Thursday, February 25, 2016

Review of CBS' 'Supergirl'

The Pointlessness of Supergirl 

As an old school comic nerd I find myself plowing through episode after episode of every superhero drama on TV these days. I have watched a combined total of 7 seasons of The Flash, Arrow, Agents of Shield, Gotham, Dare Devil, and Jessica Jones. Most of them are mediocre, some aggressively so, yet all have their endearing aspects – well done set pieces, a captivating actor, an intriguing story concept, or some other such thing. There is however one show that is truly irredeemable; Supergirl.

The network TV version of Supergirl is the quintessential safe, corporate, focus-group tested adaptation. In this iteration, we have Kara Zor El, aka Supergirl, working as an executive assistant to a media big wig played by Calista Flockhart. This setup with all of its office drama and the cynical, ruthless lady boss is clearly meant to appeal to women, though I cannot help but think it so stereotypical as to be a bit offensive. If you want to test your liver, take a shot every time a celebrity is mentioned, someone cries, or a female character rewards themselves with junk food.

You have to give it credit for its willingness to stick to a formula. Supergirl is one of the most consistent shows on TV. Consistently awful, that is, consistently inane, and consistently bland. It is a marvel to behold the dedication to hackneyed writing, phoned-in performances, and action scenes devoid of consequence, tension, or even decent special effects.

The main villain is a relative of Kara with his own army of Kryptonians. You would think that a bad guy with the equivalent of a few dozen Supermen at his disposal wouldn't really have much challenge taking over the world. Supergirl begs to differ. See, Kara's human sister Alex works for the show's version of the Men in Black, complete with cool weapons that enable them to kill super-powered aliens with ease whenever the plot demands it or Kara is busy with office romance drama.

The writing is frequently arbitrary and contradictory. Nothing really sticks as far as character development or even just basic physical laws within the show's world. One minute Kara's boss is a ruthless media whore caring only about power and page views and in the next she's lecturing Jimmy Olsen on journalistic ethics with a heavy-handed sob story about a Hollywood actor and domestic violence. Supervillains that can shrug off punches to the face from Supergirl can get pushed around by Kara's sister Alex. Kryptonians wearing armor that nulifies Kryptonite can still be harmed by Kryptonite weapons. A single tough fight can “blow out” Supergirl's powers for several days, while a dozen similar fights across the next ten episodes do nothing. Maxwell Lord is an evil villain who attempts to destroy Supergirl multiple times, until he decides to save her life for no particular reason.

I say all this as someone very willing to suspend disbelief and look the other way when it comes to comic book media. You have to let some things slide. It didn't bug me that Bruce Wayne made it back to Gotham after escaping the prison in The Dark Knight Rises. He's Batman. You don't need to explain. I'm still with you, movie. I get that there are constraints - budget, run time etc. You don't ask for perfection from network action shows. In spite of all that, you can only strain credulity so much. Every shortcut the writers take - every instance of coincidence, unexplained phenomena, shifting power levels, character personality swings, last second perfectly timed saves - takes away a small piece of the show's authority.

Supergirl demonstrates the most ad hoc writing you'll ever witness, though one nice constant is the power of the gutsy speech. Need to stop an armed robber with a gun without using any powers? Gutsy speech. Need to resolve the conflict between a mother and the child she abandoned 25 years ago? Gutsy speech. Need to jar Supergirl out of an alien plant-induced dream world? Gutsy speech. Need to prevent a 300 year old Martian from killing the shape-shifting monster that genocided his species and burned his wife and children? Gutsy speech. It would be funny were the formula not so mawkish and transparent. There isn't a single action scene with an outcome you can't predict.

Supergirl's is a world where there are no hard choices, no conflicts that can't be resolved by a bit of eloquence. Good guys always win because they are good. On Arrow and The Flash, at least the good guys have to be smart or occasionally ruthless. By contrast Supergirl paints merely being earnest as some great virtue, but as Milton Friedman (and I believe Dilbert) once said, “sincerity is overrated.” Sure, it's nice to see tears in Alex's eyes when she learns of J'onn J'onzz's tragic backstory (Batman would have kept a poker face I'm sure) but those tears do not grant her any special insight into J'onzz's character nor do they give her the moral authority to lecture him about his right to pursue revenge. In the show's world, the right bit of verbiage is powerful enough to override any and all character motivations and development in a given moment, but only for that moment.

The episode “For the Girl Who Has Everything,” is one of the best examples of everything wrong with the show. If Alan Moore did not already hate superheroes enough, that episode would suffice to cause him to die from rage and then spin in his grave.

In the original story (written by Moore), Superman is attacked by a symbiotic alien plant that puts him in a dream world where he experiences his heart's greatest desires. He imagines himself living on Krypton with a wife and son. Eventually he is pulled out of the fantasy as he slowly realizes the world is a facade. The twenty minute Justice League cartoon version almost brought me to tears when Clark actually wept and had to look into his son's eyes and say “I'm sorry, but I don't think you're real.” It was powerful because the episode took the opportunity to really show you Clark's deepest dreams – the dream of a normal life, home, and family. That's what made Moore's story so good – the exploitation of the Black Mercy alien plant as a dramatic device allowing for a unique opportunity to develop a character. Sci-fi and writing 101 really.

Supergirl skipped that class. Their version takes the lazy way out scene after scene. They burn half of her time in the dream world with her being skeptical of it (completely unfaithful to the comic). We do not see Kara's ideal vision of herself as an adult on Krypton. We learn nothing about her character. Instead we get a cheap jokey side plot with Martian Manhunter pretending to be Kara so Supergirl doesn't lose her pointless office job (his electing to do this is completely contrary to the character the show spent episodes developing - a super serious military leader reluctant to use his powers). It is a cheap knockoff of a much better Superman story. In fact that basically sums up the entire show.

Some have also complained about the show's politics, but honestly whether you agree or disagree with them you have to concede that they make the show feel dated. The unprovoked discussions of the glass ceiling and double standards about how tough women are perceived feel very late 1990's. When a show has to make white characters loudly complain about “white male privilege” multiple times, you can safely assume the writers are taking their cues from old Twitter hashtag data.

That's not to say shows need to be apolitical. The comic book version of Green Arrow is a staunch progressive. The CW's Arrow could be more intriguing if its titular hero intelligently addressed tough issues (perhaps he will given that he is running for mayor this season). Many comic book shows and movies have touched on political themes in subtle or interesting ways.

Supergirl is about as subtle as a slut walk, with every character dutifully parroting feminist talking points. Personally I think all-powerful characters like Supergirl work better by being above cantankerous debates on social issues. When I think of Batman or Superman, I honestly couldn't guess who they would vote for in this election season. Kara, by contrast, would be all “literally I can't even,” at the thought of Trump. For Supergirl, Whether they are shaming anti-illegal immigration politicians or switching the races of beloved characters for diversity reasons – all of it serves to cheapen its titular hero, turning her into a partisan instead of the beloved and unifying symbol of hope her cousin is.

Taken as a whole the show just feels superficial. There is nothing that pulls you to keep watching. The Flash at least tries to keep the audience guessing with its sci-fi wackiness, and Gotham as well as Netflix's Marvel shows are willing to take some risks with their characters and storylines. Supergirl is just kind of there, plodding along episode after episode with all the charisma of an infomercial.

In spite of that, the show is seeing decent ratings and doing crossovers with The Flash. There is a decent chance it will get a second season. Not really that shocking as a cursory glance at TV ratings data proves that there is a massive audience out there for bad shows. Still, it's unfortunate, as it will likely butcher any other DC characters it sucks into its banal world. Here's hoping they never get Wonder Woman or Powergirl. That level of cringe could be fatal.