Why SUPERGIRL is a super breath of fresh air

Courtesy CBS

Okay, that might be the cheesiest line I’ve ever written, but hear me out.

I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest fan of superhero shows. I’ve given some of them a shot, and have enjoyed them enough, but I’ve usually not been able to get into them, for one reason or another. (That reason often consisting of a lack of female presence.) Agent Carter was a revelation earlier this year, because finally a woman got the starring role in a way they haven’t in the medium so far.  (Can it hurry up and come back already?!)

Now, CBS’ Supergirl joins her ranks in saving the world — and in a mini-skirt to boot.Reducing the star to her wardrobe choices does a disservice to her importance not only to the genre, but to the airwaves in general this fall. The show tackles convention and turns it on its head, while maintaining an optimism that is rare for its brethren. Supergirl might not be reinventing the wheel, but it is polishing it up for a whole new audience.

One thing is clear: in 2015, women are finally revealed as the heroes we always knew them to be, and that is awesome.

We’re so used to superheroes acting as lone wolves, all dark and brooding and cynical. Supergirl’s Kara Danvers (Glee’s Melissa Benoist) is none of these things, and the series relishes in that. She’s hopeful and enthusiastic and full of wonder. Lest you think she’s merely fulfilling ascribed gender roles, Kara also happens to kick ass and take names, and demands to be heard in a world obsessed with the other guy. (The other guy being, of course, her cousin Superman.)

What has surprised me so far in these first two episodes is that Supergirl acknowledges what convention tells it it should or shouldn’t be, then tears down the construct. For instance, take the name of the show itself: Kara initially scoffs at being branded as “Supergirl.” After all, she is a woman, and more than that, she is her own person, and not merely cut from her cousin’s rib.  Why can’t her alter ego reflect that, too?

Yet boss Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) points out why the name is, in fact, an honor. Instead of resenting being a girl, treating it like a put-down that belittles her accomplishments, she points that that she was and is a girl, as is Kara. Girl is not a dirty word; it’s a statement and a source of empowerment. In this universe, a girl is the CEO of the leading media conglomerate, and now a girl is saving the world. (If I didn’t know any better, I’d think President Obama might have been inspired by Ms. Grant recently.) With that, Kara embraces the moniker, because now she can inspire girls everywhere to save the world, one act at a time.

It’s not just the scenes at National City’s Tribune that scream girl power. Where the newspaper is more The Devil Wears Prada than Alias, it’s the story with Kara’s sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) that solidifies that this show is dedicated to their strength. Like Kara, Alex has led a double-life for years– a lab rat by day to her family, a highly-trained secret agent in the nation’s intelligence agency by night. Sure, she is reticent at first to let Kara harness her superpowers and go public with her identity, but once she realizes it is out of her own fear of her sister getting hurt, she instead decides to take her under her wing and ensure she gets the training she needs to keep herself, and her city, safe. In the meantime, though, she wastes no time herself in taking down bad guys (and women), both human and extraterrestrial. She’s no damsel in distress, and while she might not be Kryptonian, she’s got some powers all of her own right here on Earth.

Courtesy CBS

Courtesy CBS

And so far, it seems like it’s the relationships between the women that are taking center stage on the show. Yes, there is obviously a love triangle brewing between Kara, new colleague James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) and best friend Winn (Jeremy Jordan), which is a whole other tangent. But it’s her bond with both Grant and Alex that seem to inform her behavior the most. While Grant is initially presented as a she-devil in haute couture, we’re slowly getting glimpses of what it’s taken her to get this far as a woman, and that in her own way she’s trying to toughen seemingly-meek Kara to survive in their profession — which Kara is beginning to understand. Similarly, though Alex is first introduced as a know-it-all buzzkill, we soon learn why she’s so overprotective of her little sister, and the burden she carries thanks to her work. The show is definitely passing the Bechdel test with flying colors out of the gate.

Even with the two love interests, as of now the romance takes a back seat to the new adventure upon which the friends are embarking. In an absolutely shocking move, Kara reveals her secret identity in the pilot to them, when any other show would spend weeks (or years) dragging that revelation out. It’s a brave new world, with Kara positing that what makes her different from her cousin (and makes Supergirl different from its genre) is that she never wants to do this alone. Where she comes from, citizens stand together to solve their problems, and Kara wants to bring that piece of home to her adopted planet.

People have strength in numbers, and being able to lean on her friends and family means she can share in their expertise, and their joy — and help the world all at the same time. It’s a startlingly refreshing concept for an action-adventure drama, and I sincerely hope the conceit works out in Kara’s (and the show’s) favor, as I think it may open up some unique avenues other series haven’t been able to play much. Plus, how exhilarating is it to see the two men in Kara’s life band together to help her rescue pet snakes out of trees, instead of fighting each other for her affections? I have no doubt that jealousy will rear its head eventually, but in the meantime, talk about teamwork!

Once again, it is Kara’s attitude that shines. She begins as a mousy assistant, babbling and bumbling and endearingly awkward, but clearly not living up to her potential as a personal assistant, when what she really wants to do is be a reporter at the Tribune. It feels like the beginning of a rom-com — until, that is, she saves the plane her sister is traveling on from certain doom, and it lights the fire within her. The real struggle is reconciling her self-effacing personality with her extracurricular talents, and how to incorporate some of Supergirl’s confidence into her everyday life.

I have to confess that initially, I had trouble reconciling the two identities, too. While I found Kara absolutely charming, I couldn’t quite buy her as Supergirl, largely due to her earnestness and aw-shucks demeanor. After this week, though, I realize that that’s the entire point. She isn’t emotionally fragile or damaged like Bruce Wayne or even Clark Kent. She’s suffered in her young life, sure — being cast away from your home planet to watch over your baby cousin, only to witness it get blown up and then be raised by earthlings would break anyone’s heart — but as Alex reiterates this week, she’s never let that get her down. She continues to see the world with wonder, and rather than focus on  her difficulties, she’s used the experiences to make the best of what she’s been given.

Kara, like us, is an outsider to the superhero business, and that might actually be what saves her spirit. Whether she can realistically maintain her optimism in the face of certain battle in the future remains to be seen, but given the meta nature of her conversation with James about the kind of hero she wants to be, I don’t think we have to worry anytime soon.

Courtesy CBS

Courtesy CBS

The show is undeniably cheesy, but I think that’s part of the narrative; it’s a throwback to  superheroes of yore, like Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman or even Wonder Woman before it.  It isn’t here to make us analyze to death, but it is here to present an alternative. While shows such as Gotham demonstrate a cynicism that seems to lack faith in humanity, Supergirl is full of nothing but faith, which is practically Kara’s rallying cry. It is tinged with hope and wonder, and we can only wish that Kara’s inherent goodness rubs off on us a little.

So, in a television landscape saturated with superhero dramas, Supergirl stands out from the crowd — just like Kara (and Cat Grant) would have it. I’m definitely sticking with the show, because I can’t wait to see her grow as a woman and as a caped crusader. It’s doing the genre its own way, and that’s a good thing. Plus, if it means we get more Awkward!Kara in the process — well, that’s just a bonus.  We need as many lady heroes as we can get on the big and small screens, and a SuperNerd like Kara fits the bill exceptionally.

Stopping flying bullets and rambling about cat videos in front of your boss? Who hasn’t done that?


Supergirl airs Mondays at 8pm EST on CBS.

 

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

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