NOTE TO COMIC BOOK READERS: Spoilers will not be tolerated in any sense, no matter how vague. Once gets you deleted, twice gets you banned. No exceptions.
Powers faces a big challenge right off the bat — namely, that it’s produced by Sony’s Playstation Network. That means that it’s only available to people who own a Playstation 3, Playstation 4, or a Sony Bravia TV or tablet. Its unusual delivery method means its restricted to people who are already Sony customers, lacking the built-in audience that comes with online series coming from Netflix or Amazon.
But even if that wasn’t the case, Powers still has some problems. That’s not to say it’s not an engaging or entertaining show — it is — but it’s also got enough issues to make one wonder about its sustainability in the long run. The series premiered on March 10th, dropping the first three episodes — the pilot, “Like A Power,” and “Mickey Rooney Cries No More” all at once, with the remaining episodes to be released weekly. I watched all three episodes in one shot last night after originally planning on only watching the pilot. So at the very least, its interesting enough to keep me coming back.
Powers is based on a series of comic books by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Avon Oeming, run initially by Image Comics and later by Marvel’s Icon company. It focuses on two homicide cops who work in a police branch specifically tasked with crimes relating to “Powers,” that is to say, superpowered humans. The world is rife with them, and there are all manner of laws enacted regarding the use and visibility of those powers. The Powers Division faces a number of challenges, and their best and brightest is Christian Walker (District 9’s Sharlto Copley), a former Power himself who lost his abilities under mysterious circumstances. Walker is bitter, jittery, jaded and prone to explosions of rage, almost bipolar in his approach as he nourishes his thirst for justice, yet also continues to yearn for the rockstar lifestyle that he once had as a Power. He’s partnered with Deena Pilgrim, a newcomer to their department, played terrifically by Susan Heyward (she’s easily my favorite character thus far). Over the course of three episodes, they find themselves finding a trail of dead powers, chasing after a former nemesis of Diamond’s (Walker’s old Power persona).
First, the bad news. Three episodes in, Powers still hasn’t found its footing. Part of that is the very nature of this peculiar beast — a police procedural wrapped inside a superhero universe means that the balancing act is a precarious one. The special effects are, to be quite honest, awful. Some of the weakest CGI I’ve seen this side of the CW, if not worse. Normally I wouldn’t harp about effects too much when it comes to television, but in this particular niche, it becomes rather critical in order to maintain belief. Copley does a capable job as the tormented, frustrated Walker, but his accent is a bit of a moving target (not terribly surprising given that he’s South African).
Plotting and pacing are far bigger issues — Powers has a lot of threads being pulled all at once — an eclectic, sinister rogue’s gallery, all with ties back to Walker; an interesting but uneven plot concerning the newer generation of Powers, indolent and idle club kids who don’t know what to do with themselves (not to mention a generation of normal kids who take insane risks in the hopes that they’ll “awaken” powers of their own); a new drug called “Sway” that is being passed around that group; Walker’s conflict with his new partner and the secrets he’s keeping with her; his former lover, the current still-powered hero Retro Girl (played by Michelle Forbes). That’s not even all of it, but that’s enough to show you that they’re cramming a great deal of plot and subplot into a mere three hours, and there’s every sign that it will continue to expand. It’s overstuffed and overwritten at times, with too much exposition as a consequence of so many threads right at the beginning of a new universe. Lastly, its pacing is slow, and this is a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because it’s a show about superheroes, and it’s slow as hell with almost no action, which is likely to turn some viewers off.
… On the other hand, that’s one of the things I loved about it. It really is a police procedural, and that part, and the ongoing mystery, is extraordinarily riveting and reason I kept watching. The mystery is taut and complex and interesting, and if it can maintain its momentum, could pay off in a number of ways. The procedural part is nicely done, and the discoveries are actually both surprising and intriguing. The show revels in a handful of Ah-HA! moments that actually work, and that makes it fun. The cast is a mixed bag, getting weaker and weaker as it goes down the ladder. But those at the top are very good. Copley does quite well, but its Heyward’s Deena Pilgrim that held my interest the most. Smart, dry as hell, with a healthy mix of sympathy for Walker’s plight but also little patience for his bullshit, she’s probably the most well-rounded character, personality-wise, and their banter has steadily improved with each episode. As for the bad guys, the always reliably creepy Noah Taylor does solid work as Johnny Royale, a teleporter with ruthless methods and murky motivations, taking what could have been a mustache-twirler and making him oddly sympathetic at times. Eddie Izzard is there as well, but his character — Big Bad Wolf — has been mostly silent, snarling subplot thus far. But I have high hopes for his future.
Where Powers also impresses is not just in its diversity — it’s a nicely rounded, multi-ethnic cast, but also in its depiction of new and old generations of Powers. This could easily have been retconned into a show featuring a bunch of young, beautiful people. Instead, the main cast is mature and that ultimately works in the show’s favor. The heroes have been at it for a while, and all succumb to the results of decades on the job. Retro Girl is played by the utterly lovely Michelle Forbes, and at 50 years old she does a fine job of being strong, clever, but also deeply cynical and often simply seems tired of all the nonsense that her powers bring. That maturity from her, Copley, and Taylor makes for a more nuanced, subtle approach. The younger cast is weaker in acting ability, but their story is nonetheless interesting, particularly because that intergenerational clash and how each tries to manipulate the other is a unique spin on the genre.
Powers has a lot of work to do, and right now it doesn’t feel like it’s built for a long haul (the current season has a 10-episode slate, but who knows beyond that). But there’s some really great stuff in there, and if they could trim some of the fat, improve the pacing, and find some workarounds to their special effects issues, it could be something great. There isn’t much else like it out there, and it’s got a great foundation to be built upon — solid acting, an interesting premise and some intriguing conflicts — that make it worth checking out.