Powers is the first — and so far only — PlayStation Original, Sony’s attempt to make exclusive content similar to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, it tells the story of a gritty world in which human beings with varying levels of super abilities are a norm. PR agencies represent many of them as celebrities and brands. The world has learned to uneasily coexist with them. Sharlto Copley plays Detective Christian Walker, a former high level power that lost his abilities and now works for the powers division of the LAPD, a task force dedicated to powers related crimes.
I was wary about watching the second season of Powers after a disappointing and messy first season. A multifarious wreck of good ideas that lacked the kind of organization and pacing needed for a cohesive narrative. Season one felt like little more than a smattering of happenings and occurrences — bullet points that the writers wanted to make sure they got in the show. Arcs built up without any payoff, climaxes materialized without any buildup, and character changes were necessitated by plot points rather than as a natural progression of the characters.
The less than positive reviews for the first season actually do shine a light of hope on the continuation of the series. It’s unlikely that the creators want to make the same mistakes twice if they desire any continued support for PlayStation’s inaugural foray into exclusive programming, and those criticisms seem to be paying off for everyone that wanted something more from season two.
Spoilers for Powers season one and minor spoilers for the first three episodes of season two follow.
Season two picks up immediately with the major cliffhanger presented at the end of the season one finale. Retro Girl has been murdered and everyone is reeling from the shock. Distrust is rampant, fingers are being pointed, and no one quite knows how to deal with it, from those closest to her, to the general public that has lost an icon and protector. Suddenly emotion doesn’t feel forced for the sake of getting to the next story beat. This feels natural, and the reactions and responses of characters based on these emotions is much more believable this time around.
The First Three
Episode one, Caracas, 1967, is heavily focused on mourning this loss, but the newfound pace of the show doesn’t let this sadness overwhelm or break the flow. The powers division understands that they need to catch whoever did this and bring this case to a close as quickly as possible, especially now that they’ve got two FBI agents with oversight on the case (and possibly an alternate agenda). It’s clear that things aren’t as they seem though, and an unexpected event wraps up the opening, pushing the show forward.
Going into the second episode we start to see the wider rippling effects of a force such as Retro Girl being taken out of the equation. In Funeral of the Century, tensions escalate between rival gangs the Quantums — natural powers — and the Hacks — people who implant with technology to gain powers. Realizing that there’s a world beyond Walker and his problems is one of the best moves that the show could have made. Seeing the wider effects of powers related activity on the rest of the city and the world helps to take the show out of its own little bubble that was one of the major problems in season one.
Calista and Zora both evolve beyond their annoying first season selves. Calista, now with powers of her own, is coming to grips with her abilities, the death of her idol, and the implication of Krispin in Retro Girl’s murder. She’s beginning to learn that it’s not simple to step into the shoes of the world’s most revered power. Zora, on the other hand, is dealing with the ridicule of being a brand for sale, and she offers a window to viewers into the business side of Powers, with a PR firm looking to monetize on everything that is happening.
The third episode preps Los Angeles for Hell Night, the inevitable clash between these gangs in the wake of Retro Girl’s death. It offers a glimpse into a bizarre reality that reflects our own as an insidious reporter seeks to create the news rather than just report it, which feels like a not-so-subtle commentary on modern news media. Meanwhile, Walker and his partner, Deena Pilgrim (Susan Hayward), continue to chase a lead. This episode wraps with the introduction of a new villain — a devastating force with a charming smile and a wide brimmed hat — making these first three episodes in season two feel like a great introduction to catapult Powers even further from its painful first season. The stage is set for season two to do some really awesome things and we can only hope it follows through on the momentum that it has built.
With Great Power…
Powers is at its best when it’s embracing its less-than-serious graphic novel roots. Scenes featuring the quirky Dr. Death (the medical examiner) highlight this as David Ury gives life to this quirky character without taking it too seriously. The acting begins to shine a bit more this season as characters fall naturally into their roles rather than making them feel forced. Even characters like Cutter, the stereotypical “office asshole” type, get a chance to prove they are deeper than their assigned role.
While many may have their own opinions of the plot progression (there are some beats that they could have either done more with, or left out altogether, but overall I feel it is much improved), the one thing that can be universally agreed on is the struggling special effects, specifically in the green screen department. Heroes, a show that’s nearly a decade old, did flying and super power effects far better than Powers does, not to mention the throng of superhero related TV shows currently airing that show better work can be done.
Many green screened scenes feature inconsistent lighting between foreground and background. Calista flying around looks more like she is struggling with a wire harness in a high school production of Peter Pan. And let’s not get started on how terrible that scene of her throwing the truck in the desert is. It’s hard to watch, especially from a show that is actually getting better. If the budget doesn’t call for solid special effects, there are certain writing and cinematography tricks that can be employed to reach the same effect without the need to show everything. It’s unfortunate then that they opted to use these obviously poor special effects as opposed to utilizing more creative and believable methods.
Powers season two is off to an excellent start. These first three episodes provide a great springboard into a villain that seems like he could be a monstrous delight. New elements and threads have been added, from the FBI agents involved in powers division, to the gangs — most notably the Hacks. While some special effects are awesome (two words: Face. Explosion.), still others fail to meet even the lowest bar of expectation. If they can work on what special effects to show, and which ones to be more creatively averse with, as well as moving with the momentum they’ve created in narrative and character development, season two of Powers has a real opportunity to be something special for PlayStation owners.
New episodes of Powers will be released each Tuesday free for PlayStation Plus members. Everybody can watch the first episode here.