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The best version of NBC’s Powerless is one most people will never see

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Maybe it’ll be a bonus feature on the DVD

Powerless NBC

There are technically two versions of NBC’s Powerless pilot, a show not about superheroes but set in the world of DC Comics.

There’s the one that most saw last night; a cornucopia of bad acting and dialogue, wrapped in a blanket of insecurity and forced fan pandering. Then there’s the version NBC played for a few hundred people who gathered in one of the halls at San Diego Comic-Con for the network’s preview night.

Unlike the episode that aired last night, this version of Powerless was undeniably cute. The story focused on a group of insurance agents who sincerely wanted nothing more than to help troubled people — the result of living in a city where superheroes run rampant and cause unquantifiable levels of damage — get the money they deserve. The team dynamic was apparent, and the group of genuine, caring coworkers was juxtaposed against their new boss, a typical comic book villain who only cares about getting rich, making for a promising setting.

Last night’s episode, however, loses that uniqueness that made it so enjoyable in the first place. It goes from being a show about the goodness of human beings to a flat superhero satire of Silicon Valley. It essentially lost its identity between that first Comic-Con screening and now.

Entertainment editor Susana Polo and entertainment reporter Julia Alexander were both at SDCC in July and caught the originally intended pilot NBC had put together for Powerless. After watching the new version, we were both bewildered with just how dramatic the change was and, more specifically, just how much it dropped in quality. We wanted to explore what worked for us during that first screening and what didn’t work for us with the final edited version, and decided to hash it out in this piece.

NBC

Julia: Susana, I know SDCC was a long time ago, but I remember Powerless being one of the first screenings we went to at the convention. It was during the con’s preview night on July 20, and we saw it along with shows like Riverdale and People of Earth. I also distinctly remember us both animatedly talking about how much we adored Powerless, a series we weren’t quite sure about heading in. I couldn’t wait to write the review of that pilot because it exemplified everything a pilot should be.

But I also realize that I’m coming at it from the perspective of someone who genuinely adores and obsesses over television, not superheroes. I was looking at it as a stand-alone comedy that just so happened to be set in the DC Comics universe. I couldn’t care less about whether or not Bruce Wayne’s name was uttered during the episode, but it’s very apparent the connection to DC’s most recognizable characters became an important aspect for the show. You’re our resident comics expert, Susana. What did you think of the way they incorporated it?

Susana: I loved the pilot, and what I loved even more was that its approach to DC Comics details was minimal. But that’s not to say those connections weren’t strong — they just weren’t overbearing or obtuse to the non-fan. And that’s a necessary requirement for anything that wants to play around in a niche interest but appeal to a wide audience.

In the SDCC pilot, the characters weren’t in research and development — they were claims adjustors for an insurance provider that specialized in coverage against superhuman damage. One of the “quirky office personalities” was a woman who was convinced that one of their coworkers was secretly Green Lantern. Our main character’s optimism and altruism expressed itself in a desire to help her business’ clients recover from the worst moments of their lives — which she thought of as her way to be a hero in a world where superpowers are usually the first requirement.

Powerless’ SDCC pilot understood that you didn’t have to link anything in the show directly to named superheroes or villains. You just had to present the way in which even the most mundane day-to-day shit, like taking the train to work, deciding where to go on vacation or wondering about the real life of the quiet guy two desks over would be informed by the existence of hundreds of god-like mortals zipping around your metropolitan area.

The version of the show that airs this week feels nervous — like if it doesn’t mention the Joker or Gotham or drop the word “Wayne” in dialogue often enough (or perfectly frame the text of it in the shot somewhere) audiences will feel like they haven’t got their money’s worth. I’d like to think that everybody who’s been occasionally watching television or going to the movies for the past few years is familiar enough with those concepts, but they shouldn’t have to be. Because Bruce Wayne and the Joker are absolutely never going to have a significant role, in person, on Powerless.

The show should leave the big name superheroes to the set dressing, and spend its time on characters and concepts that it can actually flesh out and use itself — the original Powerless pilot’s cast of lovable office idiots were the biggest casualty of this new cut, I think.

Julia: I think that’s Powerless’ biggest issue: its characters. It’s not just that they’re obnoxious and hard to root for, but they don’t feel like real people. Better Off Ted, which was also created by Victor Fresco, featured the same kind of exaggerated acting, which made the characters feel whimsical, but they had redeeming qualities. These were characters that could be related to on some level. That just doesn’t exist with Powerless.

At times, it feels like Powerless is trying a little too hard to be Better Off Ted, but even the homage to Fresco’s former show falls flat. Like you said, Susana, it also seems like everyone involved in the show’s writing knew they didn’t have much to go on and began inserting obvious Bruce Wayne jokes whenever they needed to fill the empty space. The characters weren’t strong enough or well developed to stand on their own and deliver decent jokes. What we’re left with is confused characters with a lack of purpose and boring television.

Again, I’m coming at Powerless from the perspective of someone who loves sitcoms. I studied them growing up and I obsessed over the different comedy stylings each show found for itself. Powerless tries to pay homage to a couple of these, straddling the line between obscure comedy and workplace comedy, but there’s nothing inviting about the world. As someone who doesn’t read many comics, but is knowledgable enough to get by in a conversation about certain characters, I found myself rolling my eyes constantly at the return to Bruce Wayne’s name every other line. Aren’t there other characters in the DC Comics universe they can namedrop?

The pilot didn’t have any of these issues. The jokes stood on their own, the characters were people you wanted to root for and the premise of the show was something you could believe in. Everything that I wanted Powerless to be was in that original pilot and everything I was scared it would get turned into can be seen in the episode that aired.

I’ve made this fact known in most of my stories recently, and it’s for a good reason: there are more than 500 scripted series on television this year. That means it’s getting more difficult to quite literally find new shows when you’re trying to balance old favorites. Powerless is the type of series that I wanted to dive into and enjoy because I like Fresco’s work and I enjoy a good sitcom. But with more than 500 series, Powerless has to be thrown in the junk pile. Susana, do you think you’ll stick with the show to see how it plays out or are you done?

Susana: I’ll probably watch my feed to see what people think of it, and check back in based on that.

It’s unfortunate. Powerless was, hand to god, the thing I saw at SDCC that I was most excited for people to see. I saw Riverdale there, and a cute new kid-oriented Justice League cartoon there, and the first clips from Luke Cage. Riverdale, I didn’t much like, the Justice League cartoon didn’t need any help grabbing an audience, and I knew the same would be true for Luke Cage, which was shaping up to be flat out incredible.

The Powerless I saw at San Diego was a great show that could have been easy to overlook, and I was looking forward to doing my best to make sure as many people — comic fans and otherwise — as possible gave it a chance. It really seems like we lost that rare television event: a show that tickles nerd interests without denigrating them or the people who regularly enjoy them, and is also perfectly enjoyable, even delightful, to folks like you, Julia, who sorta tolerate superheroes at best.

Julia: Exactly. It’s a shame that Powerless didn’t shape up to be what we thought it was going to. I don’t mourn television as much as I used to — there simply isn’t enough time — but I do find myself mourning the death of what Powerless was shaping up to be.

Powerless airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.