Review: CBS ‘Supergirl’ a Bright Beacon, With Cloudy Skies Ahead
Like The Flash before it, CBS’ Supergirl pilot has flown about the internet long enough for any fan to find ahead of Monday’s premiere, though the network declined to preview any additional episodes for press. That, in and of itself, could mean any number of things. For one, as you’ve likely heard ad nauseum, the pilot feels breathlessly confident (if a bit formulaic), deftly spotlighting Melissa Benoist as a bubbly and bright spin on Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent, baked in with even more charisma and warmth than Grant Gustin at the outset of The Flash.
All of that remains absolutely true, but what worries me somewhat, apart from the pilot’s formulaic setup, are all the different mission statements at work. We all had our laughs comparing the initial trailer to SNL’s Black Widow sketch of a workplace romantic comedy, and while Supergirl admirably wears a feminist narrative* on its sleeve (or rather emblazoned on its chest), I fear that message losing impact in less delicate hands. CBS has a (successful) tendency to aim more middle of the road, and in a short span of 45 minutes, Supergirl drops intent like anvils, extras fawning over a female superhero to inspire their daughter, or questions of Kara’s efficacy that arise in context, but inexplicably pivot into gender-based retorts like “What, because she’s a GIRL?”
*One particular moment glimpsed through the trailers sees Kara livid at Cat Grant for branding her alter-ego the anti-feminist “Supergirl” over “Superwoman,” only for Cat to reclaim the merit of the word “Girl.” In our interview with the cast and creatives, producer Greg Berlanti insisted “That speech was in the original pitch for the show,” in a manner that protected the name and captured the conversation audience might ask one another. It’s on the nose, but not without thought.
At the same time, you’ve likely heard of the pilot’s awkward distancing between Supergirl and her more-famous cousin, who puts in an obscured appearance and bears multiple mentions, though never actually by name. There’s purpose in that, constantly referring to Superman as “him” in a setup to deliberately flip the pronouns later, and make “You’re HER!” the dominant emphasis. The sense seems to be that Superman represents Earth’s only major hero in this universe, inviting Kara to step forward into her own independent destiny, albeit in way that makes the world of Supergirl feel a bit less-lived in than its compatriots.
Other angles focus on Kara as an “immigrant,” or “coming out” to embrace her true identity and impulse to help people, a metaphor made head-scratchingly literal when Kara’s best pal (and pining admirer) Winslow Schott presumes her big secret an interest in women, over him. The series’ message ultimately stands strong, Supergirl a beacon of hope in a male-dominated superhero landscape, but one the CBS treatment leaves a bit less nuanced than perhaps it should, tossing all the relevant ideas into one blender.
Elsewhere, the brisk pilot ably fleshes out most of the supporting cast, save for David Harewood’s gruff DEO head Hank Henshaw, and some disparate coloring of Jeremy Jordan, between love interest and giddy best friend. Mehcad Brooks, on the other hand, affords a very lived-in confidence to
Jimmy James Olsen, dovetailing neatly with Melissa Benoist’s nervous, breathy energy. It also helps that Chyler Leigh’s Alex Danvers gets a mini-arc of her own, struggling with her own worth in her sister’s shadow, lending Supergirl a more needed ensemble feel.
I don’t want to fall any further down the rabbit hole of a successful pilot that many have already given witness, only to reiterate my mistrust for CBS with such a strong, relevant concept as a female superhero series. Atop that, our first trailer for episodes beyond premiere seemed just as divisive, the network clearly embracing a more dated “comic-book movie” sensibility than Arrow or The Flash, complete with bulky costumes and a slightly tin ear.
Listening to former CBS boss Nina Tassler discuss the series at press tour, I got the sense that CBS had little interest in following the examples of any other super-series, admirable in its own right, but somewhat worrying longterm. If anything, the more apt (if dreaded) comparison might be FOX’s Gotham, which certainly struck a cord with comic fans at first, but quickly gave way to a more divisively heightened tone.
As a pilot, Supergirl soars. As a series … well, this is still the network that kept 2 Broke Girls afloat through a fifth season, and Two and a Half Men for twice that. They’ve earned a bit of skepticism, amid the success.
AND ANOTHER THING …
- I can understand trepidation in the pilot, but Supergirl would do best to pick a side on Clark and Kara’s relationship. Superman won’t appear for logistical reasons, we get that, but in-show, it’s extremely odd that Kara has no relationship with her cousin, or that “The Big Guy” would send Jimmy as a mouthpiece for things he could easily express himself with a quick flyby.
- It bears mentioning that apart from a few jerky camera movements, most of the effects are terrific. The plane sequence is jaw-dropping, and it’s especially clever the way Kara’s fight with Vartox gives the illusion of scope by whipping one another from one location shoot to the next.
- “Kryptonese” over “Kryptonian.” No. No sir.
- Without giving too much away, Alex presents Kara with an artifact from her pod that it seems insane to have kept from her so many years.
CBS’ Supergirl will premiere Monday at 8:30 P.M. on CBS, subsequently moving to 8:00 P.M. for new episodes each week.