The recent release of Powers, the first original series from the PlayStation Network, is the latest attempt to chip away at the traditional television industry. As Sony’s first foray into an online streaming scene dominated by Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, Powers certainly strives for the quality and seriousness typical of Emmy-winning projects. It’s based on an acclaimed indie comic book (like The Walking Dead), and it has a recognizable cast (Sharlto Copley, Eddie Izzard, Michelle Forbes), lots of bad language and violence, and the backing of an unconventional new online “network.” But the show’s flimsy façade collapses with the show’s clunky exposition and poor production values. Given that it's airing on the PlayStation Network, a portal hitherto used by Sony customers to purchase video games, looking like the real deal would be crucial in helping establish Sony’s legitimacy as the latest streaming network to watch. But Powers isn’t its winning show.
Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s comic book has been ready for the screen since the day it was first published in 2000. A clever mix of neo-noir and classic superhero storytelling, it follows a Chicago police division that deals with super-crimes committed by people with “powers.” Its protagonist, the square-jawed Christian Walker (Copley), is a former superhero himself, whose abilities he mysteriously lost. The book was an instant sensation, and the film rights were sold immediately, yet somehow it’s taken 15 years to find its way to this labored adaptation.
Copley, a twitchy performer who shot to fame as the unknown star of District 9, is far from Oeming’s original vision of Walker, a retired hero built like a linebacker. But he otherwise captures all the noir conventions Bendis built in to the comic’s original pitch: He's chain-smoking, sunglasses-wearing, unshaven, mourning a recently dead partner, and grumbling at every personal question asked of him. Walker's new colleague is Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward), a beat cop looking for action. Together, the two stumble upon a drug ring operated by teleporting bad guy Johnny Royale (Noah Taylor), while trying to stop extra-legal superheroes like the legendary Retro Girl (Forbes) from doing their jobs for them.
Powers is directed by David Slade, a veteran of comic-to-film adaptation (he made arctic vampire thriller 30 Days of Night) and prestige TV (he worked on Breaking Bad and established the motifs of NBC’s acclaimed Hannibal). Visual storytelling has always been his forte, but that’s precisely where Powers falls down on the job.
Bendis and Oeming’s comic book series is set in Chicago in near-permanent nightfall, with the protagonists dwarfed by skyscrapers their superhero friends can surmount in a second. Sony’s Powers is set in Los Angeles—there’s an establishing shot of the Hollywood sign in the opening seconds, in case you didn’t realize—and almost every scene is dappled with California sunlight. These changes undoubtedly helped kept the budget low, but the best way to make your world of superheroes look cheap and unrealistic is to bathe every CGI-assisted flight and day-glo costume in bright light.
Powers has all the traditional problems of a new, plot-heavy series, too, which mainly concern exposition. Viewers are thrust into a fully-formed world, so they need people to explain that there are superheroes all around them, that Walker is a former hero himself, that his partner bit the dust, what the purpose of this special LAPD division is, and so on. There are some grossly fun, lurid comic-book moments sprinkled in—at one point, Royale decapitates an enemy by holding on to him and teleporting away with his head. But these bits of relief are overshadowed by pages of circular dialogue between Walker and Pilgrim as scripter Charlie Huston tries to explain the rules of the world.
With this end-product, it’s finally clear why Powers has had such a tortured path to the small screen. It was initially mooted for FX, with Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) and Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) pegged for the lead roles; in 2011 it was filmed with Jason Patric and Lucy Punch (a bit of a step down) and then left on the shelf, before the rights were scooped up by Sony.
PlayStation’s concept of Powers as its lead series makes a lot of sense—its built-in audience (people who own its game consoles) is young and comic-book savvy, just as Netflix divined (via complex algorithms) that its subscribers wanted to see a weighty Washington drama. It’s easy to scoff at “an original PlayStation series,” but Powers might fit into a vision of TV’s future that embraces the fragmented micro-culture. Rather than the “big three” networks aiming to appeal to the broadest audience possible, why not give every tiny wedge of the viewing demographic what it specifically wants?
Still, if that’s the aim, the execution should be a lot better. If Powers were airing on NBC, it’d seem like a bold, daring experiment, and its flaws would be worth forgiving. Who cares if it mangled the original series’ dark vision—at least it’d be a new kind of crime procedural on television. But airing on PlayStation, there’s less excuse for shooting so wide of the mark. The world of hyper-targeted TV networks, each bound to some specific streaming device, continues apace. But if Powers is any evidence, they still aren't doing enough to get people to cut the cable cord.