This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on March 11, 2015.
Here’s my advice. If the premise of the television series Powers interests you then do one of two things:
1. Read the excellent comic series Powers by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming or
2. Do nothing.
Whatever you do, do not watch Powers. I guarantee there are better uses of your time, even if you just want to watch TV, because in an age filled with as much quality superhero and crime-genre programming as the present there is no excuse for a pilot like this one.
The pilot introduces us to a Los Angeles in which superpowers exists. Heroes, villains, and everyone else with an extraordinary ability are referred to as “powers”. They are policed by a special unit within the LAPD including Detective Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley), a former power himself, and his new partner Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward). Their first case, in this episode, is to investigate the mysterious death of an iconic superhero.
There’s a lot wrong with this pilot, so much so that it’s tempting to simply list the flaws with some half-assed gifs like a Buzzfeed article and call it a day. That may be all I feel this show deserves, but it’s worth parsing out how a television pilot culled from such promising source material went so wrong. I think the problem stems from a complete lack of an original voice in Powers. At no point does the first episode ever feel like a story with a distinct tone or style. Everything from the acting (with two notable exceptions) to the direction to the sets to the costumes to the lighting feels absolutely generic. Powers feels like a television pilot produced by committee, one where every decision was a compromise that resulted in the blandest, most cliched outcome possible.
From the very first scene Powers looks like something produced in the mid to late 1990s. Budget constraints are obvious everywhere. Director David Slade doesn’t seem to be interested in finding clever ways to work around these limitations, though (which is baffling considering his impressive work on both Breaking Bad and Hannibal). Everything before Slade’s camera appears generic. The police station and dress of everyone in the introduction would be just as believable as part of an impressive high school drama production as a television show. Attention to detail and clever direction are capable of transcending situations like this, but neither are present here. The only details structured into the set and characters are ones that serve obvious expositional purposes. Slade’s use of the camera is workmanlike at best, but often stoops to the same level as his surroundings – deserving of a comparison to a talented amateur. The production value in front of, and behind, the camera almost matches the same low quality that made early superhero television outings like the original Flash and Generation X so disappointing.
I would be remiss to leave the cheapness of this opening sequence (and much of the pilot) to budget alone. Problems stem from the very core of the episode: Charlie Huston’s script. Huston’s script brings no vitality to either of the genre elements within the premise. Neither superheroics or crime elements feel unique in this series. Instead, they are a collection of the blandest signifiers of both genre mashed together.
The episode begins with a setup that is telegraphed so clearly that it is impossible to feel any tension or surprise at what occurs. Walker’s partner is left alone with a captured supervillain. As he drops his phone, ignores signs of the man regaining his strength, and fails to close a cell door completely, it becomes ever more obvious that he is doomed. By the time he dies, the scene feels more comedic than dramatic. It is far from the last time that the story will engage with cliches and tropes so familiar as to summon a sense of déjà vu. Again and again, the next step in the story will appear before Detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim and the audience. Again and again, they will follow that step to its obvious conclusion, surprising absolutely no one.
These sorts of connections occasionally fail to be compelled by characters or logic. At the end of the episode Walker makes a logical leap so vast that some viewers may assume him to be telepathic. He is tracking a missing girl and comes to a dead end, but then realizes that she must be at a specific location at this very moment based on an earlier conversation. It is a conclusion that was clearly set up throughout the episode, but only makes sense given that one is aware this is a fictional narrative. Within the actual context of the story, much of what is said and done makes little sense.
Nowhere is this lack of logic more apparent than in the role of Christian Walker. Walker reads like an SNL sketch mocking the tortured male lead that is so popular in modern TV dramas. He’s a bad joke. Walker’s entire persona revolves around the loss of his powers and superhero identity, Diamond. Not only is this present in everything he says and does, but everything in the script serves as a constant reminder of what he lost and how angry he is about it. There’s no room for depth or nuance to Christian Walker; he wants to tell you exactly who he is and how he feels in every single scene. Huston’s script goes so far as to ask Walker “How does it feel to be powerless?” multiple times in an attempt to bludgeon viewers into a coma with the point.
Sharlto Copley doesn’t make this any better though. He clearly thinks that the good and more acting are the same thing. He plays up every scene to a ridiculous level, allowing any mention of Walker’s lost powers to get the best of him. Even a frightened teenage girl in an interrogation cell manages to gain the upper hand by simply discussing his past in a scene that is unintentionally hilarious. Everything from Copley’s growl (which sounds like an imitation of Christian Bale’s Batman) to his constant scowl create a caricature that had no place in any television drama.
Copley’s miserable performance helps to highlight the two bright spots of Powers: Susan Heyward as Dena Pilgrim, and Eddie Izzard as Wolfe. Anyone familiar with Hannibal will know that Izzard can chew scenery in the role of a psychopath. His brief appearances on screen are probably the most enjoyable of the entire episode. Heyward is given the unenviable task of playing off Copley, and her efforts are admirable. She brings an attitude and swagger to Pilgrim that brings a spark to even the worst of Huston’s dialogue. While Powers may be a victim of quick cancellation, this will hopefully prove to be a springboard for the largely unproven Heyward to move onto better projects.
It’s true that many series find their footing with the pilot episode and improve throughout the first season, but the foundation of Powers is so shaky that it seems unlikely that anything worth watching will result from this start. With very few exceptions, every aspect of the show is lacking. It has taken the premise of a fun and exciting comic series and diluted into a bland series of cliches that skew towards inanity. In a world where great new crime and superhero series are appearing every year, there’s no time to be wasted on Powers.