“Supergirl” on the scene.
In October of 2015, I decided to watch CBS’ new TV series “Supergirl”, and to my surprise I enjoyed it very much. It was less of a typical superhero show and more of a young woman making her way in the big (National) City story (more like “The Devil Wears Prada” with superpowers). I was clearly the wrong demographic for this show—I am a thoroughly boring, happily-married, garden-variety cisgender old man, but the show caught enough of my attention to bring me back week after week. CBS’ new version of “Supergirl” was charming and unexpectedly witty.
Stars Melissa Benoist and Calista Flockhart played their respective cat-mouse roles as reporter Kara Danvers/Supergirl and demanding boss Cat Grant to perfection (even if the “mouse” of the two was really Mighty Mouse). Benoist truly gave the role her all. Yes, there had been other versions of Supergirl, including 1984’s Helen Slater and “Smallville” guest star Laura Vandervoort, but Melissa Benoist gave the role an earnestness and a big heart that reminded me very much of the late Christopher Reeve’s “Superman.” Like Reeve, you believed this kid could fly.
Note: Former “Supergirl” Helen Slater would also occasionally guest star as Kara’s adoptive Earth mother on the show as well. Former 1990s “Lois & Clark” Superman actor Dean Cain would cameo as Kara’s preciously MIA Earth father as well, until he was, once again written out of the show (no great loss, to be honest).
Mehcad Brooks played a much smoother, confident, model-handsome James Olsen (no more ‘Jimmy’). Jeremy Johnson played Catco Media IT guy and resident geeky genius Winn Schott. More importantly, Chyler Leigh played Kara’s adoptive Earth sister Alex Danvers, who is a powerful but compassionate agent of the “DEO” (Department of Extranormal Operations), a top-secret containment agency designed to keep an eye on aliens living on Earth (something taken for granted in this universe). Alex’s boss is the seemingly all-business Hank Henshaw (David Harewood), who is, in fact, later revealed to be shapeshifting superhero ‘Martian Manhunter,’ J’onn J’onnz.
It would be revealed later on in the series that Alex is a lesbian, and we would see this aspect of herself ‘awakened’ by a prospective love interest, before she would fall for her current lover, psychiatrist (and James’ kid sister) Kelly Olsen, played by Azie Tesfai.
With the show’s borderline camp tone, fun characters and lightweight action, I found it to be a decent time waster (I usually exercise while watching, so it helps me past the pain). One the whole, the show was frothy, silly—well, comic book entertainment. By that, I mean like the comic books I remember reading in the mid-to-late 1970s, where characters would gleefully and unashamedly spout exposition-heavy dialogue and get into wonderfully melodramatic crises for young kids like my then-self to eat up, along with our sugary breakfast cereals.
The ratings for CBS’ “Supergirl” predictably dropped (because major networks and sci-fi/fantasy rarely get along) and in a couple years, the show packed its bags and moved to the more DC superhero-friendly CW network, which was already home to “The Flash,” “Green Arrow” and “Batwoman” TV shows (which I’ve never watched, to be honest). I have developed a certain fondness for Supergirl’s spinoff series, “Superman & Lois”(2021), which sees the Clark Kent/Superman (Tyler Hoechlin) returning to his red state roots in Smallville, along with his wife Lois and twin boys.
Once “Supergirl” moved to the CW, it went through a few rapid changes; the show shifted its focus from a workplace action-comedy show to more of a traditional superhero series, with Kara spending more and more of her time at her sister’s DEO Headquarters with fellow alien J’onn J’onnz, stopping new bad guys-of-the-week. Naturally, the sly Cat Grant character I adored slipped into cameo appearances, and eventually went away altogether. After a few more seasons, other characters would come and go as well. James Olsen would eventually replace Cat at Catco Media, before going off to become vigilante superhero Guardian and leaving the series as well. The move to the CW also resulted in a somewhat less luxe look, but the move also brought a much stronger focus on the show’s ensemble cast, so it was a fair trade.
Note: Cat Grant would return in Season 6 for a recent 2009 time-travel arc, but she would be played by Eliza Helm, who does a solid impression of Calista Flockhart.
Winn would take a one-way journey ‘back to the future,’ swapping places with futuristic supergenius/ex-villain-turned-good-guy Brainiac-5 (Jesse Rath), who would take Winn’s place as a resident tech wizard/supergenius who has to cope with his pesky, newfound human emotions. The series’ workplace shenanigans were largely sidelined in favor of pulpy, comic book adventures. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a show centered around a comic book superhero, of course, though I sometimes missed the slightly more sophisticated workplace-comedy tone of the first couple seasons. No matter. Moving on…
With the arrival of future-native Brainy, Kara would also reignite her off-again/off-again with the formerly selfish Daxam prince Mon-El (Chris Wood), resulting in their eventual separation which would send the heartbroken Kara into a personal tailspin.
Note: Don’t feel too bad–these onscreen lovers would get engaged in real-life and have a child together. In fact, the current season of the series (season 6) is carefully hiding Melissa Benoist’s pregnancy by ‘exiling’ Kara into the “Phantom Zone” for a multi-episode arc where her friends bend heaven and Earth (almost literally) to rescue her. Benoist also bravely went public recently with her story of surviving abuse at the hands of her former husband, actor Blake Jenner.
The show was evolving more in-line with the CW network’s other properties. In fact, there were eventual crossover episodes with “The Flash” and “Green Arrow”; most recently, the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” event, which also featured multiple versions of Superman (including “Superman Returns” star Brandon Routh).
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that this scrappy, low-budget DC adaptation series also features the single best representation of super-villain Lex Luthor ever depicted in live-action. And yes, that includes Oscar-winner Gene Hackman from the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies and every incarnation since. Actor Jon Cryer (who played Luthor’s moronic punk/nerd nephew in 1987’s “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”) is diabolical perfection. Luthor’s wanton cruelty towards his adoptive sister Lena (Katie McGrath) is often played for gallows’ humor, though it sometimes crosses into genuine dysfunctional family pain. The series’ depiction of the Luthors, including mother Lillian (Brenda Strong), make the Trumps look like “Full House.”
While the show slipped into less-sophisticated action adventure fare after its transition to the CW, it later found an unexpected political voice (just as my old comic books used to sometimes slip in heavy messages). Plotlines began to focus on issues such as undocumented immigration, using National City’s colorful population of space alien refugees as real-life metaphors for asylum-seekers and dreamers living in the United States. It was around this time that DEO director Hank Henshaw was revealed to be last known surviving Green Martian J’onn J’onnz, a shapeshifting superhero living on Earth in secret. It was even revealed that the US president herself was an alien imposter (Lynda Carter–the former “Wonder Woman” herself). This storyline was perfectly fitting for American audiences coping with a resurgence in hate crimes and a trolling (thankfully former) US president who actively fanned many of those flames.
The metaphors for Trumpism would be seen in reactionary characters such as Ben Lockwood (Sam Witwer), who would become the populist, anti-alien bigot Agent Liberty, and would inspire a deadly group of likeminded followers to round up aliens indiscriminately, meting out their own twisted brand of ‘justice.’
Note: I met Sam Witwer at a convention a couple of years ago, and we had a nice conversation about acting and our mutual appreciation of the late Anthony Perkins (I told Witwer he’d play an amazing Norman Bates if given a chance–he took it as the compliment it was intended). I’m happy to report he is nothing whatsoever like the reactionary Ben Lockwood!
“Supergirl” also awakened on other fronts as well; beginning with the reveal that Alex Danvers is gay, the show would go a step further and include TV’s first trans-woman superhero, “Dreamer”, aka Catco reporter Nia Nal (played by real-life trans performer Nicole Maines). Among Dreamer’s powers is the ability to receive key psychic information in her dreams (a power inherited from her late mother, but not yet fully understood).
While the inclusion of Dreamer might’ve pissed off anti-LGBTQ bigots, the character’s trans identity is treated very matter-of-factly on the show, which is rarely spotlighted unless it is relevant to a story point. Dreamer would later enter into a touching romance with Brainy, as these two outsiders help to bring out each other’s positive attributes. Brainy helps Dreamer to harness and focus her latent abilities, while she helps the struggling alien cope with his emerging emotions. The actors have great chemistry together, and make for a delightful and charming onscreen couple. Their recent time-travel sojourn to Kara’s high school years in 2009 made for a fun story arc (“Wassssup!”). Nicole Maines is a solid addition to the ensemble. I could easily see Dreamer and Brainy getting their own spinoff someday.
The series has also recently elevated Alex and Kelly’s relationship with the two of them deciding to move in together. Kelly began as something of a rebound relationship for the heartbroken Alex, who just came out as gay and then broke up with her cop lover, Maggie (Floriana Lima). Once again, the anti-wokeness police went into a rabid frenzy over this one, too…
Funny how few people seemed to have any issues about a character’s romance becoming an ‘agenda’ when Kara’s relationship with Prince Mon-El took up a couple seasons (at least 46 episodes). Not to mention how the opening episodes of season 5 focused largely on a heartbroken Kara’s recovery from the romantic split.
Once again, the characters of “Supergirl” (and their sexualities) are presented very matter-of-factly, just as the original “Star Trek” in 1966 featured Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Mr. Sulu (George Takei). Uhura and Sulu were not heralded as the “black woman” and “Asian-American man”; they were just characters. Uhura and Sulu broke barriers by the simple act of being, and that’s exactly what Alex and Dreamer are doing on “Supergirl”. It’s not a nefarious agenda that these characters simply exist.
It’s also not an ‘agenda’ to simply feature characters who are not white, heterosexual or cisgender. Nor to depict adults in loving gay relationships. That’s representation, and yes, representation matters. I see a lot of younger people at conventions and on social media (some of whom I’m proud to know personally) who are moved to tears just to see someone like themselves in popular culture—just as Whoopi Goldberg and astronaut Mae Jameson were inspired when they saw Lt. Uhura appear on Star Trek, and (in the words of Goldberg) “she wasn’t no maid!”
To those who still have a problem with rising levels of representation in pop culture? It’s not 1959 anymore. Get over it. Or watch something else, I don’t care. There’s always “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” or “Baywatch.” You know, any of the other billion or so TV shows made before the 21st century that featured nothing but all-white, cisgender, heterosexual characters. Needless to say, there is still plenty of representation for that demographic.
Worst of Times, Best of Times.
Despite my admiration for “Supergirl”‘s diversity and even for its occasionally clumsy attempts at political commentary, the show definitely has its issues. The series is clearly made on a tight budget, and the seams show (a lot). The dialogue is leaden with exposition. Far too many of the show’s biggest conundrums are simply hand-waved away with some new magic-tech developed at the last second by Lena, Brainy or some new mind-melding psychobabble from J’onn or his fellow Martian lover M’gann (Sharon Leal).
Note: Yes, the show features two Martians in a relationship, and yet it somehow raises less eyebrows than two gay human women.
Funny thing is, those same negative traits of the show could also be seen as strengths, because they remind me so much of the comic books I read during the Bronze Age of Comics (1970 to about 1985). The dialogue in those books was also heavy with exposition, and they would also feature characters who conveniently whipped up handy bits of magic-tech that made everything copacetic at the end of 20 pages. Sometimes these books would even sneak in ‘hot button’ issues like poverty, racism, or some other ‘political-social agenda’ to give our 10 year old brains something to ponder into our teen years.
The simple, silly Bronze Age stuff I grew up with came a good decade or so before comic books got a lot heavier in the 1980s and 1990s (“Dark Knight Returns”, “Killing Joke” “The Death of Superman”). “Supergirl” is, intentionally or not, an homage to those comic books I grew up reading as a kid–right down to the creaky dialogue and pulpy color palettes. And yes, even occasional, sneaked-in social commentary.
So, is “Supergirl” one of my favorite shows of all time? Not at all. In fact, it wouldn’t even break my Top 20 (if I had such rankings). But does it make for a decent time filler while I peddle myself into slightly better health on my Exercycle? Absolutely. “Supergirl” is a reminder to me that not all television has to be “Battlestar Galactica” or “The Wire” in order to snag 40-odd minutes of one’s attention.
Sometimes mildly diverting entertainment is more than enough.
“Supergirl” and “Superman & Lois” can be seen on the CW network, as well as CW.com. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are just over 582,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations are finally widespread (whew!), which is slowing the US mortality rate (though numbers in Brazil and India are spiking dramatically). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy (around 8 percent in the US), it may take a while longer for for eventual herd immunity. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is not yet fully safe. Even vaccinated, it is possible to catch the coronavirus, though your chances of getting ill are slim-to-none. So, if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible (I myself have been fully vaccinated now for over a month now), and let us vaccinate our way out of the COVID pandemic.
Let’s all be superheroes and beat this thing!