Friday, February 3, 2017

Brief Reviews: Powerless, Superior Donuts, Training Day

February 2 dropped three new shows onto the broadcast schedule: Powerless, the first comedy set in the DC Universe, on NBC; Superior Donuts, which will move to Monday nights on CBS after tonight's special premiere; and Training Day, a network extension of the 2001 film, also on CBS. None are great, but one does stand out from the rest.

Powerless (Thursdays at 8:30 on NBC) is easily the most disappointing of this crew, if only because of how good it could have been. DC is much better at television (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow) than they are at films (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad), so I had high hopes for Powerless, the first explicit comedy (of course, there are humorous elements in the films and shows, but they're not sitcoms) set in this same universe. Add to that Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Star Wars: Rogue One) as Bruce Wayne's squirrelly cousin; Vanessa Hudges in her first role after proving herself a talented actress in 2016's Grease Live; and a pilot directed by Scrubs' Marc Buckland, and I thought there was no way this could go wrong.

But it did. Unfortunately, the pilot is completely devoid of laughs and almost 100% free of cleverness. The smartest thing about Powerless, actually, is its opening credits. That's pretty sad. The rest of the humor, or at least the attempts at such, rely on Hudgens being overly excited or her team at Wayne Security inventing silly, stupid techno gadgets. One example: a pane of glass made of Kryptonite which would weaken Superman but shatter if a bird flew into it. Tudyk provides some fun line readings, but he's working with a legitimately terrible script by Justin Halpern & Patrick Schumacker ($#*! My Dad Says), which contains not only a bunch of tired physical gags (a guy getting punched in the gut, for example) but some heinous one-liners, including a villain proclaiming Charm City to feel the wrath of "my giant balls... of fire!" It's juvenile. The script does not attempt to uniquely define any character: Hudgens' Emily is an upbeat go-getter; Danny Pudi (Community) is quirky; Christina Kirk's Jackie is a "witty," beleaguered assistant; and so on, like a lazy person rewriting characters from The Office. And everything is so brightly colored, so campy looking, acted, and shot, that it feels like a twisted kids' daytime show.

Watch for Tudyk, if you're waiting for something else to come on at 9:00, but otherwise, this is a big letdown: not funny, not smart, not original, and not worth your time.

The other new sitcom is over on CBS, though it will actually be joining the Monday night lineup as of next week, anchoring at 9:00. That's a tall order for an unproven show, but Superior Donuts, based on a 2009 play by Tracy Letts, should slide nicely into the night's surroundings. Sharing a bit of the sensibility of 2 Broke Girls, particularly as it pertains to the diner they work in, Superior Donuts is about a once-popular but currently in decline Chicago mom-and-pop donut shop run by cranky, set-in-his-ways Arthur (TV legend Judd Hirsch). In an attempt to breathe some new life into the business after a Starbucks opens across the street, Arthur hires street artist millennial Franco (Jermaine Fowler, The Eric Andre Show) to run social media and up the shop's visibility. It's very much a story about changing with the times, and it has that old CBS sitcom feel (it's a multicam, which are nearly dead on the other networks but thrive on CBS), thanks partially to the presence of Hirsch as a kind-of stereotypical "get off my lawn!" old Jewish man, and thanks partially to the unit set of the donut shop.

But where Powerless went silly, Superior Donuts, the more traditional of the two, oddly goes subversive. A character from the play who was Russian has been made Iraqi, more timely than ever considering the travel ban instituted last week. Maz Jobrani's Fawz adds an underrepresented nationality to the cast (though there are a fair share of obvious terrorist jokes in the pilot script, Fawz addresses them) and a gentle confrontation to America's ideas of immigrants. Further, Franco quips at one point that he must really trust Randy, a cop played by Katey Sagal, because he's a black man "turning [his] back on a Chicago cop." The joke is played lightly, and the laugh track makes things seem overly jovial in the moment, but that's a very real statement to make for a sitcom pilot which basically amounts to another twist on the "mismatched pair" conceit. There are a few other laugh out loud moments, and the chemistry between Hirsch and Fowler is warm and paternal. The former is always dependable for a solidly funny performance (and at 81!), but it is Fowler who is the stand out in Superior Donuts. He's energetic and witty and lively, and he plays well off of Hirsch.

In this case, Superior Donuts isn't going to break the mold, and it could stand to be more biting in its humor (and to stop hiding its social commentary behind laugh tracks), but to have any teeth whatsoever as a CBS multicam is an accomplishment, especially following the abysmal ones CBS debuted in the fall.

Finally, there's Training Day (Thursdays at 10:00), CBS's latest failed attempt to translate a film into a TV series. Occupying the same timeslot as last season's horrendous Rush Hour adaptation, Training Day is a loose sequel to the Antoine Fuqua film of the same name, and the less said about it, the better. Whereas the film was virulent and taut, the series is boring and toothless. Those who saw Training Day will remember Denzel Washington's terrifying, brutal Oscar-winning performance in the leading role. Bill Paxton takes over the honors here in the same kind of part, as morally bankrupt detective Frank Roarke, who's being investigated by his new partner (newcomer Justin Cornwell). There's no comparison between Washington's and Paxton's performances. The latter isn't given the opportunity to be scary (this is broadcast TV, after all) in the same way the former could, so the ways writer Will Beall (Castle) try to make Roarke intimidating are goofy. At one point, he uses a baboon to scare someone into talking... a baboon. This is supposed to be a serious, dark version of the typical buddy-cop shtick, and here Roarke is shaking down a perp with a monkey.

Beyond the silliness, Training Day was doomed from the start because everything that made the original film so great is absent from the series: the tense script from David Ayer, the tight direction of Fuqua, the shining performances from Washington and Ethan Hawke, and the big budget of a Hollywood film. Plus, all the good will CBS got for its portrayal of interracial relationships on Superior Donuts is undone by making Roarke, the Denzel character this time around, a stereotypically racist cop in a stereotypically crime-ridden city full of only Latin and black criminals. CBS would have been better off leaving this one in a vault somewhere full of busted pilots... since it is seeing the light of day, hopefully they'll finally learn to stop turning movies into shows no one asked for or needed.

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