After a decade in development with various networks, Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s Powers is finally a TV series, with the first three episodes having hit PlayStation Network for PlayStation Plus subscribers on March 10th. The show is the first shot Sony’s taken at original, scripted content exclusive for its network and, in theory, is meant to attract new subscribers to PlayStation Plus. But, Powers feels under-produced, sinking often past gritty into campy, and fails to deliver on the promise of its premise.
Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley of District 9) is a homicide detective with the Powers unit of the LAPD, meaning when a case turns up involving this world’s super-powered population (themselves colloquially called “powers”), he’s who gets called. Walker used to be a power himself until something caused his powers to disappear, a fact that, unlike with his comic book counterpart, is known widely enough that Walker’s a minor celebrity and gets mentioned on shows like Extra. He’s a grizzled outsider looking in at the world he used to inhabit. The show’s Walker feels much more down-on-his-luck than the comic’s clean-cut, square-jawed protagonist, but, somehow, he’s a hard hero to root for. Copley feels odd in the role, and it’s unclear whether Walker is supposed to be a paragon or an underdog.
His new partner, rookie detective Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward) is, in many ways, the character most true to her comic book incarnation; Deena retains some of the spunk and comedy while serving the unfortunate role of the person who needs to be brought up to speed on everything, thus allowing Walker to explain who’s who and what’s what for us. She is underwritten, and, frankly, the pair doesn’t have much chemistry – nor are they given much real interplay at all.
The fantastic parts of the premise aren’t leaned on too heavily, as should be the case; Powers was always about regular people in a world where super-powered individuals existed. On the occasions when superpowers do appear, however, or when the show decides it needs some extra blood spray, the effects are visibly dated, almost comically so, especially when compared to a series like The Flash. But, superpowers are put to fairly limited use, almost to the point that the show doesn’t need them at all – which, it should be said, defeats the point of the premise somewhat.
The other half of the equation – the noir element – fairs little better. Rather than tackle an individual case each episode, or following any particular plot from the comic very closely, the Powers series takes a more serialized approach. Consequently, it takes several episodes for much plot momentum to pick up; things start happening by the end of the third (and currently last available) episode, but it takes a lot of clumsy world-building to get there. Its attempts at being gritty or mature often feel forced and somewhat juvenile, mostly allowing for crude one-liners and innuendo that don’t add much to the mix. And, for a crime procedural, there’s oddly little mystery, as the show keeps up with both Walker and Pilgrim’s investigations into the series of powers-related deaths central to the plot, and the criminal goings-on that precipitate them. The result is a rather slow, limp attempt at a gritty crime drama, with very little suspense to be had.
That’s not to say that Powers is a complete loss. Johnny Royalle (Noah Taylor) and Wolfe (Eddie Izzard, naked) are both serviceable villains, Retro Girl (Michelle Forbes) is very not dead and a considerable wild-card presence, and perhaps with a little time the pieces will all fall into place. At the least, though, Powers doesn’t impress as quickly as it should and doesn’t leave much of a hook to bring viewers back for more episodes when they become available. Powers would be far from the first series to recover from a shaky start, but, as it stands, there’s a lot of recovering left to do.