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.

5 Shows That Need More Love

1. Better Off Ted

This is just hilarious – a man with a conscience works for a cartoonishly evil corporation. It’s a typical sitcom with a quirky cast, but what’s great is that it recognizes the comedic sociopathy that’s often relied upon in the genre and instead of glossing over how creepy it is, leans into it for comedy.

All the hard work, late nights, and no rest have paid off. We’ve cured sleepessness! And demonstrated irony.

better off ted


2. Orphan Black

orphan black poster

So it had a devoted fanbase that was sufficiently large that it got to complete the narrative arc without getting cancelled. Still doesn’t mean it gets as much love as it should.

Admittedly, part of the reason I love this show is Canadian pride, because it’s my little Canadian sci-fi drama that could. It made no attempts to disguise the fact that it’s Canadian. It’s more than just filmed in Canada – it’s set there. For once, Toronto isn’t the stand in city. Canadian shows usually don’t get much traction in the U.S. This one isn’t really that much of an exception, because viewership was pretty low throughout all five seasons, but it is a head and shoulders above the rest in quality.

It’s one of my favourite shows, but even I won’t argue that its plot or writing alone is worth it. No, what pushes it over the edge to must see territory is the combined work of its absolutely brilliant lead actress, Tatiana Maslany; the excellent costume and makeup departments; and a genius visual effects team that do such a great job, you forget it’s just one actress playing half the lead roles.

3. The Gifted

the gifted poster

Look, I know I talk about how much The Gifted a ridiculous amount – both in regards to what I like about it and what I don’t – and it naturally gets some amount of attention just by virtue of being a superhero property, but its ratings aren’t great, and as such, I think I can stick it on this list.

It’s a lot like Gotham – just as Gotham started off as a Batman show without Batman, The Gifted is an X-Men show without the X-Men. Sure, it’s more grounded than Gotham, and closer to a regular drama than a black comedy, but the principle is the same. People didn’t think Gotham would work, but it did, carving its own place by completely throwing away whichever parts of canon it didn’t feel like using. The Gifted is doing just that, and it’s beautiful to watch.

4. White Teeth

You know those books you read in high school that are good but you somehow don’t much like, probably because you’re reading them in high school? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth was one of those for me. I don’t even remember which year I read it – junior, maybe? The whole book was a blur. I didn’t remember any of it, only being kind of bored while reading, and a little confused because there were a whole lot of characters and it was hard to keep them straight. But I recently found my copy while doing some cleaning, and whoa. A whole lot happened, and it was a way better read than I remembered.

The adaptation was a miniseries, not a full length one, but it was surprisingly excellent. It’s funny and moving in turn, with lots of great performances – and even if it’s not for you, it’s only a four hour commitment.

5. The Good Place

This is my favourite sitcom, bar none. Mike Schur co-created Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and while I like those well enough, The Good Place is in its own league.

the good place

Ethical dilemmas? All kinds of comedy? Characters with a wide range of strengths and flaws? The Good Place has it all! It’s gentle to its characters with next to no mean-spirited  jokes at any single character’s expense; there are times when it’s so well plotted, it feels like a good drama, and not a sitcom; the characters’ struggles, flaws, and insecurities are all taken seriously and it doesn’t make the show any less funny. What’s not to love?