TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Superheroes have long held an important place in popular culture. The latest TV series starring a long-running costumed hero premieres tonight on CBS. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has this review of "Supergirl."
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Supergirl," premiering tonight on CBS, follows in the same path of other primetime DC Comics superheroes, established on The CW by "Arrow" and "The Flash." And they're only part of a much wider trend because superheroes are as popular and profitable on TV as they are in the movies.
With "Supergirl," Greg Berlanti and his "Arrow" and "The Flash" producing team are attempting to mount a modern, youth-appeal superhero series not for The CW, but for older-skewing network CBS. "The Superman Family" franchise is as reliable and family-friendly as it gets. The "Adventures Of Superman" was TV's first superhero hit show in the '50s. And more recent times have given us such successful variations as "Lois And Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman" and "Smallville," which, respectively, were a prequel and a pre-prequel to the "Man Of Steel" story. A syndicated "Superboy" series was less memorable, and "Supergirl," based on the opening episode, is flirting with being forgettable also.
Melissa Benoist from "Glee" plays Kara, whose space capsule from the doomed planet Krypton takes a time-warped detour on her way to protect her younger cousin who was headed for Earth. When she finally gets there, because of that time warp, he's now her older cousin, already established in Metropolis as Superman. She grows up in a different place with a secret identity, as he did, and ends up working for a powerful media figure in National City. And that's where this "Supergirl" show provides its biggest and only spark because that media titan named Cat Grant is played by Calista Flockhart. Long before she starred in Berlanti's "Brothers And Sisters," Flockhart was the controversial face of new feminism on David E. Kelley's Fox comedy series "Ally McBeal." And in "Supergirl," essentially playing the Meryl Streep part from "The Devil Wears Prada," Flockhart injects the show with some very welcome energy and fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUPERGIRL")
MELISSA BENOIST: (As Kara Danvers) Good morning, Miss Grant.
CALISTA FLOCKHART: (As Cat Grant) The only reason I bought this building was because it had a private elevator. That way, I don't have to get soaked in cheap cologne every morning getting to my office. Find out who used it. Have them reprimanded and/or bathed. I don't care which.
BENOIST: (As Kara Danvers) Here's your latte, hot.
FLOCKHART: (As Cat Grant) That'll be new and different. I have a meeting with the board today at lunch, so cancel sushi with my mother. Oh, and cancel my therapist. I won't be needing it if I'm not having lunch with my mother.
BENOIST: (As Kara Danvers) Got it.
FLOCKHART: (As Cat Grant) Also, I've emailed a list. Prepare termination letters for the Tribune employees as noted. But it would be so nice if you handwrote them. Use the lesser cardstock.
BENOIST: (As Kara Danvers) You're downsizing the Tribune? But that was your first acquisition.
FLOCKHART: (As Cat Grant) Go see if the new art director has the layout ready. It's not that I don't see your frown. It's just that I don't care enough to ask why it's there.
BIANCULLI: I get it. We're supposed to contrast the meekness of Kara at work with the emerging strength of her new costumed alter-ego. It's OK for super villains to be more interesting than the comic book heroes. That's been true, especially in DC Comics, ever since the first appearances of the Joker and Catwoman. But Supergirl shouldn't be less interesting than her boss at work. It's like watching Perry White steal every scene from Clark Kent. And even when Cat Grant uses her media platform to christen the new flying hero Supergirl, Kara, though she hates the name, doesn't put up much of a fight.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUPERGIRL")
BENOIST: (As Kara Danvers) Supergirl, we can't name her that.
FLOCKHART: (As Cat Grant) We didn't.
BENOIST: (As Kara Danvers) Right. I'm sorry. It's just I - I - I don't want to minimize the importance of this - a female superhero. Shouldn't she be called Superwoman?
FLOCKHART: (As Cat Grant) I'm sorry, darling. I just can't hear you over the loud color of your cheap pants.
BENOIST: (As Kara Danvers) If we call her Supergirl, something less than what she is, doesn't that make us guilty of being anti-feminist? Didn't you say she was a hero?
FLOCKHART: (As Cat Grant) I'm the hero. I stuck a label on the side of the girl. I branded her. She will forever be linked to CatCo, to the Tribune, to me. And what do you think is so bad about girl? I'm a girl and your boss and powerful and rich and hot and smart. So if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn't the real problem you?
BIANCULLI: Take away Cat Grant, though, and this new "Supergirl" series rarely gets off the ground. In tonight's premiere episode, little of this series gels, especially not the idea that Kara and her equally super cousin, because they live in different cities, seldom make contact with one another. There's always Skype. And these two could impulsively fly in for a quick visit whenever they wanted and without a plane. The super problem with "Supergirl," though, isn't logic. It's focus. Shouldn't the most interesting character in "Supergirl" be Supergirl?
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Carrie Brownstein, the co-founder of the band Sleater-Kinney and co-creator and co-star of the IFC TV comedy series "Portlandia." She's written a new memoir that's in part about searching for her own identity after growing up with parents who were unsure of theirs. Her mother had an eating disorder. Her father didn't come out as gay until his 50s. And her memoir is about life in a band. I hope you'll join us.
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