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Why Is Supergirl (CBS, Sky 1) So Terrible?


When the trailer for Supergirl first appeared, Twitter got itself into quite the frenzy. It looked really bloody awful, but oh my goodness, people weren’t allowed to say so. The Twitter Police were out in force to decry any who dared question. And you could sort of see why – there are so few TV programmes with female leads that aren’t romcoms, and aside from Agent Carter, none that have a woman in a superheroic role. (Jessica Jones appeared soon after, so wasn’t part of the discussion at the time.)

Here, finally, was a show which looked like it was going to have a dominantly female cast, with women in dominant roles, and yet here was a trailer that featured not just scene after scene of “Wah wah, I have feelings,” but even an “Ew, thank goodness you don’t mean gay!” moment almost worthy of Teen Wolf. There were some cool explosions, some fights, but they were drowning in simpering awfulness.

Waiting and seeing was obviously the best course of action. And, rather devastatingly, the result is far, far worse than anything the trailer could have implied. This is the most saccharine, feeble, self-hating crap imaginable, and nine episodes deep, it’s showing only signs of getting worse.

The set-up, for those uninitiated in the life of Superman’s cousin, is that moments after baby Kal-El is fired off of a disintegrating Krypton toward Earth, so too is the adolescent Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist). She’s tasked with looking after the wee super-baby until he can hold his own. Except her pod gets accidentally sucked into the Phantom Zone, wouldn’t you know it, and remains there for 24 Earth years. By the time she inexplicably pops back out, Supes is the man we know and... well, know, and her purpose on Earth is rendered moot. She gets adopted by a family of Clarklikes, with an older sister to boot, and is convinced to keep her powers a secret because OF THE NO REASON WHATSOEVER.

But wouldn’t you know it, moments after she tells big sis she fancies letting her powers out, a passenger jet her sibling’s on falls out of the sky. She has no choice but to carry it down to National City’s convenient city-enwrapped lake, and now has the bug for it. TWIST! Her sister works for a secret organisation that fights against alien menaces on Earth, and hasn’t told her.

Kara has taken on an ordinary job like an ordinary 20-something human woman, working as the PA for Calista Flockhart, the CEO of an enormous media empire. Ooh, she has trouble remembering to get coffee! Ooh, what a clutz! Flockhart is all mean and growly, and yet beautiful and full of womanly charms, and yet business-like and powerful and her sex is irrelevant, and yet a family-woman who loves her son, and yet distant and cruel, and yet close and caring, and yet whatever the script writers want her to be on a scene-by-scene basis.

She always has a cruel/kind word for Kara, reminding her how hideously difficult it is to be an astonishingly wealthy and powerful straight white woman in America. “I, a woman, couldn’t get away with behaving like Perry White!” (I paraphrase) she opines to Cara in one episode, in between scenes of acting like a petulant self-important bully. It is she who gives Supergirl the name “Supergirl” via her network of television stations, newspapers, magazines, skywriters and so on, and then in the most confusing mess of a soliloquy, explains how it’s not sexist to call her a girl, while Metropolis’s hero gets to be a man. No, it is sexist. It’s just sexist. The attempts to wriggle out of it, to justify a name they were clearly always stuck with, are embarrassing.

But even this “Oh it’s so hard to be so beautiful” bullshit isn’t enough for the show, it manages to find ways to be even more undermining of its characters. Not least because the idea of powerful women was always an illusion. Not only is Cara at the behest of a male boss (she quickly ends up working with her sister for the anti-bad-aliens squad), but she has her every decision made for her by her best-friend-who’s-in-love-with-her Winslow (Jeremy Jordan), and James Olsen (yes, that one, here played by Mehcad Brooks). And that doesn’t even touch on the show’s weird, self-destructive obsession with pointing out that Supergirl, and the show itself, isn’t as good as or as interesting as Superman.

Every single week it finds a way to crowbar in a reference to the one name it desperately needs to leave alone, in a self-effacing way that only serves to help the viewer nod and agree that it would be a lot better if he were around. He might get on with saving some desperate people, rather than worrying that a latte is the wrong temperature.

The show seems to positively resent the notion that Supergirl should occasionally do anything vaguely super. But it also falls down in all the worst ways any Supersomething tale can. It’s less than fifteen minutes into the first episode before sodding Kryptonite makes an appearance. Dear God – if there was anything that should have been a day one rule, it was, “Don’t mention Kryptonite until we’re utterly desperate in season 3.” It also entirely chickens out of the most interesting aspect of the Supermyth: how do you make a programme about an invincible god involve any sense of peril?

Rather than using an iota of imagination or ingenuity, they instead opt for saying that somehow when Kara fell out the Phantom Zone, so did an unlimited supply of equally powerful super-villains, who all wait in turn to try to attack... a tree or something. None seems to have any ambition beyond knocking something over, or wanting Supergirl dead because her mum put them in prison. All of them is as powered by our pesky yellow Sun as the central hero, meaning it’s rendered as just two ordinary people having an ordinary fight, apart from a bit of flying.

This becomes absolutely batshit crazy by episode 9, where Cara’s angry aunt is suddenly supported by about 20 flying Kryptonite superheroes, and you realise that at any point they could take over the world if they just bloody tried. But it’s also clear that the writers couldn’t give a crap about anything making any sense at all here.

For some reason I feel okay when Arrow’s Felicity Smoke is capable of hacking anything. It’s sort of her character’s superpower (apart from snarks), and you accept she’s the best hacker there is. But when Kara’s pathetic lovelorn idiot friend hacks the computers of the most sophisticated and rich technology developer in the world, you realise how little anyone cares. “Oh, fuck it, he can hack now.”

Occasionally there are little cries for help hidden in the scripts. In one episode, Kara is deep into yet another whinge about how incredibly hard it is to be a superpowered rich, white, straight, beautiful goddess in America, and Brook’s Olsen replies, “Er, try being black.” It’s coughed over, and then everything carries on as it was. It felt like the series’ only moment of clarity.

And it’s a crying shame. Supergirl doesn’t meet the needs of any market, beyond the empty of head. It doesn’t have the wit or insight of a Gilmore Girls, nor the energy and enthusiasm of something daft like The Flash. It doesn’t speak to anything of modern life, the fear of regret and of a life mis-lived like Canada’s lovely Being Erica. There’s no pathos, no attempt to say anything, no sympathetic characters, no notion of peril, and the only arcing story is whether her evil/not evil aunt will be cross with her that week.

Instead it’s about a priggish collection of vacuous idiots all fussing about nothing, while confused super-villains walk around in the background, waving at the camera trying to get the plot’s attention. Oh, it could say so much, speak to so many, mean something. Or if none of that, at least be a show about a woman with superpowers. Right now I’m harking back to the glory days of that trailer.

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John Walker avatar

John Walker


Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, we killed John out of jealousy. He now runs buried-treasure.org