The Art of the Sitcom: How ‘Powerless’ Could Have Been Great

I’ve said before that I love Powerless, and that’s true. I really wish it had gotten a second season. But I think part of the reason it didn’t was the same reason so many other DC properties are polarizing: executive meddling.

Powerless got screwed hard, to the point where Ben Queen, the original showrunner, left due to creative differences. He was replaced by Patrick Schumacker and Justin Halpern, the premise of the show was completely changed from what it was initially sold as, and the already filmed pilot was reworked practically from scratch. The point was supposed to be a city without a major hero, focusing on regular people that try to do good without spandex. The show we got wasn’t about trying to do good so much as just a decent person living her life and doing her job.

Schumacker and Halpern claimed they didn’t want to stick with the insurance company setting because the characters winning would mean someone getting screwed out of money, which could be a fair point, except I don’t think that it’s true – from the original trailer and what I’ve heard about the pilot, it was about Emily fighting back against a boss that wanted to them to screw over their clients and trying to actually help people. In the trailer, she pointed out that Wonder Woman is technically a demigod, so denying the claim as an act of god would be a grey area. It would have been a great plot.

Here’s the thing about sitcoms: they’re usually not plotted nearly as well as dramas. Sure, there are exceptions (The Good Place!) that hit the ground running and have a planned arc and don’t have much early installment weirdness, but most of the time? That’s not true. Sitcoms are, by nature, episodic. Most of them strictly obey the idea of the status quo being God, because if they change it, the premise completely changes. Because of this, it leaves room to change elements that don’t resonate with people. That doesn’t work when a plot element or characterization is necessary for the overall arc of the show.

Parks and Recreation was frequently at risk of cancellation in its early years, and you know what? I totally get it. It didn’t find its stride until season two. It took me months to actually get through that first, very short season, because as much as people promised me it got better, as much as I laughed at the quotes I’d seen, it started off painfully cringy. The rest of it isn’t! It has so much heart, so many genuinely funny jokes, that only emerged once the writers decided Leslie should be a less cringy, more competent worker that’s endearing because of her earnestness and hard work. It would have been such a loss for those seasons to have never been made.

Powerless deserved more time to find itself. Sadly, I think it would have got a second season…had it stuck to the original premise. What Powerless ended up being was something similar that crossed Better Off Ted with some aspects of certain Community episodes – and not the best parts of either. We’re talking a tech company filled with characters that rarely seem to actually like each other. We see in the trailer that the unaired pilot had characters that actually liked each other, which is hugely refreshing compared to the “the cynical characters hate the enthusiastic, optimistic newcomer and make lots of meanspirited jokes at her expense” in the version that aired.

I liked it. I thought it was enjoyable. But in stripping away the “woman that wants to help people working at an insurance company in a world with superheroes” angle, a lot of the sincerity and uniqueness was pulled away, leaving it just a series of jokes and nudges to the to more well known elements of the DC universe. It stopped being its own, self sustaining story in favour of being a gimmick. In a weird way, that’s the part that most reminded me of Community.

Community used to be very, very good. It was clever and enjoyable, but somewhere along the line, it got kind of self congratulatory. A weird thing to call a sitcom, right? But that’s what it felt like. It got caught up in how smart it considered itself, and started getting annoyingly meta. Where it used to involve a lot of loving homages to different genres with occasional lampshading of tropes, as the show progressed, practically nothing could happen without a wink-wink-nudge-nudge-see-what-we-did-there. It was still pretty good by the end. But more sincerity – and episodes of characters being nice to each other, rather than fighting – wouldn’t have hurt, just like with Powerless.

It’s not likely, but I’d love to see them try again with this. A comedy about the regular people in a world with superheros could be awesome. But I think they’d have to focus more on making it funny on its own merits than by continuing to rely upon Bruce Wayne jokes.

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