Wednesday, August 5, 2015

POWERS that (Should) Be (Better)

I am finally getting around to writing up my take on the Sony Playstation Network series POWERS.  For anyone who is not familiar, this is a show that is based on the Brian Michael Bendis comic series of the same name.  It's a comic I am unfamiliar with, so I won't be talking about it's adaptation, but I will talk about how the show adapts the general super-hero idea to the small screen.
"REAL POWER LIES WITHIN" a better script. :(

One thing I won't be doing is praising it.  This show falls prey to a number of common problems.  The biggest is giving into the syndrome I described in my piece about the Wachowskis SENSE8 (read it here).  Internet First Syndrome, put simply, is when producers and writers behind the show decide they can take advantage of the no-commercial structure of Internet-First TV shows and just take everything slowly--too slowly.  In too many cases, this manifests itself in the form of padding. In this case, it takes POWERS about 7 episodes of not much importance to get to a big plot point.  Remember how Netflix's DAREDEVIL took what should have been a pilot episode and stretched it out into nearly an entire season of episodes?  Yeah, like that.

POWERS in a nutshell

Sadly, POWERS comes across like a show on a budget--gritty, but featuring weak-looking gore, no FX make-up,  props that look hokey, featuring a very simplistic, predictable story.  There were no surprises, no interesting characters, and action that looks like a fan-film.  Actually, I recently saw the fan film, PREDATOR DARK AGES, and it had better action and FX than POWERS.

POWERS left me wanting so much more.  I will never read the comic if this is how good it is.  The show tries to be tough and gritty, but it fails on almost every practical level.  It tries to say important things about the nature of fame and power, but does so in a way that is not compelling.

Ultimately, it felt like a show that didn't know exactly what it wanted to do beyond that one huge (and hugely obvious) plot point that takes forever to actually happen.

Look--even they seem underwhelmed by this show and they're
starring in it!
What worked in POWERS

Not much.  The universe of POWERS is developed, but boring.  The budget, I assume, keeps the story in Los Angeles, and it's an LA that looks a lot like real LA--not like an LA that would change due to having super-powered people around.  That said, we know there is a world beyond the borders of the story.  That's cool and interesting and not something other shows get right.  ARROW and FLASH never give the impression that there are is a culture evolving around super-heroes.  POWERS nails that and it's the most interesting thing about the show.  Sadly, that's not the focus of the show.

Another thing that worked, but was also not the focus of the show, was Retro Girl's place in the universe.  I really understood where she was in her life and career as a super-hero and I got her conflict.  I also liked what they were going for with the African-American partner.  The dynamic between her and the lead white guy was interesting, but really underdeveloped, sadly.  I really wish the show had been about that partner because her character is far more interesting than a washed-up, ex-super-hero-turned-police-detective.  I mean, that is a pretty old character archetype, isn't it? This doesn't mean it's an inherently bad choice, but it sure as hell doesn't make it instantly a good one.

One last thing that (sort of) worked for me was the gritty violence.  I thought it looked not-so-great, but I got the point. When there is violence, it's a mess and it's brutal.  I got the sentiment, even if the budget wouldn't allow for it to show like I felt it should have.  Seeing blood splattering everywhere is cute, but not all there is when making disturbing visuals.

What Didn't Work in POWERS: IT'S SPOILER TIME, KIDS!  You've been warned!

Oooo! Cool chains! You think he'll ever escape from them?
So very much to tear into, here.  I'll just list them:

1) The story of the hardboiled ex-super-hero-turned-police-detective is super cliché.  Especially when the character is played by a white man: I mean, come on.  Sharlto Copely's choice of voice only made it worse.  It seemed like Copley wanted to sound as though he gargled with gasoline every morning but instead just sounded like a bad Dick Tracy villain.  In the end, I blame the script for bringing us a really boring "hero" who is humorless and unlikable, and someone who doesn't even have an interesting character arc.

2) The FX: looked seriously budget-impaired.  Watching super-heroes fight in the air from several hundred yards away is like watching flies mate.  You can't tell what's going on and you really wish it would stop.  The gore FX were pretty low-budget looking.  When Wolfe chows down on people it's painfully obvious that it's just Eddie Izzard crouching over a blood-spewing machine.  Have him eat off camera.  We'll imagine much worse than you can afford to show us (and that's good).

3) The dynamic between the runaway girl and the mob boss: I got that she wanted to be a super-hero, but I don't think she ever explained why and if she did, she had a really boring reason for it because I don't remember it at all.  In fact, her character was written like a one-dimensional waif who has but one motivation in life and it's not a particularly interesting motivation.  Compare her do Disney's Pinocchio who had a similar goal.   His life was about that goal in a bunch of different ways.  All the runaway girl can do is mutter through the entire show about how she wants powers.  Meanwhile, her mob boss/father-figure is played by another actor I like but, like Copley, chose to have a silly sounding voice for the entire show.  Noah Taylor has a wonderful screen presence, but when he speaks, it sounds like he's doing voice over for a cartoon character named Grizzly McGravellyvoice.  I just couldn't take his character seriously.  Which is a shame since I did pick up on some nice emotional work from Taylor in a few scenes. When we see him and the lead white guy as young men, you don't hear those gravelly voices at all.  This was distracting.

4) The big plot point: it was obvious, almost from frame one, that Wolfe would escape the maximum security, underground, super-hero prison.  I mean, duh.  This was so clearly going to happen that it made the padding unbearable.  POWERS is definitely a victim of IFS here (Internet First Syndrome, again, is where a show takes advantage of the no-commercial structure of Internet-First shows but instead of adding more story, just stretches it out to fill more episodes).  Maybe I've just watched too many shows and movies, but I am so tired of seeing the obvious plot point coming only to have to wait for far too long for it to just come.  There's an old saying in scriptwriting circles: start your story as far into the events as possible.  This show starts waaaay too early.

This is pretty much all I can remember runaway girl doing for
almost the entire series. I think she tried to jump off a roof a
couple of times, too.  Poor underwritten character!
5) Gender equality: All of the female characters in this show are secondary.  The lead female is a partner to the clichéd white hero and is never allowed out of his shadow. One supporting female is a waif runaway girl who has almost no depth. The other supporting female is the white male hero's ex-girlfriend who, honestly, has better things to do than be in most of this show and is killed off at the end of the first season.  It's a shame she couldn't be given more to do as Michelle Forbes is great as this character and, really, everything she does.

6) Adapting the Super-Hero to the Small Screen: As I mentioned earlier, they do a good job of creating a world where a culture of super-heroes rises up around the people with super-powers.  However, every single character comes across like a third-rate Marvel hero.  The lead white guy used to be a hero called "Diamond".  Which sounds really non-threatening, like the female character from Marvel, Dazzler.  This guy could fly and had super strength, so I don't quite see why he went with "Diamond" as a name.  Likewise, Michelle Forbes' character Retro Girl has a name that never makes any sense at all.  Like "Diamond" she can fly and has super-strength, but any power having to do with the word "retro" is strangely absent.  I mean, Spider-Man climbs walls and makes webs.  Batman dresses with a bat motif and spends a lot of time in shadows.  Retro Girl doesn't have the power to turn back time, or de-age, or anything else you might associate with the word "retro."  So, yeah, the show fails in regard to presenting realistic super-heroes.  What's worse is that the show also fails at having fun with unrealistic super-heroes, too. There's really nothing interesting about any of these super-heroes.

7) Story structure: when the story finally gets going, it's still pretty boring.  The lead white guy wants his powers back, but only the big bad white guy can give them back to him.  So, he must do a deal with the devil to reach his goal.  Oh, no, we haven't seen that plot a thousand times before...  A story about a white guy who can't let go of something he lost? Wow. I'm not saying this can't be the plot, but at least come up with an interesting reason for him to want his powers back.  He's just a selfish loser who can't move on with his life.  Likewise, he still loves his ex. What guy doesn't? That said, such a plot can still be interesting if the writers try to make it interesting.
10) Costumes and props: This poor actor had the worst of it.
Just about every prop this guy handled looked unrealistic or
fake AND he had to wear a costume like this. Poor guy!

8) This one is less major, but is something I've seen other IFS shows fall prey to--I-Just-Learned-to-Swear Syndrome.  Remember when you were a kid, when you first realized how awesome it felt to swear and so you started swearing a LOT just to hear yourself do it?  Even if the swear words had no purpose, it was still just awesome to do it.  That's POWERS through and through.  I think there's an F-bomb in every scene.  Maybe not the ones without dialog.

9) The show is humorless.  This is a problem I see with a lot of TV these days.  There are no light moments, no overt gags, no sardonic, "Han Solo" type character, to deliver commentary on the absurdness we are seeing.  Humor can allow the audience to forgive other mistakes, so it's important to include.  Plus, when the show is filled with heavy stuff, thematically, humor gives the audience a space to breathe and release some tension.

How I Would Have Written Season One of POWERS

Big Bad Wolfe. GET IT?! Arg... Guys, it's not ironic if all you
do is add an "e" to it. 
First, I'd start right after Wolfe escaped from the super-cool underground prison.  I'd also give him a reason to escape that is more interesting than "to eat people."  I don't know the comic version of this story, but there has to be some sort of back story to fall back on.  Like an old love he could go find, or someone in particular he wanted to eat that is of particular value or irony.  If the comic didn't need to be my source material, I'd go with him wanting a family.  He escapes and starts looking for a wife to have kids with.  In the end he goes crazy and our white male hero finds him in a cabin in the woods with a dead, partially eaten woman, one end of a dinner table with two children in similar states at the table, as well, with him at the head of said table.  It is then that Wolfe tempts white guy with giving him his powers back.  I'd never show Wolfe killing on camera.  Like I said, the audience will imagine much worse than we can show.

To avoid the padding out of the show, I'd take as much from the comic as I could, assuming there is more to take.  I would flesh out the runaway girl's character and give her more to do than just wish she could be a real live hero.  She would beg the mob boss to help her get powers--the only way he can create more of his power-enhancing drug is to catch up with Wolfe, his source for the key ingredient in the drug.  Maybe it will help her develop powers she already has?  This is an element from the show, as aired, but would be better used this way.  Together they go after Wolfe.

I'd give the lead white guy more interesting things to feel, like wants and wishes that the show just does not give him.  Like the runaway girl, the lead white guy is only ever allowed to be shown longing for powers.  To make him truly heroic, I'd have him eventually become comfortable with his life without his powers and when Wolfe tempts him, he does think about it, but ultimately turns him down, saying "You keep them.  Powers don't make a hero."

I'd also like to see him be a foil to Pilgrim, his African-American partner.  She's the aggressive brains, he's the weary wisdom.

Oh and I'd see if I could tell Copley to drop his impression of a hardboiled Harvey Fierstein.

I wonder what they'd call this guy in France? Oh,
right, probably "Johnny Royale avec Fromage."
I'd justify every character's name somehow.  I'd explain that the lead white guy got stuck with the name because his agent called him "hard as diamond" or something similar (sorry, I really hate the name "Diamond" and would never willingly give it to one of my characters unless there was a very good reason).  Retro Girl would actually have powers that reflected the name (maybe she repels the Earth so she can fly or maybe she can reverse time or de-age people).  I'd also change her name to Retro Woman because it's really ridiculous having a woman in her late forties play a character called "Retro Girl".  In fact, I'd have to fight the urge to change all the character names because they're all so on-the-nose.  Christian Walker (he is a good Christian who no longer can fly).  (Big Bad) Wolfe is the "big bad" (arg--so cliché!), the police captain is called Captain Cross (oof--is he angry a lot?), and the mob boss is called Johnny Royale. You might call him "Johnny Royale with Cheese" because this show is so cheesy (not the good kind of cheesy).

I'd make Pilgrim, the lead white guy's African-American partner, a brilliant detective.  She's stuck with this partner because she's new to the division but will be working solo as soon as she proves herself to their boss.  She's does much of the heavy lifting as she and the lead white guy hunt Wolfe.  She needs to shine brighter than her partner who used to be called "Diamond" (he's supposed to be washed up, right?).

All the while, all four of these characters are dodging the press who are doing their job, covering super-hero news.  So we can still explore that culture that the show, as aired, did so well.  This is also how the anti-Powers protests would work in.

Over all, my season one of POWERS would be a show like the original THE FUGITIVE only inverted.  It would follow the brilliant Detective Pilgrim and the ex-super-hero-turned-detective white guy, as they track Wolfe.  Along the way, the brilliant partner arrives at crime scenes and puts the clues and facts she discovers into a neat package, but only the grizzled old, ex-super-hero-turned-police-detective white guy can explain what each package really means.  This then leads them to more clues and more crime scenes, etc, etc.  All the while, each character deals with the original one-dimensional character conflict they have in the show, as aired.

Wouldn't it have been more interesting if these two were more interesting?
I'm not talking the casting (though do we need another white male lead?)
I'm more talking about the characters as they are written.
So, the lead white guy is trying to focus on the clues and crime scenes Wolfe is leaving behind while battling his own loneliness and powerlessness.  The brilliant partner is dealing with her full-on loser-of-a-partner who just needs to move the hell on from his ex-girlfriend and ex-life.  The runaway girl and the mob boss are shadowing them while dealing with their respective pasts (runaway girl was neglected by her parents and mob boss is still torn up about his sister dying) and are eventually discovered by Pilgrim and white guy.  They team up and continue to search for Wolfe together.  Then Retro Woman could show up when they fall into traps left behind for them by Wolfe.  There would also be other super-villains from the POWERS comic that could enter into the picture as well.

AND NO SUBTEXT AS DIALOG!  Every time the lead white guy swears and criticizes his new partner in the show, as aired, I cringed.  I'd cut dialog like that and just let Copley act the line instead of having him say it.  He is a good actor.  Let him act.

In Conclusion

Ultimately, this show is pretty inoffensive.  I think the only reason it is getting a second season is because Sony wants to save face.  I've seen better shows not get a second season.  I've seen better shows not last a full season.  I think Sony is trying to jump on the super-hero bandwagon but, like every other super-hero project they do, this one pretty much sucks, too.  Sony needs to stop bothering with with these kinds of projects.  They really seem to have people working for them who don't fully get super-heroes.

Was POWERS entertaining? Meh, I suppose someone must have enjoyed it. I don't know of anyone who did.  Regardless, you have to admit: it would be more entertaining my way.

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