The ad campaign for CBS’s “Supergirl,” which premieres Monday night, quotes some of what the nation’s TV critics have said about the show — including a top-of-the-skyscraper cheer from yours truly, who gave the pilot episode an A- in his fall season preview: “Let’s hear it for Supergirl!”
Keeping in mind that critics have still seen only the first episode (which, if nothing else, looked expensive to make) there are many reasons to see “Supergirl” as more than just another byproduct of the mania for comic-book culture. Even if the series bombs in the ratings (it’s always possible) or peters out after a few episodes, the pilot ought to be studied by other would-be creators and writers — and even viewers — for everything it gets right.
A short list would include . . .
Writing and editing. “Supergirl,” co-produced by Greg Berlanti (who helped make niche hits for the CW out of “Arrow” and “The Flash”) with Ali Adler, Andrew Kreisberg and Sarah Schechter, doesn’t waste a word or a swoosh getting started.
And, unlike so many he-man super stories of the multiplex, it doesn’t involve a long and excessively metaphorical origin tale. It’s as simple as this: As Krypton was exploding, baby Kal-El’s parents rocket-shipped him off to faraway Earth, where, with its yellow sun, they hoped he would grow up to be a strong symbol of peace and hope. Trailing not far behind in her own rocketship, his older cousin, Kara Zor-El, was supposed to babysit Kal-El and make sure it all worked out.
But when Krypton exploded, it knocked Kara’s ship into the Phantom Zone, where time stands still. When her ship finally broke free and landed on Earth, Superman was all grown up and Kara was still 13, so she was adopted and raised by a scientist couple. Which brings us to . . .
Casting. Although she’s not exactly unknown (especially to “Glee” viewers who made it past Season 3), 27-year-old Melissa Benoist is one of those rare out-of-nowhere casting miracles. She does a remarkable job of inhabiting the lead role — not just in the cape-related flying and fighting scenes, which are hard to make convincing, but also in a role that requires her to become a new kind of secret-identity nerd (the Clark Kent factor), who is less likely to keep her powers hidden from her trusted friends. Which, in a way, leads to . . .
Easy-breezy feminism. Benoist’s Kara may toil and fetch lattes as an assistant to the demanding “Devil Wears Prada”-style media magnate Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), but she seems to have the full force of Twitter-era, post-grrrl feminism at the ready — both in her dialogue and in her regard for the women around her, including her boss, her adoptive older sister (who turns out to be a covert government agent) or her eventual archenemy, a female general who escaped Krypton’s maximum-security prison.
Kara protests Cat’s top-down decision, in the Daily Tribune stylebook, to refer to National City’s mysterious new flying hero as Super girl (instead of Superwoman) but acquiesces when Cat gives a succinct argument that “girls” (of any age) can be indomitable.
Compare all of this with what the old “Wonder Woman” looked like in the jiggle-rific prime-time schedule of the mid-’70s; it feels like Kara/Supergirl says more — in literal dialogue — than Lynda Carter’s heroine would say in an entire season. One way or another, we’re making progress.
Still, it turns out that “Supergirl’s” strongest asset is not the fact that she’s female, it’s that she’s young. Which leads to perhaps the smartest idea in “Supergirl” . . .
Millennial wish-fulfillment! “Supergirl” is one of the few shows on TV that seem to effortlessly embrace both the inhibitions and independence of someone who is proudly young, without a single scene that involves texting etiquette, swiping or whining (in tones of vocal fry) about how hard her life is compared with everyone else’s. She has seen her planet blown up (along with its economy and job opportunities) — so what else you got?
In her secret identity, Kara only pretends to be cowed by a Gen-Xer boss, when, in just a few quick but necessary scenes, we see how she masterfully and capably navigates the workplace.
Instead of kvetching with a crowded apartment full of snarky roommates, Kara lives alone in an exposed-brick loft — an achievement that seems super enough in today’s market. Yes, the big apartment is a reminder that “Supergirl” is pure fantasy — but it’s a helpful fantasy nonetheless. Her world is light-years apart from, say, HBO’s “Girls.”
Kara doesn’t toy with the lovesick IT guy (Jeremy Jordan) who has a crush on her, nor does she hook up with him to stave off ennui; instead she co-opts him into helping her design Supergirl’s costume and launch her crime-fighting debut. She may have X-ray eyes for the handsome new art director (Mehcad Brooks as a more mature James “Jimmy” Olsen), but, since he’s a friend of her famous cousin, she also welcomes his advice on how Supergirl should demonstrate her might.
“Supergirl” is a reminder of how little TV audiences get to purely idealize a young woman and root for her amazing abilities, instead of joining her for a wallow in self-absorbed millennial misery and relationship mistakes. Whether actual millennials, who tend to avoid broadcast TV like the plague, will respond to this aspect of “Supergirl” is unknown. (And I’m sure they just adore the way I manage to celebrate and condescend from one sentence to the next.)
All of this is not to say that “Supergirl” features a heroine who has leapfrogged over the usual quarter-century, post-
collegiate qualms. Kara’s biggest vulnerability (besides Kryptonite darts) is that she worries that she’s somehow not living up to her potential, to what her parents dreamed for her. Like many from her generation, she seeks her mother’s input — even if Mom is just a hologram. Should she remain a closeted alien (“Supergirl” invites a nifty twist to our immigration debate, as it applies to actual aliens), or should she become her truest, most heroic self?
“You want to help?” snarls the head of the government’s Department of Extranormal Operations, who is none too pleased to see Supergirl’s brash arrival on the scene. “Go back to getting someone’s coffee.”
There you have the one sentiment that millennials say they most despise: being told to wait their turn. Superman and his world stand for an unambiguously uber-mensch service to the cause. Supergirl very clearly and without a hint of cross-generational acrimony says: Move over, and make some room.
Supergirl (one hour) premieres Monday at 8:30 p.m. on CBS. (It moves to its regular 8 p.m. time slot on Nov. 2.)