Sunday, June 4, 2017

Endure The Mediocre, Supergirl Season 2 Rises To Heroic Heights!

The Good: Some truly amazingly good episodes, Good arcs for Alex, Mon-El, Supergirl, and Lena Luthor, Moments of performance
The Bad: Very unbalanced season in terms of ensemble, Some dismally bad episodes, Inorganic presentation of themes.
The Basics: The second season of Supergirl develops exceptionally well when it tries to be smart and set the bar high . . . and falls into mediocre and terrible episodes when it does not.

I did not get into Supergirl right away. Unlike something like The Flash, the pilot episode of Supergirl did not hook me. The writing was over-the-top for the themes and it made me roll my eyes as opposed to make me want to tune in. After the first season, though, it was announced that Lynda Carter would be appearing in the second season of Supergirl and that was enough to get me to want to tune in. So, I binge watched the first season in advance of the second season debut and I kept up with the show for the season.

The second season of Supergirl is an improvement over the first season in that it more organically develops a relationship between Kara Danvers and her paramour for the season. As well, the season uses some of the supporting and new characters very well and when it settles on a villain, the season generally comes together. But, the cast of Supergirl is big and the writers and executive producers do not really know how to use all of them organically. Supergirl Season 2 also inorganically tries to tease the new character of Lena Luthor - is the a villain or not, the attempt to obscure Lena's true motivations plays exceptionally poorly upon the second (or more) viewing of the season.

Kara Danvers is having a dinner party for her friends when a Kryptonian pod crashes to Earth. The pod houses Mon-El, a man from Daxam, Krypton's sister planet. Mon-El is brought to the DEO for observation while he acclimates to Earth, while Lena Luthor attempts to rebrand Lex Luthor's company as L Corp and reinvent herself. Unfortunately, the L Corp ceremony is attacked and National City becomes ground zero for Project Cadmus, an anti-alien scientific conglomerate that wages both a public relations and street war on the aliens. When the President Of The United States comes to National City, she is attacked and has to be rescued by Supergirl. Fortunately, the President is not intimidated and she signs an amnesty act for extraterrestrials.

While Kara adjusts to writing as a reporter for CatCo, James Olsen takes over at CatCo and takes to the street as a vigilante hero, The Guardian. Winn Schott adjusts to working at the DEO under J'onn J'onzz, who is distracted by the presence of another Martian on Earth. The new National City set-piece is an alien bar, where Alex begins to hang out. Alex comes to peace with her sexuality, which puts her in surprising danger from an old foe. And, as Mon-El and Kara develop a substantive romantic relationship, Mon-El's mother tracks him down and menaces the entire planet to get her son back.

Supergirl works best when it tries to be smart. Rewatching Supergirl with me, my wife said it best: Supergirl is an obvious CW teen show that occasionally stumbles into actual greatness. She was right; the episode frequently bumbles from episode to episode without a clear sense of what it is doing and concepts that generically appeal to a lower common denominator - more than any show in recent memory, Supergirl forces reversals or tension based around potential reversals. Alex and Maggie Sawyer develop a romantic relationship and it is incredibly well-executed at key moments. But, Maggie lies to Alex about having accepting parents which creates - to quote my wife in a loud and excited voice - "Forced drama!" And Alex throws herself at Maggie, is rejected and Maggie just needs to be worn down over an episode and a half instead of actually having principles.

Nowhere is the forced drama more evident than with Lena Luthor. Lena Luthor leaps into the second season of Supergirl as a wild card. She is a Luthor, adopted, who is trying to make her way in the world after Lex Luthor's fall from grace. Her mother is the head of Project Cadmus and Lillian Luthor spends much of the second season of Supergirl trying to manipulate Lena. The thing is, Lena is characterized as fundamentally good and she becomes a symbol for Kara rightly trusting people's good nature. So, after Lena escapes a plot from her narcissistic mother and there is a menacing shot of Lena playing chess, the viewer is supposed to believe that Lena is not actually good. Near the climax of the season, Lena is given her big opportunity to prove herself and after an excellent set-up where she is smart, ethical and stands her ground, she willingly sacrifices her scruples . . . arguably because Kara does not call her back in a timely fashion.

That is the contradictory dichotemy of the second season of Supergirl. When Supergirl develops organically as a serialized storyline - with stories like Alex and Maggie developing a relationship, Kara and Lena developing a genuine and trusting friendship, and Mon-El develops from a flamboyant playboy into a lovestruck young man who wants to play hero beside Supergirl and resists relapsing when his mother offers him everything he previously wanted. But Supergirl does not commit to a serialized narrative and it includes truly awful bottle episodes, like whenever they attempt to do crossovers with The Flash and push Kara into a musical episode. The appearance by Mr. Mxyzptlk serves to delay the Mon-El and Kara relationship inorganically for another episode and without the crossover episode, how the pair reconciles is not explained in a satisfying way. In fact, the only bottle episode that holds up is "Alex" and the reason it works as well as it does is because it illustrates a strong sense of understanding of how various elements in the lives of Kara, Alex and the DEO fit together.

Beyond that, Supergirl is problematic in its second season because the writers do not seem to know what to do with almost half the cast. Winn Schott continues to be a retread of Cisco Ramon from The Flash, more so now that he is working at the DEO. Schott is unlucky at love and spends his time hanging around at the alien bar, which in itself seems entirely derivative of the demon bar from Angel (reviewed here!). J'onn is entirely softened as a character at the outset of the second season, so he appears unprofessional and almost unrecognizable as the same character from the first season. James Olsen is given a promotion and after the first episode where he cracks his whip on Snapper Carr, Supergirl seems to have no idea what to do with him in the role of running CatCo. So, Olsen spends most of the season relegated to playing the street-level vigilante hero The Guardian at night. As The Guardian, the writers do not seem to know how to keep Olsen vital . . . or explain in a satisfactory way why muggers and bank robbers bother hounding the streets of National City at night when the city is so well-protected.

The characters in Supergirl Season 2 are fractured between very smart and utterly boring. The essential characters in the second season of Supergirl are:

Kara Danvers/Supergirl - With the departure of Cat Grant, she becomes a reporter for CatCo under James Olsen and Snapper Carr. Initially repulsed by Mon-El because he is a Daxamite, she gives him a chance and starts to respond to his optimism for trying to be a hero. She takes Lena Luthor at face value and continues to give her opportunities to prove herself as a good person, not judging her by her family's reputation. She legitimately falls in love with Mon-El after letting James Olsen down easily and she works to thwart Project Cadmus and the Daxamite Queen, Rhea,

Alex Danvers - J'onn's right at the DEO, she provides tactical support for Supergirl. While investigating an attack on the President, she meets Maggie Sawyer and starts a relationship with her. She comes out to Kara, her mother, and her friends, for the first time coming to peace with herself. Her judgment is compromised when Jeremiah Danvers resurfaces and she is put at extreme risk when an old classmate uses her to manipulate Kara and Maggie,

James Olsen - Now the executive director of CatCo Worldwide Media, he finds himself listless. So, he starts fighting crimes as The Guardian, an armored vigilante. He works with Winn to find and stop crimes,

J'onn J'onnz - Running the DEO, he constantly monitors for alien threats on Earth. When he encounters a Martian working at the alien bar, he is initially thrilled, but after an attack by Parasite, he is weakened and needs a blood transfusion from the Martian and realizes she is a White Martian. After she leaves Earth, J'onn pines for her and does nothing much else,

Winn Schott - He works at the DEO now and suddenly gains an encyclopedic knowledge of aliens, such that when he encounters one random one at the alien bar, he is able to quote poetry from her planet. He is duped by his alien girlfriend, but continues to try,

Lena Luthor - The adopted daughter of Lillian Luthor and Lex Luthor's half-sister, she now runs L Corp, where she tries to better the world. She meets Kara Danvers when Danvers interviews her and the two begin a friendship. She loathes her mother's anti-alien agenda and she works to undo Lex Luthor's damage. Despite that, many people in National City do not trust her,

Mon-El - He crashes to Earth and assumes the persona of a common Daxamite. He is actually a Daxamite prince, but he rejects his former life of privilege after seeing how Kara acts on Earth. He and Winn strike up a friendship and he turns to Winn when Jeremiah Danvers resurfaces and only he questions him. When Kara learns of his royal past, he fights to show her that he has reformed from her prior playboy self,

and Maggie Sawyer - a detective in National City, she initially clashes with Alex over investigating aliens in the city. She is out and proud and has recently broken up with an alien lover when she meets Alex. She is reluctant to get into a relationship with Alex - because Alex is fresh out of the closet - but falls pretty hard for her. When Alex is captured, she works to get her partner back.

The performances in the second season of Supergirl are dominated by the women and Chris Wood. Wood plays Mon-El and he organically-develops the character from a ridiculous playboy to a person credibly guided by a stronger moral core. Outside Wood, the women are the standout performers in Supergirl Season 2. Floriana Lima, Chyler Leigh, Katie McGrath and the recurring Brenda Strong play complicated, strong women who are often emotionally articulate and clever. Lima and Leigh have amazing on-screen chemistry (regardless of the inorganic moments of high drama they are forced to perform). Leigh gives an award-worthy performance in her character's coming out to Kara and Lima's exposition when Sawyer tells Alex the truth of her coming out in "Mr. And Mrs. Mxyzptlk" is enough to bring viewers to tears. McGrath steals almost every scene she is in (which is annoying when writers or directors try to tease the idea that Lena is the season's secret villain) and it's actually refreshing to see Lena and Kara in scenes where they are able to embody a positive friendship between two women. Brenda Strong plays well within her established wheelhouse as Lillian Luthor, but she manages to make Luthor seem like she is doing terrible things for a reason she actually believes in.

Melissa Benoist is good at embodying both Kara Danvers and Supergirl. Benoist gets to show off more range as Kara reacts to having Mon-El in both major aspects of her life. In the second season of Supergirl, Benoist is able to find the right performance balance between playing Kara as strong and vulnerable in a very human and real way.

Despite some wonderful character moments and good performances, Supergirl still does not seem to know how to sell some of its big moments of liberal ethics. While the Alex Danvers coming out storyline is handled very well, the appearance of Parasite is riddled with some of the most clunky lines that sound like they came from the least-sophisticated environmentalist writer and Hank Henshaw's declaration of his new identity is so inorganic that even David Harewood cannot land the line.

But even with its uneven aspects, Supergirl is well worth watching and is best when the characters are given opportunities to develop organically instead of servicing a false sense of mood or dramatic tension.

For a better understanding of exactly what is in this season, please visit my reviews of each of the episodes at:
"The Adventures Of Supergirl"
"The Last Children Of Krypton"
"Welcome To Earth"
"The Darkest Place"
"Supergirl Lives"
"We Can Be Heroes"
"The Martian Chronicles"
"Mr. & Mrs. Mxyzptlk"
"Distant Sun"
"Ace Reporter"
"City Of Lost Children"
"Nevertheless, She Persisted"

For other works from the 2016 – 2017 television season, please check out my reviews of:
"The Lie Of The Land" - Doctor Who
"The Return Part 3" - Twin Peaks
House Of Cards - Season 5
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - Season 3
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Season 4
Sense8 - Season 2
Dear White People - Season 1
Legends Of Tomorrow - Season 2
The Walking Dead - Season 7
Thirteen Reasons Why - Season 1
Grace And Frankie - Season 3
Iron Fist - Season 1
Love - Season 2
Santa Clarita Diet - Season 1
A Series Of Unfortunate Events - Season 1
One Day At A Time - Season 1
Travelers - Season 1
The OA - Season 1
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life
"Invasion!" - Arrow
"Borrowing Problems From The Future" - The Flash
Luke Cage - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 1


For other television season and episode reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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