The hero of Supergirl, as promised by the show’s title, is plucky Kara (Melissa Benoist), a flying Kryptonian who wears a red and blue jumpsuit with a cape. But one of the cleverest elements of the new CBS series is the way it acknowledges the elephant in the room: Looming perpetually in the background is “the other guy,” her cousin and fellow resident alien, who made it to Earth years before she did. Supergirl was created in the late-1950s as a lazy knockoff of a hit character—Kara’s like Superman, but female!—but the new show smartly plays on those tropes, presenting a hero who’s easy for villains to misjudge and who cheerfully capitalizes on any sexist low expectations.
It’d be easy for Supergirl to head into clichéd territory, partly because the character’s origin story is so intentionally unoriginal. Kara Zor-El was Superman’s older cousin, sent from their dying planet to protect him. But since her space-pod got waylaid in the mysterious Phantom Zone, where time doesn’t pass, she arrived after him and thus dons her heroic mantle in his shadow. Like Clark Kent, Kara works for a newspaper (well, a “media conglomerate”), wears glasses in the guise of a “secret identity,” and was adopted and raised by loving human parents. The show’s developers, Greg Berlanti, Ali Adler, and Andrew Kreisberg, wisely embrace the straightforward approach, making Supergirl’s pilot episode a formulaic pitch down the middle.
It’s hard to glean the show’s future prospects, but it’s not the disaster some might have predicted from early advertising that leaned heavily on scenes of a bewildered-looking Kara bantering with her office mates. When David E. Kelley developed Wonder Woman for NBC in 2011, the resulting pilot (which was never picked up to series) was a catastrophe, filled with every sexist trope you could imagine in a show about a female hero in a poorly designed halter top trying to balance her work life and her love life. In Supergirl, Kara is slightly bumbling in the office (again, shades of Clark Kent), but has a good grasp of her powers, and the show delights in watching her surprise anyone who mistakes her for a ditz.
A lot of the credit has to go to the casting of Benoist as Kara—she’s as perfect a fit as Grant Gustin was for The Flash last year (also developed by Berlanti and Kreisberg). Benoist is charming enough to steady the pilot during its shakier moments, most of which involve the dull exposition required to quickly lay the groundwork for every other character in the ensemble. Alex (Chyler Leigh), her adopted sister, serves as a mentor and voice of caution, inducting Kara into a secret government agency that deals with alien threats on earth headed by the morally ambiguous Hank Henshaw (David Harewood). At work, Kara contends with the brusque CEO Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) and the handsome photographer Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), ported over from the Superman universe to deliver advice from, yes, “the other guy,” a much mentioned off-screen presence.
Supergirl is pitching itself as a straightforward crime-fighting hero show, in line with the hits of the past. The pilot features winking cameos from Helen Slater (who played Supergirl in the eponymous 1984 flop film) and Dean Cain (who played Superman in the 1990s TV show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) as Kara’s adoptive parents. Her do-gooder deeds include saving a plane that’s about to crash, busting some bank robbers, and stopping an evil alien with her laser vision—classic scenes that the show manages convincingly. Overall, Supergirl is visually impressive (the special-effects budget can’t have been small), and it has just the right amount of self-awareness.
It’s also notable that this is the first show to feature a female comic-book superhero since Birds of Prey, which ran for one short season 13 years ago. No doubt it’ll take a few episodes for the show to find its footing, while Kara fights some easily dispatched villains of the week. Next month, Netflix’s Jessica Jones will continue this progress (albeit with a far darker take), but the dearth of series like it, along with CBS’s slick production and Benoist’s likable performance, makes Supergirl an easy show to cheer for.