Warning: for those watching on UK TV, may contain spoilers.
My current schedule of US TV series, all but one of which are superhero-oriented, is starting to wind down now as we approach May, and it’s time to look back and see how good or otherwise they’ve been.
First to hit the traps is Supergirl, closing out a 20-episode season yesterday with the back half of a two-part season finale that, in accordance with the modern formula, sees off the season’s big bad and sets up a cliffhanger for season 2. At the moment, however, there is no word as to whether there is going to be a season 2, which would make the cliffhanger a bit foolish if the show gets the elbow.
Does Supergirl merit a season 2? Overall, I’d go for it, but it would be a reorder with pretty firm conditions attached to it. The show needs to seriously up its game. It’s ideas are mostly pretty decent, its cast are pretty much perfect in their roles, but the writing is constantly underpowered, both in terms of clunky dialogue and, more often, plotting that lacks either subtlety or smooth narration.
We started off with semi-klutzy Kara Danvers, aka Kara Zor-El, aged about 24, PA to media mogul and all round superior supercilious Cat Grant. Kara was actually Kal-El’s older cousin, sent (separately) to Earth to take care of the little babby, even though she’s only twelve herself. However, thanks to a detour via the Phantom Zone, by the time she arrives, he’s fully-grown and she’s still only twelve.
So Kara gets placed with foster parents the Danvers, Jeremiah and Eliza, both scientists, and their slightly older daughter Alex. Jeremiah isn’t around long before he’s taken away by the DEO, where he dies. Kara is taught to conceal her powers and herself, to be human and weak, to not draw attention to herself, all the while that Superman was the big hero of Metropolis.
However, Kara is forced to use her powers to avert a disaster that threatens the life of sister Alex, who is second-in-command at the Department of Extraterrestrial Operations, under Hank Henshaw. Kara comes out as Supergirl and works with the DEO, Cat Grant promotes her as the heroine of National City (whilst constantly calling Kara ‘Kira’). And it seems that en route through the Phantom Zone, Kara’s pod dragged with it Krypton’s Fort Rozz, home to multi-alien psychopaths and bad guys, a ready-made menace-of-the-week.
The casting, as I’ve already said, was very good. From the outset, Melissa Benoist nailed both Kara and Supergirl, as well as rocking the traditional costume, and Callista Flockhart as Cat Grant has been spectacularly good. There’s also a genuinely heart-warming touch in casting Dean Cain (Superman of Lois and Clark) and Helen Slater (Supergirl of the 1984 film) as the Danvers.
As for the rest of the cast, they’ve been mostly effective, but haven’t risen above the often quite poor writing in the way that Benoist and Flockhart have. I’ve a soft spot for Jeremy Jordan as Win, aka Winslow Schott Jr, a name I recognised of old, being Superman’s way-back foe, the Toyman (Win’s father, as it happened), but far less so for Mehcad Brooks as the softly spoken Art Director James (not Jimmy) Olsen.
Jimmy (no, James) has moved to National City supposedly to get out from under the shadow of the Big Guy (the show cannot contractually actually use Superman, a difficulty that it has been too obvious in contriving ways to avoid this, and for the first few weeks, weren’t even allowed to mention him by name), but in reality he’s here because Supes asked him to move out and keep an eye on little cousin.
Chyler Leigh is effective as Alex Danvers but loses points for how she’s conspicuously trying to be the tough, super-efficient operative, which in turn slightly undercuts her effectiveness as Kara’s sister.
Which leaves British actor David Harewood, as DEO Director Hank Henshaw: cold, cynical, heartless until we learned the secret he was concealing (with that name, we comics fans knew there had to be a secret) which was that he is actually J’Onn J’Onzz, the Martian Manhunter.
Overall, the series’ major problem is that it doesn’t quite yet know what it wants to be. It aspires – rightly, in my opinion – to the lightness and sense of fun of The Flash (there is no mystery about the best episode of the series being the crossover with The Flash). Melissa Benoist pretty much ensures that as the right line to play. However, that lightness needs balancing out with danger, menace and threat, which is where the show doesn’t quite know what to do.
Thankfully, the clunky menace-of-the-week was dropped quickly, in favour of more natural foes, and continuity was maintained by the slow development of the Big Bad, which started off as Kara’s own extremist Aunt, Astra, with lowly Lieutenant husband Non, only to jettison Astra midway, to a kryptonite sword through the heart, leaving the far less dynamic Non in charge.
Non and Astra’s plan was something called Myriad, and this dominated the two-part finale. Myriad was a broadcast mind-control system that took over the minds of everyone in National City except for Kara, Cat Grant, and recurring anti-hero Max Lord (Peter Facinelli, another buoyant and boisterous part bound for better things if season 2 materialises). These last two were protected by devices created by genius Max. Even Superman, arriving as the cavalry, succumbed instantly.
Let’s specify a few of the points I’ve made over this last two episodes. At this point, Hank has been outed as an alien and is on the run, with Alex who helped him escape. They’re out of range, visiting Ma Danvers. As soon as the news breaks, J’Onn decides to return, his Martian brain proofing him against Myriad. Alex insists upon returning as well, even though she will instantly come under Myriad’s influence and be not only utterly useless but also a positive danger. J’Onn can protect her, at the cost of reducing his effectiveness by at least 50%.
It makes no sense whatsoever, except on the emotional level, and even then it’s still stupid. These are two very experienced, high-level agents, trained to think analytically about situations and deal with them dispassionately and efficiently. So J’Onn gives in and takes her. Alex is immediately captured, Myriaded and sent out to fight Supergirl dressed in kryptonite armour and equipped with the ol’ kryptonite sword.
But Alex snaps put of her programming, not because Supergirl pleads with her to do so but because J’Onn has flown off and brought back her mother to get the girls to stop. This massively powerful, instantly effective brainwashing system can apparently be defeated by saying the word ‘hope’ a lot, because that gets people to shake it off, effortlessly.
Thus thwarted, after an entire season building up Myriad as this infallible menace, Non sets his phasers to kill. Apparently, upping the voltage on Myriad will cause the human brain to explode, rather than reinforce the mind control side of things. We have four hours before everybody’s head goes ka-boom!
Supergirl will stop things but, since she’ll have to go in there alone, it’s probably a suicide mission. So, with such a tight deadline hanging over them, Supergirl changes back to her Kara-self and goes back to work to tell all her friends that she loves them in a way that is obviously a goodbye. Given that Max Lord hasn’t yet located the whereabouts of Myriad, it’s dramatically sound, but it kills the momentum of the episode, undercutting its supposed threat by such a slow-paced diversion.
The same thing goes after Supergirl, with J’Onn’s aid, defeats Non and his henchwoman Indigo (J’Onn literally rips her in two, despite her being a body-stretcher). But it’s too late to stop Myriad from ka-booming everybody’s head unless Supergirl can lift Fort Rozz into outer space. She has three and a half minutes left…
So she contacts Alex for a heartfelt conversation. Seriously. So she can say goodbye and also get Alex to promise to get a life (here meaning boyfriend, marriage, kids and white picket fence, the very things Supergirl has already rejected as her destiny). Alex takes so long promising that it’s a wonder there are even seconds left but there’s still time for Supergirl to flex her muscles and lift the Fort (about 500 times her size and obviously perfectly constructed even after crashing on Earth, since it doesn’t crack up at all) into space. It floats off, Supergirl floats towards oblivion, and Alex turns up to rescue her, having taken very little time to get Supergirl’s pod out of the DEO’s underground HQ, topped up its petrol tank and flown it into space to save her.
This is the kind of story-telling I mean when I say Supergirl has got to up its game. Letting emotional beats lead despite the damage done to credible plots, careless and ridiculous short-cuts to reach end-points. The show’s ambitions are admirable, but it cannot yet establish its story-points without resorting to plotting that operates on old-style comic book logic.
Yes, I know, the irony is palpable. But it’s one thing to thrill ten year old boys with victories for the hero, and entirely another to operate to the same standard for an adult TV audience in prime-time. On the other hand, Dallas did bring Bobby Ewing back from a particularly long shower, so maybe I shouldn’t grumble…
One other point I’d like to mention, is the show’s overt feminism, or rather its constant adherence to a Spice Girls-level ‘Girl Power’. Supergirl has a penchant for making serious social points, usually in relation to the status of women, and whilst it’s good to hear such things being stated and re-stated (often in well-chosen words), the show needs to learn to be a bit less obvious about such things. Frequently, it comes over as a bit lecture-like (class, you should write this down) and the show could do with being a bit more Show than Tell.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed Supergirl without ever being blind to its faults. It’s developed it’s lead character’s confidence and effectiveness without too much obviousness over its twenty episodes, and there’s the makings of a good, fun show in there. It needs to manage its elements better, and it could have something. Other shows are demonstrating that it’s possible, so Supergirl clearly has it in it and should get a second shot.
But unless it does start to fix those flaws, not a third, I think.
Where could season 2 go? The final episode left a couple of threads open. J’Onn was pardoned for his part in saving the world from Myriad and reinstated as DEO Director with facile speed, but General Sam Lane and Maxwell Lord still have their alien xenophobia to the fore, with the General handing over to Max an incredibly powerful Kryptonian device.
Then there’s Jeremiah Danvers: not dead this ten years, kept alive and imprisoned at the extremely secret Project Cadmus, to be hunted out by the Danvers Girls.
And as for that cliffhanger, it’s another Kryptonian pod, identical to Kara’s, crash-landing in the Park. Kara rips off its canopy, looks inside and says ‘Oh my God’. Who’s in there? Only time and season 2 will tell. Personally, I side with those already hoping for Krypto, the Superdog.
Grading: B minus, could do better. I’d like to see a season 2, but I wouldn’t be frustrated if the show was cancelled here. We’ll see.