Preview: Supergirl 1×1 (US: CBS)

Don't believe the (bad) hype

Supergirl costume

In the US: Mondays, 8/7c, CBS. Starts November
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Is there truly no such thing as bad publicity? That is what George Schweitzer would apparently argue, based on how many hits the trailer for Supergirl got – 10 million.

Never mind that a lot of those who watched the trailer thought that it was nothing more than the Saturday Night Live spoof Black Widow sketch actually turned into a real TV show, with horrific cliches oozing from every pore. They watched it and for Schweitzer that’s all that counts. Presumably that’s what he’s paid to do and whether people subsequently tune in and enjoy the show is the purview of someone else.

But can a trailer truly convey what a show is like? Or by judicious editing can you make it seem like a completely different show? Even if that show is terrible and your show is actually quite good?

Someone needs to find out. That someone is me. Brace yourself – I’m reviewing the pilot after the jump.

But in case you haven’t watched it, here’s that trailer.

About
Born on the planet Krypton, Kara Zor-El escaped amid its destruction years ago with her famous cousin. Now at the age 24, she finally embraces her superhuman abilities to be the hero she was always meant to be.

Writer/EP: Greg Berlanti (The Flash, Arrow)
Writer/EP: Ali Adler (The New Normal, Glee)
Writer/EP: Andrew Kreisberg (The Flash, Arrow)
Director: Glen Winter (The Flash, Arrow)
EP/NW: Sarah Schechter (The Flash, Mysteries of Laura)

Cast:
Kara Danvers/Supergirl: Melissa Benoist (Whiplash, Glee)
Cat Grant: Calista Flockhart (Brothers and Sisters, Ally McBeal)
Alex Danvers: Chyler Leigh (Grey’s Anatomy, Taxi Brooklyn)
Hank Henshaw: David Harewood (Homeland, Blood Diamond)
James Olsen: Mehcad Brooks (Necessary Roughness, True Blood)

Is it any good?
Stand down, kids. It’s actually pretty good, very familiar in style if you’ve seen The Flash and Smallville, but slightly more thoughtful.

Teenage Kara-El is sent from Krypton by her mother, Allura (Laura Benanti), to protect her baby cousin Kal-El when he arrives on Earth. Unfortunately, her ship gets knocked into the Phantom Zone and by the time she gets out and lands on Earth, Kal-El is already Superman and doesn’t need protecting.

Does a world need two superheroes? Kara-El thinks not, so after a childhood hiding away with her adoptive family – delightfully enough, original Supergirl Helen Slater and Lois and Clark’s Superman Dean Cain – she decides to head to the city to try to make a difference in another way, working for a powerful woman in the media with influence. Unfortunately, that’s Callista Lockhart’s Cat Grant, who’s escaped from The Devil Wears Prada.

Then, when her adoptive sister (Taxi Brooklyn’s Chyler Leigh)’s plane nearly crashes, Kara-El is forced to save the day – and realises she really does want to do all the same things Superman does. Fortunately, it seems Kara’s sister has been keeping some secrets of her own, and with the help of David Harewood (Homeland, Selfie), Kara has a new job.

Unfortunately, there’s also a whole bunch of alien criminals who escaped from the Phantom Zone who followed her to Earth and since they can’t get vengeance on Kara’s mum, who was the judge that landed them there, they’ll have to settle for Kara instead.

So as you can see, the set-up is mostly an amalgam of various elements from other superhero shows. Indeed, the show knows you will know this and be conversant with everything to do with Superman already, not even really bothering to explain what Supergirl’s powers are, what the Phantom Zone is, what kryptonite is and so on. You should just know this stuff.

In fact, at its heart, everything is somewhat of a gender-swapped mirror to the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, with Kara El pretending to be a mild-mannered nerd while having to deal with her own version of Perry White and possibly seeking office romance with a co-worker – in this case the surprisingly buff star photographer Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), who’s moved from Metropolis to expand his career.

And despite all of that stinking to high heaven in the trailer, it really works quite well in the show, with Kara-El proving strong and feisty, rather than Anne Hathaway put-upon. True, it all has as much in common with real-life magazine and newspaper publishing as an episode of True Blood, but documentary is not what we’re going for here.

This mirroring even gets explicit at one point, with Olsen pointing out that Superman’s first great act of superheroism was also to save a plane and also highlighting that protecting people is in both their bloods. On top of that, we get echoes of the Lois and Clark costume scene…

…there’s a special group of helper monkeys to assist Supergirl in the style of The Flash and, as per Smallville, half the episode is dedicated to talk about how everyone feels about the baddie, rather than simply duffing him up.

The show also does a good line in feminism. Again, something of a shock judging from the trailer, but yes it does. Arguably, the fact that Kara-El ends up in the job she does in the vertical market she does, while farmboy Clark Kent walks into a top reporting job on the Daily Planet, is a reasonable reflection of sexism in publishing. Unlike the comics and even Smallville, where it’s all about Supergirl’s daddy Zor-El, here it’s Kara’s mum who’s the driver for everything and she’s even given Kara her own mini Fortress of Solitude. The main relationship is between Kara and her kick-ass adoptive sister and the men are pretty much supporting roles, even if Jimmy effectively gets to be a mentor simply by knowing so much about the Big Guy, even if we never really see the Big Guy.

And there is one final revelation that is perhaps the most American possible revelation the show could have had and which really rams this point home. It also explains one particular casting decision. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you’ve ever read Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, you may be able to guess who the real villain is.

Where the show suffers a little is both how much it owes to Superman, rather than setting up its own independent concepts, and in the requirement to be a procedural. If Smallville had its kryptonite freak of the week and The Flash has its meta-human of the week, it looks like Supergirl is going to have its Phantom Zone escapee of the week. I do hope it manages to avoid this trap, and certainly with The Flash/Arrow’s Greg Berlanti in charge, it stands a good chance of doing so, even if, you know, The Tomorrow People. But I can’t help but worry that the implausible (yes, I know…) Harewood/Leigh side of things is going to be the show’s kryptonite.

All the same, if you watched the trailer and despaired, I’d definitely recommend tuning in because this is clearly not the show we all thought it was going to be. It’s light, fun and full of excitement, with decent special effects (although the fight scenes could do with being a bit more super-powered) and an engaging lead.