I know the various DC TV shows (Arrow, Flash, Supergirl etc) have some strong followings but there’s something about them that doesn’t pull me in. I think part of it is that they feel a bit old-fashioned or stuck in an uncanny valley that isn’t kids TV or sitcom or serious drama and they can’t quite find the right balance. That’s a problem with superhero stories in general – a balance between the innate silliness and potential drama of the genre. Gotham is an exception and I think it has managed to find its own space by adopting Tim Burton’s stance on Batman. Gotham embraces its own absurdity but also mixes it in with elements of horror and camp.
The second advantage Gotham has is it gets that the fictional geographical setting has to have its own character. That’s relatively easy with Gotham but the show gets it right. The other DC shows also adopt the DC-universe policy of using made-up American cities as settings but I’ve found these places feel too generic and hence nowhere-like.
Black Lightning is the most recent addition to the DC stable of superhero TV shows. Unlike the others, it centres on an African-American superhero but otherwise, it follows a similarish style to the others (e.g. set in the fictional city of Freeland). The first episode didn’t grab me but it had some interesting elements, so I’ve stuck with it. I’m up to episode 8 of a 13 episode season and I think I can pull apart what I like and don’t like about it.
I’ll start negative. I don’t think it has yet managed to find the right mix of humour, gritty crime drama, family drama, superhero-antics. That’s not a surprise, as all superhero shows and movies struggle to find that sweet spot (and the right spot is going to vary among viewers). At times the show is quite violent (or suggestive of extreme violence) but within a show that feels more like it has been written for a more general audience. Like the Marvel Netflix shows, the central character regularly beats up criminals to get information but unlike those shows, the behaviour feels at odds with Black Lightning’s non-superhero persona.
However, there is also a lot to like about this show. The central character, Jefferson Pierce, is unusual for a superhero. He is an older man with a successful career as a high school principal. He has a family and responsibilities and ‘Black Lightning’ is something from his past. By having him as a superhero who is coming out of retirement (due to gang violence initially) is a clever way of avoiding a protracted origin story, while giving viewers an introduction to the character. We have not, as yet, been given an explanation for the source of his electrical powers – although there are hints in a subplot around the death of his journalist father some years ago.
Grounding the central character in a wider group of people (family, school and the techno-support guy in the form a tailor with a shady past) early helps the show rest on multiple characters and creates both motivation and tension for Pierce as a character.
Now I said the show avoids being a protracted origin story but that’s just for Black Lightning. [Mild spoilers ahead] a secondary plot revolves around his older daughter Anissa who (unaware of he father’s powers) discovers she has powers. A genre-savvy social-activist lesbian with a side interest in cosplay, Anissa has her own story as a character thinking about becoming a superhero (including trying out her own costumed identity to demolish a Confederate monument). Using father and daughter to create related but different superheroes with similarish but generationally different attitudes is a really smart addition to the plot.
I think the show is still finding its own voice and style. I think it would benefit from more humour and snappier dialogue but there are some clever superhero action elements and dark hints at a complex backstory/mystery. Overall, good television.