Supergirl inspired mountains of commentary before a single episode even aired.
In some respects, it’s easy to see how TV fans could get consumed by the semiotic aspects of the new CBS series. Supergirl is a character that’s been around for a long time. And for just as long has been defined mostly by her more famous male cousin. That’s fertile ground for pop culture temperature taking, especially where gender roles are concerned.
But in all that discussion, it’s seemed easy to forget that, first and foremost, Supergirl is a TV show. The pilot finally made it to air last night. The verdict? Supergirl does a lot right and boasts intriguing potential.
When Supergirl opens, viewers meet Kara Zor-El, who is 13 when the planet Krypton explodes. She is dispatched in a rocket right after her infant cousin, but a mishap strands Kara in the Phantom Zone. Mysteriously freed after a couple decades in suspended animation, Kara lands on Earth, where her now adult cousin places her with the Danvers family to have a “normal” life.
Years later, the now-adult Kara (Melissa Benoist) relocates to National City and takes a job as assistant to acidic media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). Kara struggles with the warring impulses of fitting in quietly and being a hero. When a plane whose passengers include adopted sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) is about to crash, Kara jumps in and saves the day, creating a media sensation.
Kara is giddy with her success, but is baffled by Alex’s disapproval. Kara confides in smitten co-worker Winn (Jeremy Jordan), who helps her craft a costume, and starts operating publicly. Moved by the new hero’s commercial potential, Cat dubs her “Supergirl.” New art director James (not “Jimmy!”) Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), a recent Metropolis transplant and famous “friend of Superman,” reveals his relocation to National City isn’t a coincidence.
A clash with an alien villain lands Kara in the hands of the DEO, a shadowy government agency tasked with dealing with alien threats. Kara and DEO director Hank Henshaw (Dorian Harewood) have a less-than-stellar first meeting. More shocking is that Alex is a DEO agent, who’s been trying to steer Kara away from going public to shield her from scrutiny.
Kara experiences some setbacks as she tries to figure out how to be Supergirl. But she receives some key encouragement, including a recording of her dead mother Alura (Laura Benanti). Kara learns her own escape from the Phantom Zone freed a prison of alien villains, all with a grudge against Alura, the judge who sentenced them. Kara takes out her first enemy, but many more loom on the horizon. And the “big bad” has a crucial connection to Kara’s past.
The Supergirl pilot gets a lot right, starting with casting. Benoist is spot on in the role. She handles the various aspects of Kara’s personality (tentative, earnest, giddy, self-doubting) quite effectively, but cuts an impressively heroic figure when in Supergirl mode. She handles Kara’s growing pains in a way that’s relatable without sacrificing the larger-than-life element of the concept. It’s a compelling performance that’s a strong anchor for the series.
Leigh is great as Alex and demonstrates a convincing sisterly bond with Benoist, while also facilitating a lot of the pilot’s expository heavy lifting in as graceful a way as possible. Flockhart is a strong presence as the ambitious, disdainful Cat. Her diatribe on the power of the “girl” component of the name she bestows upon Supergirl is pretty much a big middle finger from the writers to the trolls complaining about it and Flockhart sells it for all it’s worth.
Brooks and Jordan don’t have a ton to do in the pilot, but each manages a respectable spark with Benoist. If a triangle has to happen (and the YA laws floating around Supergirl dictate that one must), at least it has potential to be interesting. Benanti doesn’t get much time in the pilot, either, but makes a favorable impression. Harewood can do the “grizzled government vet” thing in his sleep, but makes Henshaw flinty and potentially complex, even if the writers might not be entirely sure what they’re doing with the character yet.
Supergirl is on surer footing with its overall set-up. It’s refreshing that Kara wasn’t automatically good at using her abilities in combat and disaster scenarios. That learning curve provides a solid arc to start the character. The writers also come up with smart ways to demonstrate how Kara’s abilities factor into her daily life (her super-hearing on a bad date is a particularly memorable example).
Involving Alex in the story in a dual function provides both a source of support for Kara and a logical shorthand explaining why Kara is so willing to work with the DEO right off the bat. The escaped villain plot is a smart device that gives the early story a long-form structure that allows for “villain of the week” stories that feed into a bigger plan. It’s a viewer-friendly move that effectively splits the difference between serialization and self-containment, but also grounds the saga in real emotional stakes for Kara.
Supergirl establishes a strong visual identity off the bat. The plane rescue and villain fights are all well done, showing off good fight and action choreography. The camera work is sleek and keeps the action propulsive. The hair and costume teams do an effective job of delineating the differences between Kara and Supergirl in a way that makes the old “eyeglasses” disguise seem more palatable.
The show is canny in how it gets around the “Superman” issue. It can be a tough balancing act, since ignoring the connection would make no sense. But Supergirl can’t ignore the ties, either. Superman is seen in hazy, impressionistic flashback cameos and looms in the background of the story. The pilot mostly does a good job of incorporating aspects of Kara’s famous cousin without letting them overwhelm her individuality.
Long-time fans will appreciate the Easter eggs tucked into the pilot. Former TV Superman Dean Cain and erstwhile movie Supergirl Helen Slater cameo as Kara’s adoptive parents. Winn’s last name hints at an important connection to the Superman rogue’s gallery. And several bits of dialogue references well-known bits of Superman lore from across his various incarnations. Those are subtly worked, though, so as not to alienate newcomers.
Supergirl does enough right to merit further attention. It has the potential to become a strong entry in the increasingly crowded field of comic book TV.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on October 27, 2015.