With DC heroes leaping into action on the big screen in the form of Justice League, or the small with The Flash, Supergirl, Arrow and the rest, it feels like the right time to sit back and get some laughs out of that universe. At least that’s the hope of the powers behind Powerless, the new sitcom starring Vanessa Hudgens, Alan Tudyk and Danny Pudi, among others. It’s set at Charm City’s Wayne Security (yes, that Wayne), which is an R&D facility developing the technology designed to keep the citizens safe from the literal fallout of battles between superheroes and supervillains.
Speaking to Empire in this exclusive interview, executive producer/co-showrunner (with Justin Halpern) Patrick Schumacker provides some insight as to what it’s all about.
The Original Concept Was Set In An Insurance Company
The first pilot was still the same sort of thematic of powerless people living in a world with superheroes and supervillains causing collateral damage, but it dealt with the insurance side of things, which is like coping with the aftermath of these things. Lo and behold, after seven months of working on it, we’ve arrived at a place where we wanted to do something more on the preventative side. We thought that gadgetry and security products would actually be a fun, more organic way of bringing the world of DC Comics, and more of these genre elements, into a workplace comedy. We wanted it to be more about putting some semblance of power back into the hands of the individuals.
Justin Halpern and I weren’t actually affiliated with the original pilot; that was Ben Queen’s creation, but we’ve got to give him a ton of credit for casting much of the cast that has remained, and just coming up with a lot of the thematic basics of the show that we were able to retain.
Shifting From Sales to R&D
Originally, they were like a sales team for security products, and we were, like, “Whoa! What’s just an easy get for what they can be doing on a day-to-day basis? What’s something that won’t feel obtrusive, and just something that everybody can understand?” We were like, “Well, sales kind of makes sense … Ultimately, these episodes are going to be about interpersonal relationships, so what won’t get in the way, but feels legitimate?” So we said, “Sales,” and then NBC was, like, “Well, we’ve had a very famous half-hour sitcom about a sales team in The Office, so what do you guys think about R&D?”
It didn’t take too long before we realized that we really wanted to do that, that it actually helped even more with the case of bringing genre elements into a workplace comedy. You’ll see in the early episodes of the show that there is some sort of heavy-duty gadgetry involved in the stories. In the second episode, it’s the gang assembling to create what’s called “The Rumbrella,” which is a metallic umbrella that an individual can hold to deflect falling rubble from buildings, and collateral damage from super-battles above. Concurrently, the gang is distracted from the task at hand by a Superhero Fantasy League, which is our world analog to Fantasy Football, the same rules, except instead of touchdowns, it’s “saves,” and we had to come up with an entire point system that plays into the story. Somebody like Superman is “Boom or Bust,” because some weeks he saves an entire city, but then other weeks he has to save only Lois Lane from Lex Luthor, and that only counts as one point, because it’s one person. There’s a whole logic system that was involved with that.
It Is Not A Show About Gadgets
As the series goes on, we have these super-events that kick off storylines, but the products occasionally fall out of place in the episode in favor of more interpersonal stories. We’ve got an episode where Emily, Vanessa Hudgens’ character, ends up landing these government workers from Atlantis, and basically the Defense Department of Atlantis comes in to meet with them in hopes that they can find a new defense contractor after Black Manta launches an attack on Atlantis, and takes out a lot of the capital. That story ends up being less about the Atlanteans themselves, although they are a big part of it — these Atlanteans are business men — but it’s more about Alan Tudyk’s relationship with his father, played by Corbin Bernsen, their dysfunctional relationship and his father’s doubt that Van, Alan’s character, has what it takes to land this giant account. This is after losing Ace Chemicals at the top of the episode, by screwing up a deal with his laziness.
DC Easter Eggs A-Plenty
There are a lot of little nods to DC Comics lore, as much as we can cram in without alienating general audiences. You’ll see references to a lot of that stuff in episodes, whether it’s in the gadgetry or the characters crossing paths with our series regulars. You’re going to see a lot of DC Easter eggs in the show. We have another episode coming up that involves Emily, Vanessa’s character, dating a guy who turns out to be a henchman for the Riddler. It's sort of a DC twist on the classic, “You’re dating a bad guy," and your friends are trying to convince you that he’s a bad guy, and you’re pissed at your friends for trying to convince you that you’re dating a bad guy. You know, you really like this guy, and don’t want to believe that he’s a Bad Guy, but … Oh no! He’s actually an upper level henchman for the Riddler.… We’re excited about that one.
We have a bottle episode involving our crew right before they’re about to go on the company retreat to the more tropical Coast City. They get trapped in the building, because Doctor Psycho pulls a gas attack on Charm City. This comes about because there’s sort of a Making Of A Murderer Netflix series that’s done called Making Of A Supervillain, that’s all about Doctor Psycho and whether or not he’s innocent or guilty of previous crimes. Danny’s character is, like, “C’mon, people: his name is Doctor Psycho.” So that’s the question and then he’s released after the documentary comes out — he’s acquitted — and, of course, he immediately ends up gassing Charm City.
Look For DC “C-Lister” Characters
We have appearances by a handful of DC characters that I think more of the hardcore comics fans, and DC fans, will be familiar with. We have Crimson Fox in the pilot, and she will be a recurring character with more of a speaking role moving forward. We also have Olympian, who’s a member of the Global Guardians, and he’s this jacked, sort of Greek God. He’ll appear a couple of times. So we’re trying to work in characters as much as possible. Philosophically, we were, like, “Do we want to keep the heroes and villains separate from the man on the street?” In the social pecking order, it feels like they’re the gods, and we don’t want to humanize them too much, and yet there’s a lot of comedy to be had when you’re looking superheroes interacting with our regular schmoes, especially with certain superhero characters being sort of … If you want to call them C-listers within the DC universe. If they’re self-aware of that, I think there’s a lot of comedy to be had, where they have a chip on their shoulders …Crimson Fox has a chip on her shoulder that she is the resident champion of Charm City when she could be with the Justice League, but she’s only ever gotten an invite to Justice League Europe, which is kind of a sticking point for her. She may or may not toy with the idea of pulling a Lebron James and taking her talents to a larger city in the DC universe. We have an episode where that may or may not happen.
There Are A Number of Batman Connections In The Show
The ensemble works for Wayne Security, which is made up for the show, but we’re saying it’s a subsidiary of Wayne Industries, so Gotham is the mothership, but then in Charm City, that’s the headquarters for Wayne Securities. Van Wayne — Alan’s character — is Bruce’s cousin, and someone who is a retcon of a character that made a single appearance in a 1961 or ‘62 comic book. Even though Bruce is not a big part of the show, we thought it was a good thing to put into the pilot, and the tapestry of the show, of having a Wayne. Because everybody knows Bruce Wayne is Batman, everybody knows the name Bruce Wayne, so just as an entry point it felt right. We’re not borrowing a ton of mythology from the Batman universe, though you will see an episode whose storyline revolves around an errant Batarang. Danny Pudi’s character actually finds one after a safe that Wayne Security makes, which has been destroyed in a bank robbery, is shipped back to them so they can do a forensics examination, and then within the vault, they find an errant Batarang. It then becomes all about them trying to actually hunt down Batman by using the Batarang, because they assume — correctly — that there’s a tracking device in it, because Batman never leaves his shit around for too long.
So we do take some stuff from the Batman mythology, but the show is not like Gotham, where it’s so consumed by that. We wanted to spread it out over the DC universe in its entirety. But, in the first episode, listen for Adam West as the voice of the Wayne Security promo.
Standalone Vs Serialized Storytelling
I absolutely think there’s an opportunity for the characters to evolve. Again, the first season, you’re trying to sort of design the episodes so that you can, as much as possible, mix them up in the order. You want to put your best foot forward, and so if we shoot the episodes, one, two, three, four, five in a row, maybe the air order is going to end up being one, two, four, three, five. You know what I mean? You want the opportunity to have pure episodic storytelling, at least early on, but absolutely, I think by the end of the first season we’ll see our characters making a little bit of progress in their interpersonal relationships. I certainly think, if we were gifted with a season two, you’d have much more of an opportunity to serialize the show. In a world where NBC is airing shows like The Good Place, which was a fairly serialized show, it opens up opportunities to do that sort of thing.
Remember The Time Superman Turned The World Backwards?
We’re cooking up an episode right now called “No Consequences Day,” that’s kind of a love letter to the 1978 Richard Donner Superman movie, where in our version, Teddy, Danny Pudi’s character, comes running into the office excited, because Lois Lane is dead. Everybody’s, like, “Why are you excited that this very well-known public figure is dead?” and he, being a bit of a conspiracy theorist, says, “Well, there’s this theory that this has happened before, and when it did, Superman flew around the world, reversed the Earth’s rotation, and actually turned back time, so we’ve got about eight hours to do whatever the hell we want …” And it just becomes this fun, wish-fulfillment episode where our characters are allowed to let out their inner IDs, because Superman is going to eventually turn back time. Of course, maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t, but that’s part of the plot, the sort of tension of whether or not he’s actually going to do it. We do get to play with that kind of high-concept stuff as well.
Playing With The DC Multiverse
Our focus is the getting the twelve episodes ordered in this particular context done, but if there is a world where they need a thirteenth episode, we have all of that footage from the original pilot before the show changed, so it could allow us to do something crazy, like a multiverse sort of concept. You could use the whole buffalo and then shoot bumpers, or bookends, where there’s something involving a multiverse, and in another version of our world, they work in insurance. It would be such a geeky-cool thing to do, though I feel, just in general, the audience would be so confused. That one’s a long shot, but we’ll see.
Why The Audience Should Watch
If you’re a genre fan, and if you’re a comedy fan, but specifically if you’re a superhero fan … I think this is a combination of those elements that I’ve never seen before. There hasn’t been anything quite like it on television that I can personally recall, and I’ve seen a lot of television, so I really think, if you like the genre comedies, this is something you’re going to want to watch. Also, it’s very “feel good;” it’s a really light, positive show, that just does kind of make you feel good watching it.