TV Review: Supergirl (★★★½)

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Greg Berlanti has another DC mega-hit on his hands with Supergirl, a resoundingly feminist superhero show that proves it can compete with Berlanti’s equally exhilarating Arrow and The Flash. Right away, this CBS show’s purpose is Kryptonically clear: address the need for a female caped crusader in today’s male protagonist-driven pop culture landscape. Kara Danver aka “Supergirl” (Melissa Benoist) doesn’t strive for supremacy or even superhero worhip; she just wants to be seen as an equal to her more popular cousin. Equality should be an automatic birthright, but for women and other minority groups in this world it’s more difficult to achieve than a small loan. The fact that a major network (from CBS, of all channels) is promoting a program featuring in-universe conversations about feminism and the necessity of female involvement when it comes to crisis management is, quite frankly, revolutionary. If you’re still under the foolish impression that the fight is over for women and other groups not privy to the same prestige roles white heterosexual men are granted on a constant basis, I ask you to investigate the recent #BoycottStarWarsVII controversy and read the user reviews of Supergirl on Metacritic (the latter of which you’ll notice are highly disproportionate to what critics are saying). With more progressive shows on the air like Supergirl, it’s clear that the tide is turning and at last the “good guys” are winning.

Political and gender angles aside, Supergirl doesn’t neglect its duty to deliver quality entertainment. Benoist’s winsome personality gives the show infectious, upbeat energy. Kara is likable, idealistic yet just naive enough to have some growing up to do. The dynamic between Kara and her mortal adoptive sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh), is deftly handled, giving us such deep insight into sister-sister relationships that it never feels like a cheap plot device or classic “jealous stepsister” trope. Leigh’s performance is nuanced, sincere and strong-willed, so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if Leigh becomes the breakout performer of the series. This is a character you initially resist because you expect her to be envious that all the attention was stolen from her at a young age thanks to Kara. There are some flashes of that, sure, but it comes from a place of initial immaturity that slowly develops into something complexly adult. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself empathizing with Alex’s tough-love stance and hard exterior. Based on the pilot alone, I can confidently say Supergirl contains arguably the strongest sibling relationship writing I’ve seen in something this mainstream.

Sisterhood has never been this closely examined in a superhero show.
Sisterhood has never been this closely examined in a superhero show.

So what’s Supergirl’s origin story, you ask? Well, right before Krypton was turned into something the Death Star ate for breakfast, Kara Zor-El’s mother and father tasked her with watching over baby Kal-El once the two make new lives for themselves on Earth. Unfortunately, Kara’s voyage doesn’t go quite as planned — her ship spins of course after hitting debris, and is trapped inside a dimensional field in space known as the Phantom Zone. Unbeknownst to “adult” Kara, when her ship finally course-corrected back to Earth, it accidentally brought along with it a prison ship that was suspended in the Phantom Zone. Krypton’s most vicious criminals dispersed from the ship once it hit Earth, hell-bent on revenge against the daughter of the woman who sentenced them in the first place, Alura Zor-El (Laura Benanti).

There’s no rest for Kara once she finally “comes out” to National City as the alien that she is, her entrance a stunning display of grandiose visual effects and old school disaster beats (nothing screams “hero” like someone who prevents a plane crash). However, if you think Kara’s day job isn’t as fun as her inherent purpose, think again! By day, our flying phenom works at a media conglomerate called CatCo that derives most of its business from internet news traffic. Hoping to revive the dying Tribune news section of the company as a means of preserving jobs, Kara uses her celebrity status as Supergirl to reward the news organization with exclusive cover stories. This endeavor also ensures Kara the continuation of her own position in the company, the undervalued role of assistant to CEO and founder,
Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), who treats her like little more than an indentured servant. Not only is Flockhart’s “Meryl-Streep-in-Devil-Wears-Prada” ball-busting performance a total riot, but the character also shows glimmers of human understanding that stems from her hard-fought experience as a career woman. When Kara gets riled up about being called “Supergirl” instead of the more age-appropriate “Superwoman,” Cat wisely chides her that often too much unnecessary time is spent running away from restrictive labels instead of tackling, subverting and subsequently deconstructing them. It’s moments like these that give Supergirl its challenging bite that adds more to the cultural conversation than the usual superhero offerings: destructive mayhem on steroids.

Who needs a love triangle wrench when these two match so well together?
Who needs a love triangle wrench when these two match so well together?

The pilot’s one small hiccup is how trusting Kara is of certain people in her life knowing her true identity. Geek tech expert, Wislow Scott, Jr. (Jeremy Jordan), for instance, doesn’t demonstrate enough respect for Kara as a friend for the audience to even remotely buy he’d guard her secret with his life. In fact, he is so blinded by his obsession with her that he makes everything about himself whenever Kara brings a serious personal topic to his attention. And though I adore the effortless chemistry between photographer turned Art Director James Olsen (the perfectly cast Mehcad Brooks) and Kara Danvers, it does irritate me a bit that the only reason Olsen even exists in Kara’s life is because Clark Kent/Superman sent him over to babysit his little cousin (who is actually older than him in Krypton years). Still, Olsen has enough of an independent spirit to make me believe he actually wanted a brand new career opportunity and the chance to meet someone special. If there’s one thing I won’t stand for on this series, it’s Superman playing puppet master from an entirely different city. Kara already has her wings, Man of Steel, so let her fly!

Overall, Supergirl earns its reputation as one of the fall’s finest shows simply because it dares to be aggressively resistant to the status quo. The superhero lightheartedness that characterizes many properties still exists, but it’s the deep characterizations and fascinating gender politics that truly elevate this particular show from its brethren. Be sure to catch Supergirl every Monday at 8pm/7c on CBS, and also don’t forget to check out the trailer below before soaring alongside Kara Zor-El.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lm46-envrHo