Monday, October 26, 2015

Pilot Review: Supergirl

Supergirl (Mondays at 8:00 on CBS; Premieres October 26)

It can be hard to separate the show Supergirl is from the show Supergirl represents, but luckily both are more positive than negative. It's heavy with cultural significance, and not just because it represents a new kind of show for its network, the traditionally old-skewing CBS. No, Supergirl is arriving at a moment when our popular culture is inundated with superheroes, from the small screen to the big screen and everywhere in between. The catch? The heroes are almost exclusively male, despite a growing trend of female viewers and consumers. So Supergirl has a lot on her shoulders, being the only live-action female superhero to currently carry her own brand. More than just a move toward the future for CBS, Supergirl is a step forward for all heroic adaptations with a clear message: Girls can kick ass too, and quality doesn't have to suffer for it.

We're all familiar, I'm sure, with the origins of Kal-El, AKA Superman, America's most beloved and enduring superhero. It's ironic that a character who was created to encapsulate and promote heteronormative masculinity (seriously, take a look at some of those early strips) would spawn a sibling story, that of Kara Zor-El, Superman's cousin. Their stories are similar, no doubt about it: Kara was sent to Earth by her parents to protect her cousin. (He didn't end up needing her, which is a good thing since she got stuck in some type of time continuum in which she didn't age before arriving on Earth.) She is adopted by a normal family. She hides her powers and tries to be "normal." She works at a newspaper and wears glasses even though she doesn't need them. Her first act of heroism, the one which exposes Supergirl to the world, even involves saving a plane, a la 2006's Superman Returns. So what's the point of this comic book iteration even existing if it's basically just a retread?

Aside from the fact that it's about damn time a female hero took center stage, creators Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg (both of whom brought Arrow and The Flash to TV), and Ali Adler (No Ordinary Family, The New Normal) have brought fun back to the world of Kryptonians. Supergirl is not a dark, existential flying hero like her cousin was in 2012's Man of Steel. She's a regular girl who wants to help people, and she wants to discover who she is and what she can do along the way. It's a great moment when Kara is fighting an enemy from Krypton and she stands up against his wish that he were actually fighting Superman instead; she almost literally steps out of his better-known and more-respected shadow to claim her own as a crime fighter. The fact that she's also a woman is both a great thing to recognize and totally inconsequential. Kara is a hero, regardless of gender. Her womanhood doesn't affect her ability to save people; it doesn't make her weak; it doesn't hold her back. She's on the same journey all young people are: self-discovery. Except Kara's discovering that she can fly, shoot lasers out of her eyes, and absorb bullets.

All of this rests on the shoulders of Melissa Benoist (Glee) as Kara, and she's more than up to the task of carrying Supergirl. Benoist is joyful and charming, bringing a hopeful optimism to Kara that is currently pretty uncommon in superheroes (a notable exception being Grant Gustin's performance as The Flash). She's got a wide-eyed innocence and wonder to her that perfectly matches the character's growing awareness of her own abilities and potential, and it's her cheerfulness that makes Supergirl, ultimately, so winning. Without such an infectiously sweet central performance, the show could have easily veered into camp. But Benoist just feels so honest that the whole thing seems somehow relatable. Calista Flockhart is also fun as a light The Devil Wears Prada type of character, Kara's diva-ish boss, and Mehcad Brooks (Necessary Roughness) has great chemistry with Benoist as potential love interest and former Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen. Jeremy Jordan (Smash) provides some nice comic relief as Winn, a techie whom Kara lets in on her secret (though he does get the pilot's worst moment: when Kara is attempting to tell Winn she is Supergirl, he assumes she's trying to come out of the closet and says, "You're a lesbian! That's why you don't like me!"). And as a fun Easter egg for fans, Helen Slater (from the 1984 Supergirl film) and Dean Cain (Lois & Clark) play Kara's adoptive parents. The visual effects are pretty great, as well, especially the opening plane save and the final confrontation between Kara and a nasty alien. Veteran Arrow and The Flash director Glen Winter paints National City in bright oranges and yellows that pop off the screen; this is not the Star City of Arrow, but a place that connotes hope and light.

Overall, Supergirl is very wink-wink, nudge-nudge, but not in an obnoxious way. It toes the line of camp, but it mostly comes out as fun. Aside from some feminist overtones ("On my planet, women bow before men." - "This isn't your planet!"), Supergirl is mostly just interested in being a charming, upbeat show. It can be seen as pandering to a young female demographic, but it's also so much more. It's a good time, a show with a winning cast and great visuals, all of which just happen to support its big heart and even bigger message of empowerment.

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