PlayStation Network came out with their first scripted programming on March 10 and it’s surprisingly decent! The procedural Powers follows a police unit for superhero homicides; superheroes are known as ‘powers’, and in this alternate world they go to jail and pay taxes just like us. I came into the viewing ready to dislike a show put together by another random media company trying to get into the streaming game, but even though the writing and production err melodramatic, strong acting and a compelling premise that likens superpowers to something like race, sort of balances the scales. The pilot episode certainly has its problems, but as PlayStation Network’s first show, Powers has the potential to be just engaging enough to gain traction with some built-in viewership if it continues to stream for free on YouTube.
Powers is based on a comic of the same name by Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Avon Oeming that ran from 2000-2004 that mixed noir, procedural and traditional superhero elements. The first ten minutes of the show spews an onslaught of exposition on backstory and how this alternate world works in an even more abrupt fashion than the average sci-fi fare. Christian Walker is a former power named Diamond who mysteriously lost his powers. He gets profiled on the news for saving his police precinct from an improperly sedated power who goes on a rampage killing a bunch of cops. What’s more interesting than the in-depth history of Diamond’s fall from superhero-dom, is the tone of the Mario Lopez-hosted Entertainment Weekly-like news report that underscores how powers are viewed in this society – something like celebrities.
Over the show’s 53 minutes, numerous layered storylines unfold with some panning out a lot better than others. Walker gets paired with Deena Pilgrim, the daughter of a famous cop, who receives the second heavy dose of exposition on how this precinct is unique in not relying on the assistance of good powers to keep powerful criminals in line. Actress Susan Heyward’s take on Pilgrim breathes life into clunky dialogue, making the whole embittered-partner-stuck-with-a-rookie trope between her and Walker tolerable enough to stay intriguing in the overarching story about powers/humans race relations and a complex power structure of villainy.
Since the show airs uncensored on YouTube, it can include darker elements of the narrative like the wannabe power Calista (Olesya Rulin) a power who gives a blowjob in an attempt to get a dose of super sperm to jump-start her powers. Rulin engenders true sympathy for Calista as we watch her endure a great deal of strife and embarrassment in a desperate attempt to draw out the powers she believes exist inside of her. Rulin and Heyward’s acting chops may save their characters, but in less skilled hands the awkward dialogue sounds patently ridiculous. When Walker returns his dead partner’s desk junk to his widow, for example, she asks if Walker deleted all his sexts from an implied affair so as to not damage his reputation with his son. The wife asks him this so casually it’s almost as if she was asking about his lucky rabbit’s foot key-chain instead of a lurid affair.
One of the pitfalls of being a PlayStation show is that the low budget permeates some of the show’s mise-en-scène like Target paper coffee cups and a digital skyline that looks, well, rather digital. Furthermore, certain elements from the comic do not translate as well into the television format as developer Charlie Huston takes the show in a less stylized direction visually and tonally leaving certain components feeling a little bizarre in the more realistic environment. The police chief at the homicide unit, for example, leaves a giant blood stain from the earlier rampage so he could show Deena Pilgrim on her first day and, weirder still, all the evil henchmen are eerily similar looking bald guys. Those unintentionally zany elements along with an overwrought score just don’t mesh with the story’s more traditional emotional arcs.
My least favorite part about the show, however, is the evil villain Johnny Royalle (Game of Thrones‘ Noah Taylor) who speaks in some sort of verse that I don’t think could even be delivered well by a much better actor than the one who plays him. The situation appears to be that Royalle and Walker had the same teacher once upon a time, but in a Professor X and Magneto type scenario, one chose the evil path while one chose the good. Royalle’s compassion for young powers, and even wannabe powers like Calista, give him a little credibility but his scenes come off as the most ridiculous part of the show.
Still, certain subtle choices stick with me like how almost every random person Walker meets recognizes him as that guy who had powers once, by the end yielding the same frustration he must feel to the audience in having strangers bring up one of the most painful experiences of his life. But then Walker casually hits on a teenage power without anyone calling attention to the fact that it’s completely inappropriate so I suppose it’s creatively tit for tat. Basically the show comes across as both too exaggerated and not quite stylized enough to pull off the story it’s trying to tell. It seems to me that all the narrative elements more or less exist in Powers — they just need to be assembled a lot better.