After eating dog food for a month, a hamburger, any hamburger, would taste pretty good. That’s what CBS’s Supergirl, which premieres Monday night, has going for it: It’s a competent and cute drama that benefits from being served up after a fall of horse meat.
You know the story: At the age of 13, Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) is sent from her home planet of Krypton to Earth, tasked with protecting her infant cousin, Kal-El. Unfortunately, Kara’s space pod gets caught in the “phantom zone,” where time doesn’t pass, for 24 years. When she finally arrives on Earth, her little cousin is not so little anymore and he is already flying around in tights saving people. Superman deposits her with a loving human family, mom, dad, and older sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) and leaves her to grow up as Kara Danvers.
As the show begins, Kara is not yet using her superpowers for good, because she is not using her superpowers at all. She is not even using them to ensure that the lattes she brings her media mogul boss are sufficiently hot, and it’s not like she’s using the heat rays she can shoot out of her eyes for anything else either. (Benoist is adorably gawky and charmingly flustered, but her innocent vibe plus the script make Kara seem a little dippy.) This doesn’t last long. A disaster involving Alex springs Kara into action and she is soon embracing the superhero inside of her.
Like Clark Kent before her, Kara works at a media company, one that also employs Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), though he prefers to be called James now, what with having won a Pulitzer Prize for a picture of Superman as corny as 10 million Instagrams of a sunset (maybe it’s just the whole show that’s a little dippy). Kara and James have instant chemistry, which is a bummer for Winn (Jeremy Jordan), the lovesick friend to whom she swiftly reveals her secret identity. All three of these nice-looking young people work for the aforementioned boss, the imperious Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart, in Devil Wears Prada mode). Cat is on the verge of mercilessly downsizing her newspaper, the Tribune, because, unlike the Daily Planet, it doesn’t have a superhero to put on its cover 54 percent of the time. Kara’s decision to start using her powers saves lives—and also print media.
Supergirl is executive produced by Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg, who make the well-regarded The Flash and The Arrow for CW. Unlike the superhero movies that continue to metastasize in movie theaters, Berlanti and Kreisberg’s shows do not fetishize darkness, but instead dare to suggest that being able to fly around might be fun. If Supergirl were a movie, it would make dreary much out of the fact that Kara was 13 years old when everyone she loved died. But Supergirl goes too far in the other direction: It could stand to make something of it. Kara’s mother shows up in a few key scenes (Laura Benanti, in boring lady drag) but, in the pilot anyway, Kara is bubbly and optimistic, oddly unscarred by the premature death of everyone she ever knew.
Psychological insight and character depth are what superhero TV shows are supposed to have on the movies: TV shows have so much more time to explore personality. But Supergirl is a procedural in a cape, with a similar fixation on process, this one just about a very special crime-fighter, one with super strength instead of a medical examiner’s license, one who fights super-powered aliens instead of human evildoers. It’s an exceedingly normal show that just happens to be about someone special.
The most memorable moment in Supergirl arrives when Kara questions Cat about her decision to name the mysterious female superhero flying around National City “Supergirl.” “If we call her Supergirl, doesn’t that make us guilty of being anti-feminist?” Kara stammers out. (If Kara really cared so much about perception on this issue, she might have chosen a costume that was not a mini-skirt.) “What do you think is so bad about girl?,” Cat replies. “I’m a girl and your boss and powerful and rich and hot and smart. So if you perceived Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?” It’s a winning meta answer, the series’ writers responding to critiques of the show’s title, premise, and feminist credentials before they can be leveled. It’s also convincing—until you remember the show’s primary aim isn’t to reclaim the term girl, it’s to use a well-known intellectual property without pissing anyone off. Like the show itself, it’s a charming and knowing answer, but it’s not all that deep.