The best and worst thing about the pilot of CBS’ new series Supergirl is that it moves as fast as its lead character. Like a lot of genre TV pilots, Supergirl feels slightly rushed in its attempt to exposit everything as fast as possible to keep Joe Average interested and that’s frustrating. But it’s awesome for nerds of all kinds because it gets to the good stuff. And it gets to it fast.
The easiest point of comparison others have made with this show is The Flash. It’s easy to see why—they share a producers in Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kriesberg (who co-created with Ali Adler), a former Glee cast member as the lead in Grant Gustin/Melissa Benoist and the same lighthearted, fun tone that superheroes are supposed to have. Like The Flash, Supergirl gets right to the action and gets to it quick.
A hurried voiceover-laden opening lays out Kara’s backstory. Combining the various comics versions, pilot writer Adler has a 13-year old Kara follow Kal-El’s famed rocket only to be buffeted into the limbo-esque Phantom Zone, be stuck there for 24 years, then crash land on Earth where she’s welcomed by her now-adult, already famous cousin Superman (I say his name here because this episode never does. At all. It’s annoying) and given to scientist couple the Danvers (ex-Supergirl Helen Slater and ex-Superman Dean Cain) to raise alongside their daughter Alex (Chyler Leigh).
The viewer gets all thatm a montage of scenes where a now adult, consciously mousy Kara (Benoist channeling Christopher Reeve’s iconic Clark Kent and making it entirely, gloriously her own) works in National City for media mogul Cat Grant (Ally McBeal herself, Calista Flockhart), interacts with best friend/Nice IT Nerd/in-love-with-her-from-afar guy Winn (Jeremy Jordan) and Cat’s new art director, the newly hunky James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) and Kara’s big super debut by saving a planeful of people including Alex from dying all within about 15 minutes.
But that’s not all! There’s also the reveal that Alex works for the Department of Extra-Normal Operations (DEO) under ex-CIA spook Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) who’s been monitoring Supergirl because he believes she’s a threat. Then there’s the other reveal that when Kara’s ship escaped the Phantom Zone, it brought with it to Earth the Kryptonian super-prison known as Fort Rozz. All the worst criminals in the galaxy were in it and now after having hidden for a dozen years, they’re making themselves known. Hence, Supergirl’s first real battle is against Vartox (Owain Yeoman) who is sadly way more generic and lame than his comics counterpart. And no, I don’t mean just the costume.
Again, the pilot’s speediness is the best and worst thing about it. It gets to what the people want—superpowers! Flying! Fighting! Soap Opera!—but it barely leaves any breathing room for anyone outside of Kara to really make themselves known. Thankfully, Benoist is so wonderful that the viewer never loses interest, but hopefully, the rest of the cast gets turns to shine in upcoming scripts.
For the time being, the other easy standout is Flockhart, both for the non-subtlety in her casting (remember, Ally McBeal was a Feminist Icon way back when) and the giddy cattiness (sorry) she’s bringing to Grant. Harewood is mostly there for dickish expositioning but he’s good at it and knowing what ultimately becomes of Henshaw, I’m curious to see where the show takes him.
Again, the point of comparison in all criticism of this show so far has been to its speedy CW sibling. But watching Supergirl, I was reminded of a previous Superman show that’s sadly been forgotten despite being a huge hit in its day. Like this show, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman got right to its heroics while also doubling down on its non-costumed elements with equal skill in its first episode while showcasing some great performances from Cain, Teri Hatcher as Lois & Lane Smith as the best Perry White ever put onscreen.
But the difference between L&C and this is that L&C’s pilot was quick and not hurried; it never felt as crammed as Supergirl does. Then again, L&C premiered in an entirely different media landscape. In 2015, everybody knows superheroes. Everybody knows how they work. Supergirl’s pilot knows this and knows that, with modern television the way it is, you only get one episode (as former Huffington Post critic Maureen Ryan puts it) to impress people. While Benoist is remarkable and so is the show—I’m nowhere near the first person to say this but it’s absolutely vital to see a show like this right now—I just hope Berlanti & co can keep the fun & excitement going forward while letting the audience enjoy the ride.
Tom Speelman has contributed to Sequart, the Mary Sue and Strange Horizons. He currently works in a library and can be found on Twitter at @tomtificate