Bright, bouncy and very, very Comic-Con, “Supergirl” seems at first glance a huge departure for CBS, which generally prefers the tensely roiling tones of police and law procedural. “Hawaii Five-O” is about as bright and bouncy as a CBS drama gets.
But “Supergirl,” which premieres Monday, isn’t just another in a seemingly endless line of super-hero adaptations. It’s the first cinematic narrative, on flat screen and in theaters, to revolve around a female super-hero since “Wonder Woman.” Which debuted in 1975.
Let that 40-year gap sink in for just a minute, and then have a look at the CBS lineup. With shows like “The Good Wife,” “Madam Secretary,” “CSI: Cyber” and even, bless its heart, “Code Black,” CBS has been quietly cultivating an army of super-females (albeit still in an exclusively Caucasian palette).
Taken that way, “Supergirl” is a natural fit, not just for a new generation of millennial feminists and their younger siblings (many of whom attend Comic-Con) but for CBS — let Tea Leoni’s Bess McCord save lives through diplomacy and Patricia Arquette’s Avery Ryan through super-hacking. Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl will just catch falling planes with her bare hands and pierce firewalls with a single glance.
Best of all, “Supergirl” is just great television. Even those suffering from mild-to-severe super-hero fatigue will be instantly charmed by Benoist’s initially uncertain Kara Zor-El and the slick and witty world Greg Berlanti has created for her.
Like Berlanti’s “Arrow” and “The Flash,” “Supergirl” is a good-hearted and optimistic origins tale, with extra emphasis on Being True to Yourself. So much emphasis that, in the pilot at least, you may wish for a space in which no one can hear you scream.
Originally sent to protect her baby cousin as they both fled Krypton, Kara somehow got sucked into a weird time-suspension situation. When she finally makes it to Earth 24 years later, that baby had grown up to be Superman and clearly did not need her protection. So in a weak but necessary bit of explanatory back story, Kara decides she will just ignore her powers and lead a “normal” life.
This may be the first literal anti-hero complex on record.
“Normal,” when we catch up with Kara, consists of serving as rabbity assistant to media diva Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), a character so wickedly similar to Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” that it’s difficult to believe arbitration wasn’t involved. Unwittingly mirroring her famous cousin, Kara doesn’t just disguise her superpowers, she hides her beauty and intelligence — messy bun, unflattering clothes, bumbling manner, bad glasses.
Amnesia having already been claimed by “Blindspot,” Kara’s extreme self-effacement may have seemed necessary to explain why Supergirl isn’t already flying about saving the world, but it’s an irritating distraction in the pilot. This insecurity seems intended to make Kara even more adorable (impossible!) but also to serve as a metaphor for any woman who chooses to limit herself through self-doubt and fear.
Because, of course, there is no social, political or institutionalized reason that women would be limited in any way. It’s just a question of confidence, girls.
So while points should be awarded for thematic ambition, the writers don’t quite have the courage to pull it off. On the one hand, you have Flockhart delivering a dead-on defense of the word “girl,” on the other you have a young woman with superpowers who apparently has never seen an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Fortunately, Kara has a confident sister named Alex (“Grey’s Anatomy” alum Chyler Leigh, graduating to big sis) who is also not what she seems, and not much time is wasted wondering if maybe she should give flying a chance. As the hour rolls out, a bevy of intergalactic bad guys appears — no mundane human crimes for Supergirl! — and soon Kara’s only dilemma is cape or no cape. (Edna Mode of “The Incredibles,” we miss you so.)
What with the whole “Overcome Your Fears” storyline, the pilot of “Supergirl” can be forgiven for producing a fairly lame first villain, though one hopes it will not happen again. Villains make or break a super-hero tale, and we have come to expect conflicts that are fraught, clever and between equals; an evil general lurking in the shadows seems promising.
Meanwhile, it is easy to delight in Benoist’s infectious enthusiasm and the show’s A-list accouterment: Flockhart’s hilarious performance, the new version of Jimmy Olsen (played by Mehcad Brooks and going by James), the obligatory but still enjoyable evolution of the costume and the possibility that Supergirl was actually sent to Earth to save newspapers (“What the Tribune needs is a hero,” Cat tells Kara, when Kara asks why the Tribune has to fold when the Daily Planet is going strong, causing at least one critic to weep in agreement).
Most important, by the end of the hour, Supergirl seems prepared to be true to herself, live her best life now and accept her own awesomeness. As should we all.
When: 8:30 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for violence)