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.

An Ode To the One Season Wonders, Cut Down Too Soon

Sometimes, we have shows with a planned arc, headed by showrunners that know when to quit, that don’t get cancelled, allowing for a good conclusion, à la Orphan Black. Sometimes, we have shows that overstay their welcome by a bit, but not a horrible amount, in the style of Scrubs. Sometimes, we have shows that drag on way past the point where they should have ended, like Supernatural. And unfortunately, we also have the shows that got cancelled before they could really live.

1. Selfie


Also known as that brief, glorious time when Karen Gillan got to be funny, and #StarringJohnCho was real.

John Cho is great at being the straight man to a more obviously absurd costar – we saw it in the Harold and Kumar movies with Kal Penn, and we see it here, with Karen Gillan. It only made it to six episodes airing before cancellation, but luckily, we got to see the other seven. It involved gently mocking all types of people and relying on characters for humour, rather than jokes – in fact, it reminds me a fair amount of The Good Place, with a leaning more towards the romantic end of the comedy spectrum. After all, a selfish saleswoman learning to be a better, more considerate person from a nerdy man that she occasionally irritates and falls for? Which one are we talking about?

2. Powerless


I was, admittedly, disappointed when I watched the first episode and learned they’d veered away from the idea of being about an insurance company in the world of DC to being a tech company instead. If I recall correctly, the reason given was that it would be beyond skeevy for Bruce Wayne to own and profit from an insurance company. As true as that is, it could have easily been solved by having Bruce not own the company. Nothing else would have even needed to change!

That being said, a show set in the fictional equivalent of Cleveland, where people get annoyed at superheroes and supervillains delaying their morning commute and where dating a henchman is like dating a bass player? Comedy gold.

3. Bunheads


Okay, I know what this looks like, but I swear that I’m not just saying that because it has Emma Dumont in it. Partially, sure. But not entirely.

I could never get into Gilmore Girls. But this, by the same showrunner, is funny, sweet, enjoyable – and actually, probably even better for having one season than it would have been with more. It’s a little specific, revolving around a dance studio, and for me, at least, it’s a bit heavy on things that happen just for the sake of plot convenience, but it’s good enough that I’m willing to forgive it for the stretch of disbelief.

Plus, you know, Emma Dumont.

4. Birds of Prey

birds of prey

Ah, 2002. The days before Batman Begins, Superman Returns, and Iron Man. Hell, this was even before X2 came out. Unlike today, when superhero movies and shows seem to be coming out every few months, in 2002, Smallville was it. Everyone’s superhero needs could only be satisfied with that or good, old fashioned comic books. Which was why I find the fact that this show got cancelled a travesty.

Barbara Gordon as Oracle! Helena Wayne existing at all! Harley Quinn as Helena’s therapist! Birds of Prey did “a Batman show without Batman” over a decade before Gotham did, and while it may have been several steps in the direction of cheesy, it was charmingly so.

This was, unless I’m very much mistaken, the first female led superhero series since Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter. More than that – it wasn’t just the lead character that was a woman, it was other costars and the villain as well, not to mention many of the characters showing up in just a couple of the episodes. Alas, 2002 might have been too soon. The world wasn’t ready for that level of glory.

These four are only a handful of the excellent shows that got one season before cancellation. Goodbye to them, and all the others, including the ones yet to be cancelled. We’ll miss you!