Powers S1.01 "Pilot" review

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By the end of this pilot episode, as our tormented hero balances himself precariously from the top of LA’s tallest building, you’d be tempted to ask the same questions of Powers. After a decade in development, the intriguing-if-not-inspiring adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s superhero/cop comic book often risks teetering on the edge along with its lead character.

That’s partly because there’s a whole lotta plot and characters to set up, and unfortunately showrunner Charlie Huston on-the-nose approach to exposition might make your ears bleed too. The Mario Lopez’s Extra news bulletin right after the opening credits – hey, it’s AC Slater Exposition - introduces us to a world where superpowered heroes exist and the under-funded and outmatched LAPD Powers unit must somehow keep these sonic-booming stars in check.

The cameo of the former Baysider delivers the show’s first two-footed tackle on celeb culture. These heroes are now mostly happy to play the Kardashian fame game – glossy mags, endorsements, social media – with "wannabes" trading sexual favours with the supers for a momentary exchange of power-giving super-semen.

The Lopez info-dump also supplies the backstory of our fallen hero, Christian Walker, a one-time masked superstud – aka Diamond – who lost his powers and became a cop. The instant outing of Walker’s former alter ego is one of the show’s many shifts away from the comic book – fans will be surprised to find that Walker’s ex-girlfriend Retro Girl (Michelle Forbes) is very much alive and flying.

As the tormented, brooding Walker – a damaged soul without his powers, fingering the ominous scar at the top of his spine – Sharlto Copley has a lot of heavy lifting to do and sadly can’t quite carry that weight. His accent is even shakier than some of the show’s SFX (there’s a dematerialization direct from Rentaghost) and the big dramatic moments – like his post Wolfe-encounter car slump or final rooftop bargaining with wannabe Calista – never grab you by the cape.

But if Powers is just a wannabe itself at the moment, the show could easily find itself picking up some genuine super-skills along the way, and without having to take a pop in the mouth for it.

Walker’s relationship with his new hero-fascinated partner Deena Pilgrim – actually a blending of the comic book’s much-loved POV character Pilgrim and later-partner Enki Sunrise – could easily become as compelling as the books; as Deena, Susan Heywood manages to coolly deliver a few gags and even create chemistry with the grim-faced Walker.

Together they’ll have to unknot the central mystery, one that involves coronary-combusted heroes, a "dead" supervillain who can appear where he likes, a supply of some nasty looking fruit pastilles and a butt-naked Eddie Izzard as the brutally incarcerated Wolfe – Walker’s cannibalistic ex-mentor who stole his powers. As the crime story builds momentum, the show will get stronger – and those who’ve steamed ahead through the three available episodes already know that the pilot is the weakest of the trio.

And then there’s Christian Walker’s world, one of gods and cops and the gap between them; of decapitations and exploding hearts; of effing and blinding; of sex and dangerous drugs. While Powers hasn’t mastered that balance between noirish crime procedural and big bright hero show yet, giving it a jarringly uneven tone – not aided by the wide chasm between the smaller cop moments and the unconvincing powers bits, which not even Hannibal director David Slade can overcome – this is trying to be the sort of gritty super serial that fans always say they want to see (though anyone expecting Game Of Thrones’ levels of blood and boobs will be sorely disappointed).

Taking an adult look at what it is to be a superhero in a modern age of selfies and celebrity, Powers will hopefully have the courage of its own convictions when it comes to plotting too. Being an R-rated drama doesn’t just mean letting its stars curse up a salty storm but also trusting its audience to be canny enough to fill in some of the gaps for themselves.

Because once Powers stops holding our hands and starts making with the mystery, the show could well find itself taking flight. Even if its lead character can’t.

Powers is available on Sony's PlayStation Network.

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WriterCharlie Huston
DirectorDavid Slade
The one whereEx-superhero hero turned cop Christian Walker gets a new partner and starts investigating the mysterious death of his old super-pal.

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Available platformsTV