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NBC Tweaks the Workplace Comedy with “Powerless”

As much ABC refuses to give up on the sitcom brand that is Tim Allen and CBS will never ditch the raunchy comedy stylings of Chuck Lorre, it feels like NBC always needs a workplace comedy or two. They really turned it into brand decades ago. “Cheers” is a workplace comedy—the workplace just happens to be a bar. Then there’s “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation.” And “The Office” may be the most definitive network one of the modern era. Currently, “Superstore” plays on Thursday nights to increasing buzz (it’s no classic but the ensemble gets better with every episode, to the point that you might want to take a look), and it’s joined this week by the quirkiest workplace comedy since “Better Off Ted,” the clever “Powerless,” from creator Ben Queen (the canceled “A to Z”). We live in a superhero-dominated world; it only makes sense that we’d get a superhero workplace comedy.

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Have you ever wondered about the collateral damage that must have resulted in the final act of a film like “Man of Steel”? What about the weekly boom and blasts of TV shows like “The Flash” and “Legends of Tomorrow”? Not only does someone have to clean up all that mess, but normal, everyday citizens are having their lives turned upside down by fights between superheroes and their nemeses. You think your commute is rough because of a train delay? Imagine if that train fell from the tracks because of a superhero battle.

Such is the set-up of “Powerless,” which stars Vanessa Hudgens (“Spring Breakers”) as Emily Locke, the newest employee of Wayne Security. Yes, that Wayne. Emily is the new Director of Research & Development at the company, in a department that specializes in protection of the everyday citizens caught in the middle of battles between Batman, The Joker, et al. In fact, they made their fortune by designing an antidote to one of Joker’s laughing serums. But they’ve struggled to come up with a follow-up as essential or financially successful. In fact, Emily’s new boss (Alan Tudyk) is worried they may shut down the entire operations. Christina Kirk, Ron Funches, and the great Danny Pudi (“Community”) co-star.

NBC sent one episode of “Powerless,” making any concrete review of it difficult. Comedies can be wildly inconsistent, especially over their first season. Two of the best in recent memory—“30 Rock” and “Community”—took most of their entire first years to find their cast chemistry and comic timing, while other shows often fall apart as the writers run out of ideas. So what could we possibly know about “Powerless” after one episode? One, the cast is strong. Hudgens is likable; Pudi and Tudyk have excellent timing. Two, the concept is promising. While I’m a little worried that “Powerless” will repeat jokes, I’m more hopeful that the world of superheroes will just become background to a clever workplace comedy. If not, the same jokes over and over again could get exhausting, and we may want to jump to another workplace. NBC will probably have one ready.

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