Sunday, September 10, 2017

The "Pilot" Episode Of Supergirl Is Not A Strong Beginning.

The Good: Good performances - especially between Chyler Leigh and Melissa Benoist, Decent direction/production values
The Bad: Thematically heavy-handed, Rushes the reveals of all the major characters, Simplistic plot
The Basics: "Pilot" gives Supergirl a rocky, obvious start packed with characters who are inherently unlikable.

When it first aired, I watched the first episode of Supergirl (rather unimaginatively entitled "Pilot"); I was not impressed. In fact, I recalled it being woefully heavy-handed and dull, a far cry from the other DC Television Universe pilot episodes I'd watched. But then, before the second season premiered, it was announced that Lynda Carter was appearing in the second season. As a child in the 1980s, having grown up on Carter as Wonder Woman, I am always eager to see her in new projects and that necessitated rewatching the entire first season of Supergirl. I had plans this summer to go back through the entire first season of Supergirl and today I am finally getting a start on that.

Watching "Pilot" for the third time, Supergirl got off to a fairly rocky start. Sadly, the opening of Supergirl features a number of very bad tropes from both romantic comedies and superhero shows. So, Kara spends her pre-super hero times freaking out about a blind date, being told by her sister that she has nothing to worry about because she is cute, and she works for a female boss whose initial characterization is hostile, ruthless and uncaring (yes, Cat Grant is the archetypal "bitch" boss).

Opening on Earth with exposition about Kara Zor-El, Kara is sent in a pod from Krypton to look after Kal-El, her younger cousin. Unfortunately for Kara, her pod manages to escape Krypton, but her pod is knocked into the Phantom Zone, where time does not pass for her for twenty-four years. Kal-El finds the thirteen year-old Kara and sets her up with the Davers family where she grows up with Alex Danvers. Now a young adult, Kara Danvers works for CatCo Worldwide Media as the personal assistant for Cat Grant, the CEO and editor-in-chief of the company. When Cat threatens to downsize her first newspaper acquisition, The Tribune, Kara is upset, but powerless to help.

Kara meets the new hire, James Olsen, before going on a blind date. When her date bails, she learns that the plane carrying her sister is in jeopardy and after years of not trying, she flies to the plane's rescue and she uses her super strength to safely land the plane in a nearby river. Kara is shocked when Alex is less-than-supportive and Kara returns to work the next day to find Cat Grant scrambling to capitalize on the new hero in National City. Kara confides in her co-worker (the i.t. expert at CatCo) Winn Schott that she was the mysterious woman who saved the plane. Schott helps Kara outfit herself and together they find various crimes in National City and stop them. Unfortunately for Kara, she is shot out of the sky with Kryptonite darts by the D.E.O., the Department Of Extranormal Operations. Under the leadership of Hank Henshaw, Kara is told that the D.E.O. is a result of her arrival. Kara is also informed that when she crashed to Earth, an alien prison - Fort Rozz - left the Phantom Zone with her and aliens have been on Earth since. The D.E.O. allows Kara to leave - though she is shocked to learn her sister is working for them - and soon after, she is called out by Vartox, an alien who was sentenced to Fort Rozz by Kara's mother.

Thematically, "Pilot" beats the horse of female empowerment to death almost immediately. Early in the episode, a random person praises how exciting it is to have a positive role model for her daughter and that is heavyhanded. Kara complains about the branding of "Supergirl" and Cat Grant explains why "girl" is not a pejorative. When Cat lists positive things about girls, there is something particularly unsettling about her saying she is pretty before she takes credit for being smart. And the fact that Supergirl's first adversary is a sexist alien also seems over-the-top.

So, Kara Danvers encounters adversity in her new role as Supergirl and she goes off to pout. Kara, who has wanted to break out and be herself, immediately retreats and denies her own abilities in a particularly scripted bit of lame internal conflict in "Pilot." The initial characterization of Hank Henshaw is difficult to watch as he is a cold asshole to Kara. As well, his doubt of Kara - which elicits Alex's line that he doubts her just because she is a girl - is so forced that even on my third viewing my eye roll was pretty hard. Hank Henshaw and Cat Grant are two incredibly inefficient employers coming at the Supergirl issue from opposite positions on female empowerment. It is unfortunate that the writers and producers of Supergirl felt they could only make their points about Kara and Alex's competence and efficiency by contrasting them with woefully flawed bosses.

While Alex's characterization is somewhat lame and forced (to be fair, her motivations become better as the season goes on), the on-screen chemistry between Chyler Leigh and Melissa Benoist is impressive. Leigh and Benoist leap into Supergirl with a chemistry that plays exactly like two people who were raised together.

The technical aspects of Supergirl are especially problematic in the "Pilot." Kara Danvers does an awesome job of saving the plane and the special effect is pretty cool. Unfortunately, there are no physics that account for how Kara could have used super strength to move and, especially, slow, the plane. Kara has no actual mode of propulsion; flying would seem to be the function of excessive speed and strength. Even if she had some form of levitation ability, there would still need to be a surface upon which to "push" off of; the range of a person who had not used their abilities for years seems like it would either be limited or compromised.

At the climax of "Pilot," James Olsen gives Kara Kal-El's baby blanket and it feels like a particularly sexist and troubling gift. Olsen's gift makes far less sense as a character comment and more of a subtle reinforcement of the stereotypical gender roles of the United States. Kara's "aww" reaction where she clutches the baby blanket to her and shows that she values the gift only makes real sense if Kryptonian values toward motherhood and parental responsibility mirror the gender conditioning girls are given in the United States. In a similar way, Kara is clearly taken aback by James telling her that Kal-El is proud of her; it is hard not to instantly make the Mystery Science Theater 3000-type comment, "Why would I care about my baby cousin's esteem?!" when the line comes up.

Ultimately, the "Pilot" of Supergirl tries far too hard to make a statement and be a symbol rather than tell a good story that allows the show to take off and organically become that. The result is a terribly disappointing beginning to the series.

For other DC Television Universe series or season premieres, please visit my reviews of:
"The Adventures Of Supergirl" - Supergirl
"City Of Heroes" - The Flash
"Pilot, Part I" - Legends Of Tomorrow


For other television season and episode reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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