UK TV review: Supergirl Season 1
First act stumbles6
James R | On 29, Jul 2016
“Can you believe that?” cries a waitress halfway through the opening episode of Supergirl. “A female hero. Someone for my daughter to look up to.” It’s a knowing joke, but Supergirl is a knowing show. And it’s all the better for it.
The CW’s series arrives at a time when Hollywood is failing to tell female stories. Despite the success of films such as The Hunger Games, the high-profile female-led movies that are now happening often seem to be comedies trying to repeat the success of Bridesmaids or remakes of franchise films starring men. That inequality is especially true in the realm of the comic book movie, where studios wouldn’t even put Black Widow on a DVD cover for The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s only now that Marvel and DC are beginning to bring non-male comic book characters to the screen.
Supergirl, though, is already flying the flag for female heroes – and Season 1 doesn’t just fly the flag, it wears it as a cape while saving an airplane. Not bad going for a mild-mannered 24-year-old employee at a newspaper.
The echoes of Superman are everywhere, but Supergirl shrugs them off with a casual confidence – and faster than a speeding bullet with wings on. In a matter of minutes, we’ve already been given the essential exposition: Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) is sent to Earth hot on the heels of her younger cousin, Kal-El, to watch over and protect him. But a bit of timey-wimey space stuff (involving “The Phantom Zone”) later and she arrives on the planet years after him. He’s already become Superman. So what does she do?
Raised by the same foster family – The Danvers (including Dean Cain as step-dad Jeremiah, in a nod to the wonderful 1990s serial, The New Adventures of Superman) – she resolves to blend in and pretend to be normal, hiding in plain sight, complete with glasses.
But, inevitably, that doesn’t last long. Her eventual decision to go full supes is born out of compassion, after a disaster strikes in National City, inspiring her to take drastic action to save her foster sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh). From then on, she’s hooked on heroics.
“I didn’t travel 2,000 light years to be an assistant,” she tells Alex.
Crucially, the series agrees with her. After, why would this young woman live up to anything less than her potential?
It’s an attitude that’s echoed by the people around her, as the show takes Kara’s acceptance of herself and runs with it. Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg develop a world that is populated with women in places of authority, with Kara at the centre. In no time at all, she’s employed by CatCo, a media firm run by Calista Flockhart’s entertainingly forthright Cat. Alex, meanwhile, is a lead agent for the Department of Extra-Normal Operations (DEO), led by Hank Henshaw (David Harewood). Even her aunt, Astra, is the villain of the piece, aiming to take over earth to save it from ecological disaster (see: Krypton) with the help of her extremist husband, Non (Chris Vance).
Their plans are interspersed with a parade of fellow escaped detainees from Fort Razz, a Krytonian prison from The Phantom Zone that crash-landed on Earth at the same time as Supergirl. The result is a steady flow of monsters-of-the-week that manages to overcome the odd forgettable character by tying them in with Astra and Non. Each one, of course, brings with them an important lesson for Supergirl to learn, from embracing and controlling anger to distinguishing justice from revenge.
Rather brilliantly, Supergirl’s response to these villains isn’t flawless, as she manages to save people but still damage things in the process – the kind of mistake that sees the media brand as her a “guardian angel or human wrecking ball”. The question of how heroes are presented is a neat through-line for The House of El’s newest star: if The Daily Planet has Superman, CatCo needs something to help boost its own circulation. The arrival of Jimmy Olson (Mehcad Brooks) from the Planet as a new Art Director, meanwhile, is perfect timing for some exclusive photos of the latest caped crusader – and for an awkward love triangle with Kara’s co-worker, tech Hobbit-a-like Winn (Jeremy Jordan).
Once going public, of course, Kara can’t take that part of her identity back – and, sure enough, she shares it with both Winn and Jimmy, finding support among her friends. It’s telling, though, that Kara and Alex’s sisterly bond proves more important than any possible romantic relationship with Jimmy or Winn. When their mother enters the scene too, the result is an ensemble of surpassingly complex female characters, who, thanks to the interference of Non, find themselves having to band together come the finale to keep true to themselves. (It’s also no coincidence, perhaps, that the best villains are female: screaming fellow CatCo intern Banshee and former-radio-DJ-turned-electrified-psycho Livewire, who team up in one stand-out episode featuring a cameo from Grant Gustin’s charismatic The Flash.)
But the men get no short shift either, with the dependable Harewood’s Henshaw given a backstory that shows he understands both the burden of power and the isolation of being an alien. Mehcad Brooks’ swoonsome Jimmy, meanwhile, gets the chance to be more flawed than the ideal object of Kara’s affection, and even Winn, despite a worryingly one-dimensional first half of the season, blossoms into a fully-formed character in his own right, once he’s allowed to simply be friends with his romantic rival.
Back-stories involving parents come to the fore as the season continues, with Cat, in particular, emerging as much more than a Devil Wears Prada clone. That unexpected depth manages to outweigh some of the weaker plot elements (Peter Facinelli’s tech genius, Maxwell Lord, swings between amusingly sleazy and boringly stereotypical). As with his work on Arrow, Berlanti knows that a show can’t hinge on one person alone, and so we take time to get to know each supporting person in turn.
“To Supergirl,” our group of friends toast at one point. “No wait,” she corrects. “To family.”
At the heart of it all is Melissa Benoist, who is perfectly cast as Kara. After her scene-stealing turn as the kind but crumpled girlfriend in Whiplash, she steps into the spotlight with a winning blend of vulnerable goofiness and charming self-belief. You’ll laugh with her as much as you cheer her on – an essential power for any hero to have. She’s supported by a costume, designed by veteran Colleen Atwood, that tastefully updates Supergirl’s old outfit so that it covers her midriff, while the texture recalls the butch strength of Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel. Even Blake Neely’s music, like his work on Arrow and The Flash, has an upbeat, rousing feel to its fanfare-heavy themes.
“On my planet, women bow before men,” taunts a male villain at one point. “This isn’t your planet,” she hits back, nailing the balance between cheese and cool – a balance matched by special effects that tread the line between endearingly trashy and impressively epic.
Comic book fans, it’s worth noting, won’t be disappointed, despite the light-hearted mood clearly aimed at a younger audience: over the course of Season 1, Supergirl tackles all the traditional set-ups you could want from a hero, from a mortal-for-a-day episode, which sees her encourage humans to be heroes in their own right, to a confrontation with an evil twin. Dream worlds and further parallels with Superman’s universe (watch out for Lois Lane’s sister, Lucy Lane) abound, and Benoist even gets a chance to shine by playing against type after encountering some “red” kryptonite that brings out her dark side. The action sequences are effective, the pay-offs work and even the hallmark spectacles don’t look stupid. The show has a wobbly start, but once Supergirl finds its trajectory, as far as superhero shows go, you’re not left wanting for much.
While Marvel’s projects can feel weighed down by the links across its universe, Supergirl plays light with its DC connections – her relationship with Superman takes a while to find the right tone, but once it sticks, it makes sense for the series to wait before introducing her cousin proper. With its constant string of jokes – “Last night, I helped a family assemble an IKEA table,” sighs Supergirl, trying to win back public support. “It’s still not enough.” – the show recognises its lack of geeky nods and abundance of humour will play to a broader audience. And this is the kind of show that deserves that broad appeal; how often do you see a powerful female kicking butt on TV these days?
“Be wise, be strong and always be true to yourself” is the message that the pilot spells out to us – and it’s one that, for once, isn’t being told to a tortured, conflicted bloke. Even that diminutive nickname is addressed head-on, as a row breaks out in Cat’s office over the fact that “girl” doesn’t have to be a dismissive term. There’s a subtler feminist punch to the whole affair too: Supergirl isn’t referred to as a “heroine”. She’s a “hero”, who happens to be female. Every time that word lands, it does so with a grin.
That underlying theme of empowerment isn’t just a gimmick or surface plot device: it runs throughout the programme, as each character gradually finds their own feet and purpose. The result is a bright, primary-coloured piece of telly, but where’s the harm in that? Smart and stylish, Supergirl is a significant landmark in the comic book genre. It knows it – but that doesn’t mean it can’t have fun. This is uplifting, inspiring, and highly entertaining.
Season 1 of Supergirl is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and on pay-per-view VOD.
Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc