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Powers is a TV Show At Last! So is it Any Good…?

I’m a huge, huge fan of Powers, the self-published comic book series written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming.  I bought the very first issue back in 2000, and I have been following it monthly (or as near-to-monthly as the series gets) ever since.  (I wrote about Powers here and here!)  While I think the series has dipped in quality a little bit in recent years, it’s still a terrific book and one of the more brilliant premises for a series that I have ever come across.  Detective Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim are homicide detectives.  But they live in a world of super-heroes and super-villains, and they investigate Powers-related homicides.  That is a genius-level idea (one that has been imitated in the years since).  Combine that great hook with Bendis’ incredible gift for dialogue and Oeming’s wonderful stylized artwork and you have the recipe for a classic comic book series.

Hollywood clearly thought so too, because Powers has famously been in development ever since the second issue was published.  For years and years it was being developed as a new TV series by FX, and in 2011 they actually filmed a pilot episode.  But I guess it wasn’t that successful, because FX declined to continue on to make a series.  At first they announced that they’d be re-working that pilot, but then the project was dropped.  (I would LOVE to see that original Powers pilot someday!!)  But in a crazy twist, Powers wasn’t dead.  Instead, it was picked up to become the first show for the newly developed Playstation Network.  A new cast was brought in and new writers were hired, and, after 15 years of “development hell,” Powers actually existed as a 10-episode TV series.  The first three episodes were released last week, and a new one will be released every Tuesday (starting tonight!) for the next seven weeks.

So, after this crazy fifteen years of development (and boy, I really hope this means Bendis will get around to writing a sequel to Fortune and Glory some-time soon!!), is Powers the Playstation Network TV show any good?

Powers.cropped

Well, the jury is still out.  It is good, but it is not the home-run I had been hoping for.  There are a lot of aspects of these first three episodes that are a lot weaker than I’d expected.  However, by the end of the third episode, I could see the potential in this series, and I can envision a scenario in which I will be very, very satisfied by the end of the ten episode first season.  I can also see a scenario in which I will be very, very let down!  We’ll see how it goes.

What is good about the show?

Bendis and show-runner Charlie Huston have both given interviews in which they have discussed creating, in this first season, a crime-novel for television.  It’s clear in these initial episodes that this ten-episode first season has been created as one distinct story with a clear beginning, middle, and (one assumes) end.  I love that.  I like the pacing of the show over these first three episodes.  I like the way the plot from each episode leads smoothly into the next, and I like the way the character arcs have already started to play out.

I am way behind on posting my review of the first season of FX’s Fargo, but I had a similar reaction when watching the first episode of both shows.  Being familiar with the Fargo film, at first I was unhappy with the Fargo TV pilot because many characters felt wrong to me.  For instance, it felt like a crime to me that the strong, intelligent Marge (Frances McDormand) from the film was recast as a more bumbling, less-savvy investigator in Molly (Allison Tolman).  That really irritated me.  But a few episodes in I began to realize what the show-runners had done: they were giving the character an arc!   Molly didn’t start as the character I expected — instead, over the course of the season, we would get to see her develop into that character.  Well, the same thing happened with Powers.  Despite the close involvement of Powers co-creators Bendis & Oeming, most of the characters on the show begin as very different people than they are in the comics.  Both Walker & Pilgrim felt very off to me.  I was stunned!  But after watching these first three episodes, I am starting to see the plan of how these characters will (hopefully) grow and develop over the course of the season.  If this works, it will be very satisfying and a great example of writers taking full advantage of the benefit of these short cable-TV length seasons.

And make no mistake, though Powers is being launched through the Playstation Network, this isn’t a video-game promotional tool or anything like that.  This is an exciting cable TV show, it’s just being brought to us via a different method.  This is the next step past the current Amazon and Netflix models of original TV content.

(The only downside is that, even for a huge Powers fan like me who was absolutely going to find and watch this show, finding and watching this show was very difficult indeed.  I don’t own a Playstation and I have no intention of ever doing so.  I assumed that I could still purchase and watch these episodes on-line, and indeed one can, but it was not nearly as easy to do so as I’d thought it would be.  I don’t mind paying for these episodes — if I’m not paying for the cable channel or for the on-line service like I do with Amazon and Netflix, it makes sense that I would have to pay in some other way to get to view this content — but the Sony Playstation website is not so easy to navigate, and they really make you jump through a lot of hoops, particularly a lengthy registration process, in order to find and watch these episodes.  Sony, please, if you want to get people to watch this show you have got to make it easier for them!!!)

One of the strengths of the Powers show is the cast, which is a terrific group (even if some of them aren’t being so well utilized at first).  District 9′s Sharlto Copley is the lead as Christian Walker, and it’s a huge get for the show to have landed this movie-star.  I was dubious when he was cast, though, because his personality seemed a bizarre choice for Walker.  I still have concerns, but Mr. Copley is one of the prime examples of what I was discussing above, in terms of how I think I can see the plan to develop these characters into the characters we know and love from the comics over the course of this season.  I hope I’m not being too optimistic, because as of now, this whiny, mopey, self-centered Walker isn’t the character I know from the comics, nor one that I really like.  I hope this changes.  Susan Heyward is more successful, at first, at capturing the personality of Walker’s spunky, profane partner, Deena, though the show leans on her character way too much as a vehicle for exposition.  (Deena asks a question so Walker or another character can explain something to the audience.  Over and over.)  The show also falls into the trap of presenting her as too much of a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, whereas Deena is actually an experienced cop, she’s just new to the Powers game.  There’s a moment in the pilot that made me incredibly happy, when Ms. Heyward totally captured Deena.  As Walker drops her off after their trainwreck of a first day, Deena puts on a faux teenaged-girl-on-a-date voice to thank Walker for a great night out.  It’s a super-quick moment, but it really made me laugh.  That is Deena Pilgrim!

I’m excited by Eddie Izzard’s involvement in this show, though he’s not in these first three episodes that much.  Michelle Forbes (from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Battlestar Galactica) is solid as Retro Girl, though here too I had to pause, initially, at how much they changed this character from the comics.  I also feel that Michelle Forbes is a little old to be playing this character.  But I can go with it.  This is not the Retro Girl I had ever imagined, but I am interested by the character being created by the show.  It’s an interesting choice to have Retro Girl be a character in the show at all!  Whereas the comic series Powers begins with Retro Girl out of the picture, I like that the show presents her as an important player in the story.  (By the end of episode three I was also beginning to get excited for the show’s plans for this character’s story-line by the end of this first season.  Fans of the comic know that once the graffiti “Kaotic Chic” makes an appearance — as it does in episode three — that means bad things for Retro Girl.)  One of my favorite characters in the show is Noah Taylor as Johnny Royale.  This great character actor has fleshed out Johnny — who’s a pretty one-dimensional prick in the comics — into a far more interesting, complex character.  He’s a villain, but one with a very understandable point of view.

Like the comic, the show is jam-packed with plot and characters, and like the comic, the show does not stop to hold the audience’s hand too much.  I like that complexity, though I think these early episodes — particularly the pilot — are a bit too over-stuffed with circumstance.  It dilutes the great central premise of the show.  And for all that the show is willing to stuff in a lot of plot without explaining everything right away, the show is also very clumsy with its exposition.  Over and over we get an obvious info-dump.  Oh great, that TV announcer is telling us everything we need to know about this character’s back-story!  I feel like this could have been handled in a far more artful manner.

The show’s biggest weakness, though, is that it looks cheap.  I don’t know the budget situation on this show, but there are moments when it looks shockingly amateurish.  Quite a number of scenes take place in small, unfinished-looking rooms that are so clearly sets it is painful.  Johnny Royale’s empty club, bereft of extras, is laughable.  The glimpses we get in the pilot of the Powers Division headquarters are embarrassing, and the one quick exterior shot of the Powers Division HQ — basically a nondescript facade with a simple “Powers Division” sign over a door — is even worse.  Probably the show’s visual-effects low-point is also in the pilot, in a scene in which Walker watches from his apartment as several Powers engage in a mid-air battle.  This “battle” is jaw-droppingly terrible.  Smallville had better visual effects a decade and a half ago.  This is weak in the extreme.

And it is particularly unfortunate because this sort of thing really undermines the show.  The great thing about the comic was how gritty and real it was.  It was a hard-boiled crime story, just one that happened to feature superheroes.  But the show feels, much of the time, like a cheap TV show.  It doesn’t have that gritty realism that was so important to the comic.

That’s not the only way in which the show misses the tone of the comic.  The comic, for all its gritty realism, was also a lot of fun.  It was frequently very, very funny, and we also got some really great super-hero smack-downs, gorgeously brought to life by Mr. Oeming’s illustrations.  This show doesn’t have the money for any super-hero smackdowns — we get to see hardly any super-heroics at all — and the show is very much lacking the humor that Mr. Bendis so consistently brought to his writing.  It’s a pretty dour, downbeat show, which surprised me somewhat.

The show is also tamer than I had expected.  Another important aspect of the fun of the comic was how transgressive it often felt, as Bendis & Oeming pushed the bounds of acceptability and good-taste.  The comic was incredibly, disgustingly, hilariously profane, and there was lots of very graphic sex and violence on display.  There’s a lot of cursing on the show, and also some violence, but Powers feels far tamer a show than, say Game of Thrones.  That’s a show that captures what it felt like to read the Powers comic book at its best.  Powers the TV show feels far too watered down, and that, combined with the cheapness of the show’s look, is a huge problem.

Other notes:

I hate the show’s version of Calista.

But I sort of love their Triphammer, even if his armor is cheap-looking and the wrong color (green not red!!).

Love the show’s Captain Cross and Dr. Death.

Love seeing the origin of the Drainers.

I like the actress who plays Zora (Logan Browning) though I’m not sold yet on this version of the character.  We’ll see how she develops.  I did like getting to see her trademark sparkly cubes, though.

In summary, I enjoyed watching these first three episodes of Powers, and it is super-cool to see this great comic book finally brought to life.  But I wish I could more enthusiastically recommend this show.  I hope that things improve over the course of the season.  The premise is so great, I know this could be an extraordinary TV series.  I see hope in these first episodes that maybe the show will develop into something great.  These initial episodes are far messier than I’d expected, but there is still a lot that I enjoyed and I can see the elements in this show that could make it great.  I would love for that to happen.  I would love for this show to be the cool, under-the-radar version of a comic-book super-hero TV show that could be an exciting, more adult contrast to all the other Marvel & DC super-hero shows taking over the airwaves.  Powers is not there yet, but I have hope.

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