Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Powerless" and "Superior Donuts"

I've been trying to make more room for television lately, so I took a look at a couple of the midseason sitcoms that piqued my interest. I watched three episodes each of NBC's "Powerless" and CBS's "Superior Donuts," enough to decide whether or not to keep watching.

"Powerless" is the more high profile contender, a workplace comedy that happens to take place in the DC Comics universe. None of the main characters are superheroes (yet) but have to deal with all the consequences of living in a world overrun with them. Optimistic young go-getter Emily (Vanessa Hudgens) becomes the director of a dysfunctional R&D division of Wayne Enterprises. It turns out that it's being run by Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk), Bruce Wayne's idiot cousin. Emily's new co-workers are a smart, but often unmotivated bunch, including Teddy (Danny Pudi), Ron (Ron Funches), and Wendy (Jennie Pierson). Jackie (Christina Kirke), Van's long-suffering personal assistant, rounds out the group.

While the premise sounds like a lot of fun, and the cast is full of talented people, "Powerless" is far from the show that it could be. The structure is messy, characters and relationships aren't well defined yet, and the superhero shenanigans don't really add much. Bigger names like Batman and Superman get namechecked frequently, but only minor DC characters like Crimson Fox actually show up. Only the biggest DC nerds are likely to get much out of the references. While the visuals are bright and colorful, they also look awfully generic, and I found myself wondering if they'd recycled some of the furnishings from "Ugly Betty." "Powerless" went through some major retooling before it hit the airwaves and it shows.

The first two episodes are, frankly, a disaster. There's way too much emphasis put on Emily being a small town girl ready to do good, and learning how to be a benevolent boss. Vanessa Hudgens is trying mightily, but she's not at the same level as some of her co-stars, and I think it's going to take a while for her to really be able to carry her weight on the show. It's only in the third episode that the ensemble starts to play off each other, and we get a few good bits of characterization. Alan Tudyk could make something special out of the terrible Van, and Ron Funches has managed to be a scene stealer in every episode so far. However, I plan to back away from the show until I hear it's made significant improvements. There's just too little time and too much to watch.

"Superior Donuts" caught my attention because it's based off of a Tracy Letts play, of all things, one much sweeter and gentler than his usual work. It's also a workplace comedy, but one that follows the much older template of shows like "Cheers" or "Taxi." It stars Judd Hirsch as Arthur, the aging Polish-American proprietor of a Chicago donut shop in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. He hires an African-American millennial named Franco (Jermaine Fowler), who wants to modernize the shop and help drum up business, which leads to some clashes. Their regulars include cops DeLuca (Katey Sagal) and Jordan (Darien Sills-Evans ), odd-jobber Tush (David Koechner), grad student Maya (Anna Baryshnikov), and Fawz (Maz Jobrani), a real estate developer who owns the dry cleaners next door.

Maybe it was because "Powerless" had such an awkward start, but everything about "Superior Donuts" felt fully realized and ready to go from the outset. The characters are easy stereotypes, but all of them are pleasantly funny and all of them fit nicely into the show's framework. The jokey patter follows familiar rhythms, but they got plenty of laughs. "Superior Donuts" feels like something from twenty years ago, and is definitely aimed at CBS's older audience members. I feel I should be a bit miffed at the constant depiction of mIllennials as trend-loving, over-idealistic nutters, but the humor of the show is so gentle and good natured, it's hard to resist its charms.

What helps, I think, is that the core talent is just right. Franco is a manic-pixie magical negro hybrid of very flimsy construction, but Jermaine Fowler is so much fun to watch, I didn't care. It's so good to see Judd Hirsch on a sitcom again, bringing some curmudgeonly heart to Arthur. And Katey Sagal is as lovely and as good with a one-liner as ever. So the show's ham-fisted social commentary and ancient bits about the generation gap go down very smooth. I suspect that this is a show that my Boomer dad would love, and he hasn't liked on anything on TV since "Becker." As for me personally, I can see myself tuning in from time to time to see how the gang at the shop is holding up, but this won't be appointment television.

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