In a world where superheroes and supervillains rein supreme and fight a lot, we now have a show about a bunch of ordinary guys and ordinary women, along with Bruce Wayne's black sheep of the family cousin, who work tirelessly to create products that protect the other ordinary people of the world.
And yes, the battle-hardened citizens of Charm City are more than a little tired of dodging falling rubble and dealing with the transportation nightmares of getting to work when there's a super-battle duking it out in the skies above them.
Luckily one man, executive producer Patrick Schumacker, has stepped in to save the day ... and have fun at the expense of said super-people, not to mention Batman's cousin, in the new NBC sitcom Powerless. The super-humorous, non-superhero-powered series premieres tonight at 8:30PM on NBC and stars Alan Tudyk, Vanessa Hudgens, Danny Pudi, Christina Kirk and Ron Funches.
Schumacker, who's worked on such TV shows as iZombie and Cougar Town, chatted in an exclusive interview with Syfy Wire about developing the first non-superhero DC comedy, digging up a retcon version of Bruce Wayne's cousin and admitting that a musical Buffy-esque episode isn't entirely out of the question in the future.
What is really unique about the show?
For me this cannot be a more perfect nexus of the things that I love the most in pop culture, which are TV comedies and comic books.
This is the first time we've seen on network television such a high-concept, genre-specific half-hour comedy. I mean, iZombie was very loosely based on the Vertigo book. It is still an hour-long procedural that has a lot of comedy in it, but nobody would call it a comedy first. As funny as it is, first and foremost it is a drama. But Powerless is first and foremost a comedy and the genre element, while very important, I think, is still secondary to the comedy and the grounded, interpersonal relationships between these characters. So I think that's what drew me to it. That's why it is unique. I am a massive comic book fan.
Probably The Tick is the only thing I can think of that came close to Powerless and that was ages ago.
It focused on the heroes and in this one it focuses on the woman or man on the street looking up in the sky and seeing falling rubble and thinking, "Oh, God! I'm gonna be late for work." It's about those modern inconveniences and dangers of living in a world where these super-battles and supervillain attacks happen pretty frequently and what that world is, what it's like to cope with being powerless to stop those things. It takes cues from books like Kingdom Come and Astro City. There are a lot of really great pieces of work in the print medium, written and illustrated work, that tell stories from this everyman's point of view and those were a really great inspiration to have for the first show like this.
Tell me about Bruce Wayne's cousin, who's played by the awesome Alan Tudyk.
I mean, playing off that naivety of people as far as figuring out the identity of a hero is like such a trope, it's like a comedy you can really, really run with that. And also in the case of Alan's character Van Wayne, it's a retcon version of a character that actually exists in the print medium. I want to say it was 1961 or 1962, there was a Batman issue that featured a guy who purported to be Bruce Wayne's cousin Vanderveer Wayne, and he was a con man, and I believe he impersonated Batman.
When we were trying to figure out how we're going to re-imagine Alan's character, we decided we'd like to make him a Wayne. Is there anything out there that would actually give us license to do that without just completely shitting on the mythology that exists? And then one of the people on staff that writes comics himself, Sean, he found this character Vanderveer Wayne and we sent it to DC, and we were like "Hey, can we make Van a retcon version of this guy?" And even DC was like, "I don’t think we were familiar with this guy." It was such an obscure, one-off thing and they were like "Yeah, run with it." And that was that. We were off to the races with this character and it's great having this character, as Alan has put it publicly, the "blithely stupid black sheep cousin of the Wayne family" who would never get invited to any parties at Wayne Manor because Bruce would be worried that he's going to knock over an ice swan sculpture. He's still like this rich wastrel that wants nothing more than to be accepted by the Gotham office and the crowd in Gotham City. But here he is stuck in Charm City and will he ever get there? Probably not, this is a comedy, but you never know. You never know.
Probably not as long his team is providing Batman with some good toys to play with.
Exactly, as long as he's "inspiring."
What's the biggest challenge? I mean you obviously have to do a superhero comedy on the budget of a sitcom.
We had a descent-sized effects budget. We have to use it pretty judiciously and there are certain episodes inevitably in any series, whether or not it's a genre-specific comedy or not, where you're going to do a bottle episode, that's a much smaller-scale thing. It really is about picking and choosing the right moment to blow our wad financially on big effects. We tried to do some stuff early on to help set the table for this world and what it's like to be outside. And they are using a lot of that stuff in the promos for the show on the network and I think it's a good indication of a lot of the early episodes and the big incidents that either kick off stories or influence stories in a major way, but I think the biggest challenge really is finding that sweet spot, that perfect nexus of the superhero comic book genre and the typical half-hour workplace comedy.
It's a thing where it's always a learning experience on the first year of show and I think we've done a lot of things right, I think there are a lot of things that we haven't done right in the process and that's what re-shoots are for. We're still finding it but I think in a weird sense because we were able to use that initial pilot that was shot, it's a mulligan. I think there are a lot of things that we learned from that pre-production that ended up getting scrapped and we were later able to apply to this new paradigm show.
We were shot out of a cannon to do this new iteration of the show, but it really was like just throwing us into the fire. It's like figure it out and you just do it. This is going to make me sound really unconfident but it feels like every day that I wake up it's a minor miracle that this wasn't a disaster [laughs]. But it's one of those things where because it's not a disaster, it's actually like there is a thin line in television between disaster and success and I think it's been a success for us. We only have four episodes left that we need to break out story-wise and the fact that we are two-thirds through our order already is crazy. We've been working on this for seven months in some way, shape or form since the original show was picked up.
I think all producers feel that way, like "It's not going to work. Is it going to work? I don’t know if it's gonna work." And then, "Ah, it worked. Thank God!"
Especially working on a show that does incorporate, in such a major way, the mythology of the DC Universe. [It's] ingrained in the show and when you bring that in, as is with any film or television show where the existing IP has such a big fanbase, you think you have a target on your back that people aren't going to be happy with the way you're portraying a character or an event that they grew up loving. You're never going to satisfy everybody but hopefully we are doing it in a way that satisfies the most amount of people, and does so with the utmost respect for the source material.
Why should people tune in to watch the show?
It depends on who you are, but I think people should watch the show because if they're fans of workplace comedies, I think you're going to get some great character stuff from his workplace comedy that's also going to introduce you to a whole other world in the DC Universe. And if you're a fan of the DC Universe, I think it's about time they did a pure comedy. They're excited to do it and this is DC's first TV comedy, pure comedy. As light and fun in their shows on the CW and Fox are, and Lucifer can be a very funny show, this is pure comedy that is a light escape. There's not a lot of tears on this show. So hopefully it just makes them happy and shows the lighter side of the DC Universe.
I think The Big Bang Theory guys would love this.
Absolutely, I would love to think that, and I would also love to think that if we did a number anywhere close to The Big Bang Theory, that we would be on for 25 years.
And you'd get a two- and three-year renewals.
Those would a great problems to have to try to come up with what are we going to do for episode 500.
Yeah, that's true. Well, you can add characters, kill them off, have babies … Who got killed in the pilot?
It was a steel drum band.
Oh, a drum band, okay. It was quick and funny.
Yeah, nobody minds seeing steel drum bands die.
That's true, as long as you kill them off correctly, you can kill off a lot of people.
Yeah, we might get a nasty letter from the steel drum lobby, but otherwise I think we're in the clear.
You had an interesting journey to getting Powerless on the air. First the Ben Queen pilot and then the version of the show you ended up with. How did you get to what we'll see this week?
We wanted to revamp the show from an insurance company setting to something that felt more organic to the universe where you could actually bring in outside high-concept DC mythology into the world of this workplace in a more organic way. And so we sat down with DC ... and Justin and I did kicked around some ideas and landed on this the security product thing, a preemptive protection for regular people like you or me against the collateral damage that happens when a supervillain comes to town and starts wreaking havoc or just the collateral damage of the falling rubble from Jack O'Lantern fighting Crimson Fox and things like that, that are normal everyday occurrences in a city like Charm City.
So yeah the security angle happened and we were in love with that and then NBC was actually responsible for suggesting the R&D specific. Originally we're thinking, oh, maybe we make them a sales team. It is security products they're still dealing with but sales is something that everybody just inherently gets. But I think because of The Office having a rich history on NBC they wanted to try something different and suggested the our R&D element of it.
That gives you guys a lot of options to play around with inventions.
We landed serendipitously in a place that we're really happy with though it's not to say that this show is a gadget-of-the week-show. But the gadgets are a big part of the show. The inventions that they come up with are a big part of the show. But equally if not more important for us are the interpersonal relationships between the characters on the show. We don't want to have to rely on such plotty devices in every episode we do. Especially early on in a series we want to tell stories that are really giving you a good idea of who these characters are.
You do have great cast. What drew you to this group of actors?
We've got a really wide spectrum of backgrounds with these comedic actors. Every one of them brings something different to the table and also their various fanbases that will hopefully coalesce with this show. I think there's potential for a lot of eyeballs, at least early on. So I'm really happy about that.
Tell me about Emily, played by Vanessa Hudgens, who's brought in to inspire the team and is quite wide-eyed and wonderful.
It was just the dynamic of Mary Tyler Moore where she was a force of optimism surrounded by cynics. [Editor's note: Mary Tyler Moore died the day after the interview.]
I remember The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
It was a great show.
One of the best.
It's one of the best of all time. If you're going to steal, steal from the best. And Vanessa, we would be remiss if we did not exploit her singing talent. You are going to see that on the show from time to time, not that we do all that much. Alan is somewhat musically gifted. We leave it to that as well. Yeah, so a really, really funny character!
I am waiting for the singing villain. Everybody has to start singing along the lines of Buffy.
Oh my God! I mean it’s not something that you are going to see in Season 1, but if we are able to do a musical episode, believe me, I would be all for it.
Powerless premieres tonight at 8:30PM on NBC.