's skinny, bearded Sharlto Copley, was drawn as... Bruce Timm Batman, basically). Now that the dust has settled and the review screeners are out, the PSN might not have House of Cards on its hands, but it's got a solid sci-fi drama worth watching, if you can make it past the pilot.

Readers of the series will note immediately in that in this version of the story, everybody knows that Christian Walker used to be the "power" that called himself Diamond. Other viewers will note immediately that the pilot is constructed from aggressively standard gritty cop tropes. Walker's partner dies before the opening credits, replaced immediately by the newest Powers Division recruit, Deena Pilgrim. Her first assignment is to accompany Walker as he delivers the contents of his ex-partner's desk to the man's teenage son and widow. His partner's widow wearily asks Walker if he eliminated the evidence of her late husband's numerous affairs before handing the box to her son.

The rest of the episode unfolds as Christian Walker's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. His old friend Olympia shows up dead and the only witness, a homeless teen, disappears right out of the interrogation room. Mario Lopez appears on a television to provide plot and setting exposition. A super-powered teenage girl puts Walker down by telling him that he's not "Diamond," he's "Walker," pauses (leave it there, I pleaded, just let the subtext speak for itself), and then adds in a deliberate tone "as in, a man who walks. Because he can't fly anymore."

Johnny Royale

Fortunately, Powers shows significant improvement during its second and third episodes, becoming less of The Christian Walker Show. Steps are taken to give its lead some humanizing vulnerability, rather than the standard "I've seen shit" angst. A number of characters that seemed entirely tertiary in the pilot are fleshed out into real roles. And when the messy history between Walker and what's left of his old superhero team is examined, Powers really starts to sing. At the end of those episodes, we even get some windows on Noah Taylor's Johnny Royale, our mostly inscrutable villain, who may or may not be banging his henchmen... or henchman, as his "gang" is entirely populated by a single guy with multiple powers. If only he didn't deliver every line in almost the same jaded, gravelly undertone, like a kid pretending to be Wolverine, I might have warmed to Royale sooner.

We've got multiple powers, teleportation, strength, flight, armor suits, laser eye beams, light manipulation and even some poor kid who can levitate... but only three feet off the ground. In Powers, superpowers are the go-to road to fame, and are often framed in the context of celebrity culture. But they're also a metaphor for the hubris of youth. Deep down, all teenagers believe that they're invulnerable, but on this show, some of them literally are.

Walker and the rest of his generation are heavily defined in these early episodes by the extent to which they managed to leave the excesses of young adulthood behind. Which brings me to Retro Girl (Michelle Forbes), who just might be the most interesting television interpretation of Wonder Woman in my lifetime, and I include the Justice League cartoon in that.

Retro Girl

Unlike the other folks on Walker's old team, who are dead, emotionally broken, de-powered, imprisoned or on the wrong side of the law, Retro Girl made it. She's the real deal, not because she's a shining beacon of hope and optimism even behind the scenes, but because she understands that having superpowers and having power aren't necessarily the same thing. She's a superhero who knows how to dress, knows how to talk and can wield her influence on the press as well as any laser eye blast. This is a big bump up from her comics appearance as the series' first big murder victim, and my fingers are crossed that she won't reprise the role.

The other women of Powers are introduced much like the incidental roles of a Law & Order episode: the ingénue in destress, the sexually (and otherwise) ambitious canvassing encounter. By the end of episode three, my understanding of Zora (Logan Browning) was tempered by evidence of what she's already accomplished and softened by her insecurities. I also stopped worrying that I was going to be watching a whole show about Calista (Olesya Rulin) cheerfully falling in with the wrong crowd and being narratively punished for it, and started to enjoy a show about her picking herself up stronger and stronger as her illusions about her heroes are broken.

In fact, given the great handling of the rest of Powers' female characters, it's a pity that Deena doesn't get to do much in the series' intro episodes. Though by episode three it seems like our two cops are finally beginning to develop a relationship beyond "grizzled veteran" and "sarcastic rookie," in these episodes she's primarily just something for Walker to have to explain himself to. Our only hint that she is in fact unique in any way from any other new partner is a note in the first episode that she's "Waldo Pilgrim's daughter," but who he is or why that might be important is not expanded on. The scenes where she and Walker share a beer or when she reads aloud from his old celebrity tell-all book are excellent stuff, and I'm sure there'll be more of them, but it's a sparse introduction to a character who is ostensibly the show's second lead.

If you watch Powers, you're going to have to suspend your disbelief for some of the show's science, like when a doctor creates a computer-animated visual simulation for a microscopic reaction and admits in his next line that he doesn't understand it in the slightest. You're going to see Eddie Izzard in the nude. (I'm just saying, it surprised me.) You're going to have to make it through the pilot to what lies beyond. But when I hit the end of the screener episodes, I wanted the same thing I always want at the end of a good comic book: to know what happens next.

The first three of 10 episodes will arrive on the PlayStation Network on Tuesday, March 10th, and the following seven will be released in order, with a new episode every Tuesday. PlayStation Plus subscribers will be able to watch the whole season for free. The pilot will also be available outside PSN, for free, at PlayStation.com/Powers.


Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Michael Avon Oeming is the artist behind Atomic Robo. Oeming contributed a cover to the first issue of Atomic Robo. The series' regular artist is Scott Wegener.