Equipped with ergonomic chairs, fluorescent lights and dotted with Mac monitors, the room could pass for just about any modern-day, millennial-baiting workplace. It feels familiar, unremarkable even, that is until the clouds of cartoon-y smoke start wafting past the windows.
Wedged between laboratory props in the back, a sign reads: “Wayne Security has worked __ days since super villain accident.” Today is not the day that sign will be put to good use.
Each computer screen is flashing the alarmingly red warning: “Emergency Lockdown Procedure Initiated. Remain Calm.” But instead of panicking, the inhabitants appear merely flustered; it’s just another pleasant day ruined in Charm City.
On the set of NBC’s new superhero show “Powerless,” a sitcom that directs the attention away from the spandex-clad comic book heroes that populate the skies of the CW, and instead focuses on the civilians forced to live in the messy world of genre mayhem and the destruction left behind. It’s the story of the innocent bystander, and how such people get through the day filled with careless superhero showdowns.
This aftermath is where the employees of Wayne Security come into play — they invent creative ways to protect the little people whose lives are often interrupted by falling debris and citywide attacks. The company is led by the dimwitted CEO Van Wayne (played by Alan Tudyk of “Firefly” and “Rogue One” fame) — the lesser known cousin of Bruce, a.k.a. Batman. Wayne and his new hire Emily Locke (Vanessa Hudgens) command a team of inventive engineers made up of Teddy (Danny Pudi), Ron (Ron Funches), and Wendy (Jennie Pierson).
Together they try to save the day for the common man (while turning a profit) with ideas such as the “rubble umbrella,” “the Joker antivenom,” and frost-melting gloves. But productivity is at a standstill on set today, thanks to yet another attack from a random Big Bad and a mess of dangerous smoke. The characters are stranded in their offices. It’s a bottle episode, one in which the entire story line plays out on a limited number of sets, sometimes just one room.
“I think anytime any TV show does a bottle episode it's because they need to save money on their budget for that week,” explains executive producer and co-show runner Justin Halpern outside of the Burbank Studios set. “Which is also why we're doing one.… However, bottle episodes should be about getting to know characters, secrets coming out [and] what happens when you put your characters in a pressure cooker.”
This episode plans on cracking Hudgens’ Locke, the new director of research and development.
One part “Mary Tyler Moore Show” (a touchstone for the show runners) and two parts superhero sitcom, “Powerless” spends a lot of time on Hudgens’ character. The latest addition to Wayne Security, Emily struggles to steer the haphazard team and corral the man-child in charge. But every week she manages, and rarely loses her smile.
“Locke is very peppy, very optimistic, almost like a puppy,” Halpern says. “And we thought there's no way that, deep down inside [that people like that are] actually not really resentful of the people around them that they clean up after. We thought it'd be really interesting to see how far it would take for her to snap.”
“You start in a place where she's a Disney princess, and you end in a place where she's [‘Unabomber’] Ted Kaczynski,” adds Halpern’s fellow executive producer and co-show runner Patrick Schumacker, visibly excited about Emily’s imminent breakdown.
Being trapped at work might be uncomfortable for the character, but if Hudgens the actress is feeling the pressure she certainly isn’t showing it. While rapidly delivering Emily’s rallying speech to her co-workers, Hudgens takes a beat between takes, raises her arms and twirls. If someone said that in the mornings birds flew into her trailer to style her hair, it would seem plausible.
“I try to listen to music, that brings me up a little bit and I dance around. I was just listening to Anderson Paak,” says Hudgens of maintaining her cheery persona. “I’m a big believer in high-fives and high-fiving yourself.”
Tudyk, however, isn’t in the same head-space. Dressed in the same white suit for a week, the actor was getting anxious about keeping his costume clean. “I'm a messy person in my life,” Tudyk jokes. “At work, out of work, and so I've had to be more cautious, which I guess is a learning opportunity. But, dark suits are better.”
That levity from both Tudyk and Hudgens is the cornerstone of “Powerless,” and it comes straight from the source material. “DC Comics have always been about the triumph of optimism over cynicism,” Schumacker says.
Covered in Post-It Notes for an unknown reason (presumably this is what happens to his character when stuck in an office for hours and hours) Pudi jokes with Funches off set, tossing out ideas and keeping the overall mood light. It’s clear that improvisation is welcome here. Taking time off from shooting in the Wayne Security conference room, stand-up comedian Funches recalled a favorite joke, dreamed up himself.
“There’s an episode where we get a visit from the Atlantians, Aquaman’s hometown,” Funches says, trying to contain giggles. “The cast finds out that my character is also from Atlantis. When we meet each other, I pitched that we throw each other a black power fist. And they’re all like super-pale, Nordic guys. Just to see them all [raises fist mimicking the sign] was probably a dream come true.”
That’s the true superpower of “Powerless”: clever jokes you truly wouldn’t expect from the oft-maligned comic book medium. They’re not afraid to punch up as well. In the pilot episode the front page of Charm City News featured the headline “President-Elect Luthor Vows to Make Metropolis Super Again.” A few episodes later Hudgens’ character asked her team, “What is the greatest generator of supervillains, aside from bad parenting?” The responses: “Being bitten by things.” “Laboratory mishaps.” And “Losing the popular vote but somehow winning the election.”
“You definitely have to think more about the types of jokes you're making,” Halpern says, noting that Tudyk’s character is a lot more believable today than he was last year thanks to the rise of a certain politician.
“We're also doing an episode about how much harder it is to be a female superhero than it is to be a male one,” says Halpern. “Superman saves somebody and all of the comments on the article are like ‘He's the best!’ And then a female superhero saves somebody and they're like ‘She looks like … in that outfit.’ None of the comments are about saving people.”
“It was funny,” says Tudyk from behind his character’s comically large desk, about what drew him to the series. “I read a lot of scripts and I watch a lot of television and I have a great respect for things that make me laugh. It was a fresh idea of a superhero comedy. Where this was, by definition, not about the heroes but about people. It's very funny putting the mundane next to the extraordinary, having the extraordinary be mundane to the people who live in that world.”
Outside his office a set of crew members pump clouds of fog into the air, readying for Van’s diatribe about not being able to go on vacation due to the heinous smog. A mundane idea trapped by extraordinary circumstances.
When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)