The world of superhero TV is a competitive one, occupied by insanely popular shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Flash, and Arrow. Added to ranks by CBS this week was Supergirl, marking a huge occasion for a number of reasons. For one, it’s the first female-led show of its kind since Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman in 1975 (ABC’s Agent Carter excepted). For another, it’s CBS’s first foray into the genre in the modern era, headed up by Arrow/Flash mastermind Greg Berlanti. And now that we’ve finally got a chance to take a peek at the pilot, we can begin the real analysis.
The debut episode of Supergirl was a mixed bag. In some ways, it was a slam dunk for a network that focuses more on accessibility than challenging its audience. In others, though, it stumbled out of the gates over a variety of obstacles. It was obvious from the get-go that this is a series that hasn’t quite realized its place in the pantheon of comic book television, if not solely for the fact that it’s walking in largely unexplored territory right now. To lay it out for you more clearly, let’s look at the pros and cons.
Pro: Melissa Benoist
Assuming the role of our titular hero, Melissa Benoist does some A+ work. She manages to balance the uncertainty of her Kara Zor-El’s place in the world with the fact that she’s a superpowered alien demigod who can lift an entire airplane. It’s a tall order for any actor, and Benoist accomplishes it to a tee. If there’s one thing that’s going to carry Supergirl through its debut season, it’s likely going to be the work of its lead hero.
Con: The scattered message
Supergirl is a show that’s almost too aware of its own potential and pitfalls, and throughout its pilot episode we see that play out. Throughout that hour, it attempts to tell a positive feminist narrative while simultaneously beating you over the head with it, which in turn undercuts the empowering message it was trying for in the first place. We have our lead character pigeon-holed into a Devil Wears Prada-esque role as a quirky coffee-runner for a media mogul, all the while getting stepped on by just about everyone in her life.
The intention is to set up the “ah ha!” moment that is our hero realizing her heroic potential, but the manufactured obstacles seem far too contrived to actually make that moment believable. At one point, she gets pulled into a secret government lair and quite literally is told by the man in charge to “go back to getting someone’s coffee.” It’s a “go back to the kitchen, woman!” exchange that comes off as entirely unnecessary in the greater narrative. In the end, we’re being asked to believe that a government organization devoted to protecting planet Earth wouldn’t want assistance from the only direct relative of Superman, and it’s a tough sell to say the least.
Pro: The costume choice
In the beginning moments of Kara’s rise to heroism, we’re shown the moment she decides on a costume for her new alter-ego. The first try (above) is a revealing piece that’s more in line with objectifying her body than with being a practical crimefighting outfit. Kara points this out right away, stating that she’s “not flying around saving people in this thing.” Costuming for female superheroes has long been a point of contention in comic books, with most artists opting less for practicality and more for plunging necklines that objectify the character. With that, it’s an important statement when Kara opts for a costume that actually makes sense in the larger scheme of being a hero.
Con: Naming our hero
One of the biggest critiques of Supergirl comes in the form of her name. The show is fully aware of this, engaging Kara and her boss, played by Calista Flockhart, in a meta-criticism pointed directly at this debate. During the exchange, Flockhart’s logic for “Supergirl” over “Superwoman” is rooted in the fact that “girl” shouldn’t be considered anything less than an empowering term, mostly because she says so. And while no one’s going to alter the canon to change her name to Superwoman any time soon, the show presents a flimsy argument that does little to address the core issue.
Should you be watching?
Right now, Supergirl is a show with a whole lot of unrealized potential. Its pilot was doomed by the tall order of having to establish its basic origin story, lean into an established feminist narrative, and do all that while shoehorning in a villain-of-the-week for our hero to vanquish in the closing act. Berlanti’s pilot episodes for both Arrow and Flash were far more focused, which tells us that the showrunner is certainly capable of bringing Supergirl to a similar place eventually.
So should you be watching? At this point, we’re willing to give the show a chance, if not simply just to see where it goes from here. It’s a show in steady creative hands, featuring a talented lead actor, and that alone is enough to at least inspire us to tune in for another week. That said, the show would be well-served to find its place sooner rather than later.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest