Powers is a Dumb Mess I Can’t Stop Won’t Stop
Playstation Plus has one exclusive show, just one, with which they seek to prove that they can make compelling content as part of the value proposition of their monthly subscription fee. Backed by the full might of Sony’s established TV and film production apparatus, they seek to make content specifically for the audience of gaming enthusiasts they have tied to their network, catered to their wants and tastes. So why is Powers such hot garbage?
Powers is now in its somewhat miraculous second, 10 episode season. It is (loosely) based on the comic series of the same name. And when I say based, really it just takes the synopsis of the books and some key characters and events and then pretty much makes up the rest as you go along. They knew the book would likely not translate to the show 1:1, so they decided to go a different route, which is probably a smart idea, as we have seen some direct translations in the past that have failed for being too adherent to the source material. Instead of trying to spend a bunch of time rebuilding the shows mythology, they created a modified backstory. The show decided that if it was going to fail spectacularly, it was going to do so on its own terms.
If you have not yet watched this show, I know all I have written so far paints a pretty bleak picture. Let me tell you right away that this article is not one to try to discourage you from watching this show. The show is awful, and for reasons I will get into you probably should watch it.
First let’s get talk about the acting. Without telling you who’s who or does what, know that this show has prominent cast members from the High School Musical movies, The Bratz movie, and Sharlto Copley in it. Remember how good Sharlto was in District 9? Can you name one other production he was good in? Well it won’t be Powers.
Most of the acting is pretty bad and over the top, and it is a superhero show so some of that can be forgiven, but just when you think it cannot get any worse it turns into some Disney channel drama class nonsense with Sharlto at the center chewing the scenery like it is his only source of vitamin acting. A great number of the actors in this show were cast for looks first (and there are some truly good looking people in the program) and acting talent somewhere in 5th place.
There are some fun performances in the show. Wolfe (Eddie Izzard) in season one is fun enough a villain that you won’t hate the actor forever afterwards, and a few of the supporting roles are played adequately enough that they could deliver a line on some WB show somewhere, but for every scene that has a tolerable performance there is some equally cringe inducing thespian standing right next to it delivering (shouting) their lines like some high school production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Johnny Royalle (Noah Taylor) always feels like he is delivering his lines with the inflection he should have in a different part of the episode, while Calista (Olesya Rulin) is to busy looking like one of the missing Olson twins to remember not to act like she is in an Olson twin movie.
The director also seems to have a penchant for dramatic pauses and characters mumble-stuttering parts of the dialogue. Whenever they really want to convey drama on the show, it feels like the director told the actors to stare into the void as long as they could hold out, and to then rescue themselves from the brink just in time to deliver their lines in a confused tone. There are seriously some parts of the show where the dialog feels so unnatural I had to stop and ask myself if I was in this same fantastical situation in real life and I delivered my message in the same manner, would people understand what I was saying or ask me why I was speaking with such odd timing and inflection. Shatner would be so proud.
But Sharlto is on a level beyond everything else. The fact that he is trying to affect an American accent is so thick in every scene you could slice it and serve it on toast. The South African accent is not an easily hidden one, and if you watch anything else he has done you can see that he either has had to embrace his accent full on, or do something that sounds like a drive time radio caricature.
What winds up happening when Sharlto tries to elicit a serious accent in a moderately dramatic role not filmed in Johannesburg is it turns into an accent that is wholly un-recognizable, at least on this planet. It just never feels right. It’s not American, not Californian, it is something new and unnatural. At times the sound he is making and his mouth movements do not pair up in my brain, and it almost sounds like his voice is either out of sync or disembodied. Sharlto also only has 2 speeds of dialog delivery, bland, and “the world is ending I left the oven on oh fuck oh fuck I just pissed myself.”
There was a period of time in my life in the late 90’s, and these are fond memories, when I lived upstate New York and on Sundays my mother would drive me and my youngest brother to Catskill to play Magic and various other card games. I think I was about 15 or 16 years old at the time. We would play for hours and then Mom would pick us up and drive us half an hour back home. When I got home my father would always be watching the same set of TV shows, which was sort of a reward for him because while everyone was out of the house he was able to get his work done. The high caliber of shows he would watch included Xena, Hercules, Star Trek Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Babylon 5. There is something about Powers production value and just the feel that it gives me that really reminds me of those shows (and Highlander. Don’t forget Highlander,) except that those shows were made almost 20 years ago and Powers has literally no excuse to not be high quality.
The shows of the 90’s had limited budgets, and computer graphics were still costly and fledgling. When you had a scene with CGI, it was typically a fully rendered one, instead of one that integrated with the actors because of how deep the uncanny valley was back then. Directors still relied on camera tricks, editing, and implying what was happening off camera. I really wish Powers used some of these techniques instead of what they are doing.
The special effects are so inexplicably bad it makes you wonder if it is a social experiment to see how long people will tolerate it. Most of the flying scenes look like low rent matrix rip offs where you can see where the wire harness actually lifts the persons shirt a little, or really clumsy CGI masking with a lot of digital blur. We have come a long way since the original superman flying scenes in these here talkie pictures, but there are moments where I thought George Reeves was going to join the cast and try to sell me war bonds.
In any scene where someone has laser eyes or light powers or really any sort of fanciful thing happens, they slap these CGI effects on top of it that look painted on. They feel like such an afterthought that you cannot help but focus on the cast member doing pantomime hadokens behind the silly laser light show they added in post. It is like every super hero in the show has the same powers, and that is to make low poly count effects pop up out of nowhere.
Even worse than the super hero powers though are some of the blood effects all over the first season. The villain in this season, Wolfe, is able to absorb power from other superheros by “eating” them. The show handles this in a figurative way just as much as a literal one, in that Wolfe does actually attack, murder, and cannibalize people in the show. But whenever he does there is this cartoonist gore geyser that happens that is somewhat reminiscent of the bed scene from the first Nightmare on Elm St or the cellar in Evil Dead 2.
Except those scenes used practical effects so the blood acted like blood. In Powers these blood scenes use CG Blood which not only looks bad, but also looks as if it is coming from another video that was layered on top of the actual video and then someone just turned the opacity down. It is just terrible and you have to wonder if it is just because CG blood so much cheaper than practical. I mean I do not want to downplay how bad these scenes look. I have been to GWAR concerts with more realistic blood scenes.
There are also times when the show really does feel like it is being shot on a set. There is a flimsiness to a lot of the outdoor scenes, and during any of the fights you half expect a Styrofoam boulder to bounce off an extra in the background.
The story is probabaly the best part of the show (not a high bar) but it still has it’s foibles.
The show mostly takes place in LA, and part of the reason they set it there is because they wanted to draw parallels between these heros trying to make it and how Hollywood is filled with failed actors all still trying to chase the dream. Superhero in this world in a lot of ways has replaced actor. This in and of itself is a great narrative, but it fails to resonate because we all know what LA looks like, and it does not look like Canada.
It would seem that even though they could afford what looks like stock footage blood effects they couldn’t afford the licensing rights to some stock footage freeway shots. The show does not give you anything to make you thing you are in LA, it just asks you to take it’s word for it and then when you are about the give the show your trust it hits you in the back of the head with a hockey puck.
The story goes to great lengths not to hit you over the head with the Hollywood parallels directly, but the stereotyped characterizations they make really detract from the story they are trying to tell. Every cop is street hardened and grizzled, every hero is aloof and losing touch with reality like a low rent Dr. Manhattan, and every agent is constantly swindling someone over a cellphone while wearing a sharp suit. Sharlito, who plays a detective, is consistently dressed like he is ready to audition for the role of sharp 80’s douchebag, because I guess that is what they think LA is.
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH
I still think you should watch this show. I know after all the complaining I just did about it that is a strange thing to say, but there really is a lot of joy to be had in watching a high level failure like this. Xena was a super high rating show in its heyday suffering from many of the same flaws, but for all its failings it was a fun show to watch unfold. Likewise I think the fact that Sony is trying to embrace a new story and distributing it in a new manner is something worth pursuing, and the story itself has a lot more meat on its bones that most of the old, bad network stuff. Netflix has shown us that unique content can break the distribution mold, and potential cord cutters like me love having the added value to our subscriptions.
At this point, after having watched two seasons of this show, I think I am on the hook for a third season. Not for the story, not because of the time invested, but just to see if they can actually make the show into a real program or to watch the greatest train wreck of all time unfold before me. And while I may be watching it purely in a hipster ironic fashion at this point, it has become a cathartic experience unlike most things.