'Supergirl' Struggles To Take Flight [Review]

Note: Supergirl premieres tonight on CBS. Below is our original review of the pilot, which ran in July during San Diego Comic-Con.

In a TV landscape littered with superhero shows, Supergirl stands out in a couple of ways. For one thing, it's the rare superhero show that's about a superheroine. For another, whereas most of those other dramas tend toward the dark and brooding, Supergirl is mostly bubbly and upbeat — just like its plucky heroine Kara, played by the radiant Melissa Benoist.

But for a show to succeed, it can't just capture the audience's interest, it has to sustain it. On that front, Supergirl unfortunately struggles by prioritizing plot over characterization.  

Supergirl wastes no time setting up its premise. As Kara explains via voiceover, she left Krypton at the age of 13, to follow her baby cousin Kal-El and protect him. But whereas he made it safely to Earth, she got stuck in a time warp. When she finally got to Earth, she was still 13 — but 24 years had passed on Earth, and Kal-El no longer needed her help. He placed her with a human family, and she grew up trying her hardest to fit in among the Earthlings. All of this happens in about the first five minutes.

We then jump to the modern day, where Kara is a 24-year-old working as an assistant to a powerful media head played by Calista Flockhart. In short order, Kara ponders her purpose in life; decides to become a superhero; acquires a superhero name and costume; goes back and forth about whether she really wants to be a superhero; picks up not one but two love interests; and unearths multiple shadowy organizations and family secrets.

It's ground that would normally be covered in a 120-minute feature film. Supergirl covers it in about a third that time, and suffers greatly for it. While there's something to be said for getting all that pesky origin story business out of the way, there's also something to be said for letting a plot unfold organically. Supergirl is so busy speeding from plot point to plot point, it forgets to tell us who Supergirl actually is, and why we should care.

Which is a shame, because Melissa Benoist seems like a likable lead. Her glee over her newfound purpose is infectious, or would be if the show would stop long enough to let us bask in it. Her co-stars Jeremy Jordan and Mehcad Brooks might be charming, too, if they had anything to do but smile handsomely. The most sharply drawn character in the Supergirl pilot is Kara's boss Cat (Flockhart), and she's just another variation on the powerful editrix character we've seen in countless other romcoms.

The dialogue and action feel similarly perfunctory. After one uninspiring fight sequence, a defeated henchmen warns, "You have no idea what's coming!" and then kills himself, because of course he does. Many of the conversations between the characters revolve around them explaining their relationship to each other ("I'm your sister," etc.). When Supergirl tries to get cute, it's even more groanworthy. "It's like that moment when you right before you kiss someone for the first time," Kara sighs after her first flight.

Clumsiest of all might be Supergirl's treatment of her more famous cousin, Superman. His shadow looms large over the series, as much of Kara's storyline is driven by him in one way or another. Yet the Man of Steel himself is only barely seen, and in interviews the showrunner has confirmed he'll stay out of sight for the rest of the series. It's possible his influence will subside as the show goes on, or that future episodes will dispatch him in some way. But in the pilot, it feels like an odd choice to keep bringing him up, only to dance around the topic.

Supergirl has some idea of what makes it unique. Much is made of the fact that Supergirl is female — at one point, an extra remarks, "Can you believe it? A female hero. Nice for my daughter to have someone like that to look up to." And there's an interesting plot thread about the way Supergirl is perceived. One newscaster describes her as either "a guardian angel or a wrecking ball," and Kara's own sister seems to be on the fence about her decision to embrace her powers. Again, however, Supergirl is too rushed to engage with those issues in any meaningful way.

At the end of it all, Supergirl feels less like a pilot episode and more like a Wikipedia summary for one. It's all tell, and no show. In fairness, a lot of great shows begin with shaky pilots, which bear the burden of establishing an entire universe. And there are some promising elements here. If Supergirl ever slows down long enough to let them interact naturally, we might eventually have a winner on our hands. For now, though, it mostly just proves that super-speed is a power better left to superheroes.