Calista Flockhart: From It Girl to ‘Supergirl’ boss

26 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

CBS’ ‘Supergirl’ flies with rising star Benoist.

When Supergirl finally takes flight Monday night, its heroine Kara Zor-El will have already endured months of derision for everything from GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s boneheaded “she’s pretty hot” comment to her show’s early resemblance to a girly girl-parodying SNL skit. That’s pretty much everything you need to know about “Supergirl,” a standard-issue comic-book story with a brilliant piece of casting at its center.Kara (Melissa Benoist) is originally from the planet Krypton, and she is burdened and blessed with the same superpowers as her cousin, Kal-El, also known as Superman.

But for his latest glorification of the genre, executive producer Greg Berlanti has moved to CBS, the galaxy ruled by Mark Harmon and Jim Parsons — the stoic and the geek — to give its viewers a featherweight tale of female empowerment called “Supergirl.” Here’s the setup: Kara Zor-El escaped the doomed planet Krypton with her parents’ help at the same time as the infant Kal-El, who grew up to be Superman (her cousin). The sight of a Kryptonian bustling through crowded streets carrying coffee for her Miranda Priestly-lite boss, apologizing frantically to grumpy Earthlings for bumping into them, was a sign of clichéd inferiority, we were told. (Though, it’s worth noting, no one leveled this claim at Barry Allen in CW’s The Flash, who is introduced as an adult onscreen in almost the exact same way). — On Friday in Tuned In I wrote about CBS’s “Supergirl” (8:30 tonight, KDKA-TV), which begins with a strong pilot episode that introduces an optimistic title character and plays up “girl power” bonafides as it addresses the fact that’s she’s Supergirl (Melissa Benoist, above) and not Superwoman in a speech by Kara’s boss, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). “Sometimes there’ a temptation there by executives to alter things that I think is part of the DNA of what was so great about the comic book,” Berlanti said in a teleconference with reporters last week. “We wanted to be protective of the name of the show and have a conversation with out characters that we believe the audience would be having as well. But she has chosen to hide her formidable light — being faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound — under a bushel and pass as human.

Protected by her foster family, the Danvers (played by Helen Slater, star the 1984 film “Supergirl,” and Dean Cain, star of the ’90s series “Lois & Clark”), Kara learned to conceal her phenomenal powers — she can fly, see through walls and has superhuman strength (like her famous cousin) in order to keep her identity a secret. But Supergirl, to its infinite credit, never shies away from its charming, bubbly protagonist’s hyper-femininity, even in a culture that still, somehow, perceives girlish women as intellectually inferior and frequently condescends to and underestimates them. Kara Danvers is a shy, bumbling romantic-comedy lead, while Supergirl is brave and full of resolve; Benoist makes them seem like natural parts of one whole person, a rare feat in the superhero-acting business. She’s an adult woman, why isn’t this called ‘Superwoman’?” “One of the things I love about this show is it’s a real celebration of girl power,” Flockhart said at an August press conference. “ And I was really attracted to this show because I think it’s a great show for moms and daughters to watch together. She’s a timid 24-year-old who, like many women in the world of TV superheroes, and in the world of human beings, too, have excluded themselves from typically male power roles. “After all,” Kara says, “Earth doesn’t need another hero.” And so “Supergirl,” which premieres on Monday at 8:30 p.m., sets its path as not just a show about a female superhero, but a show that knows it’s about a female superhero.

The script, by Berlanti, Ali Adler and Andrew Kreisberg, is a by-the-numbers affair that offers the character’s origin story up front, introduces the villain at just the right moment, throws in the requisite unexpected complication at the three-quarter mark and saves one twist for the final moment. But as Krypton explodes, Kara’s rocket ship is knocked off course into the Phantom Zone, the out-of-sight, out-of-mind (and slightly irresponsible) interdimensional prison for Krypton’s greatest criminals. At one point in the first episode, Kara, who finally decides to use her powers to fight evildoers in National City and not languish in her cousin’s shadow, stresses over the fact that she has been dubbed by the media “Supergirl” rather than “Superwoman.” At another point, a waitress expresses her excitement about the appearance of Supergirl: “Can you believe it?” she says. “A female hero. Because of a warping of the space-time continuum that might not make sense even to the ubiquitous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Kara arrives on Earth years after Kal.

Shouldn’t she be called Superwoman? … If we call her Supergirl, something less than what she is, doesn’t that make us guilty of being anti-feminist?” Cat, sporting stilettos, a form-fitting dress and a killer blowout, answers, “What do you think is so bad about ‘girl?’ I’m a girl. She’s like, ‘I’m a girl and I’m awesome, and I’m not going to apologize for that,’ and I love that about the character.” Executive producer Ali Adler said the relationship between Kara and Cat will be a key component in the story as will a friendship that develops between Kara and Lucy Lane (Jenna Dewan Tatum). “As long as Kara and Supergirl are enjoying themselves and finding the joy in geing a hero, the joy in using her powers finally after so long, everything stems from that,” she said earlier this week. “I just always keep in mind her bravery and hope and positivity and strength and I think that will be hard for girls to not look up to that.” The Berlanti team makes the most of Flockhart, which is to say she appears only a few times in the premiere, so the character’s plush snootiness retains its comic sting. Calista Flockhart does offer a bit of sharp comic relief as Cat Grant, Kara’s boss, but everything else is forgettable: rote supervillains, the obligatory secret government agency and a set of superpowers for Kara that conveniently are just enough to solve every problem. “How to Dance in Ohio,” 9 p.m.

In Kara’s earthbound life, she is the much put-upon assistant of Cat Grant, a media mogul played by Calista Flockhart with more than a dollop of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada.” She’s cold and stiff as she tosses insults and demands at Kara. “Cancel sushi with my mother,” she orders, “and cancel my therapist. So if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?” The dialogue is almost painfully on the nose, but then again, it needs to be. It’s that I don’t care enough to ask why it’s there.” Also well cast is Chyler Leigh (“Grey’s Anatomy”) as Kara’s adoptive sister, Alex. Putting a woman in a cape on TV for the first time in 13 years is an inherently political act—even long after news of yet another supermale-driven movie or TV show has become old hat.

Going a step further and asserting that said woman-in-a-cape can fly in bright, sunny skies with a smile on her face (a superhero actually enjoying her gifts?!), wear cute skirts to work, and go on dates—all while wielding enough power to shoot heat rays from her eyes and stop a speeding big rig with a single punch? A&E The trend of live stunts takes a turn toward the gimmicky with this special, which feels like an awful lot like a live edition of “Fear Factor.” Three people agree to be sealed in coffins and buried underground, with cameras monitoring their reactions.

The tension is amusing, and it helps “Supergirl” avoid the dark, overwrought, and now clichéd atmosphere of too many superhero movies and TV shows. In the course of the story, we learn that Kara’s arrival on Earth coincided with the release of the scariest aliens in the galaxy from a Kryptonite prison (are you still with me?). Depending on your provider, you may be able to catch this genuinely live at 5 p.m.; otherwise it will be taped for the West Coast, but presumably not edited.

Kara also has a few breezy co-worker friends who help her survive the boss abuse, one of whom is a photographer named, ahem, James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks). Because it’s on CBS and not the CW, this new super-series will need to find a more sizable audience than “The Flash” or “Arrow.” But, judging from the pilot, “Supergirl” has a decent chance at learning to fly. Her mother, a scientist named Alura (Laura Benanti), bids her a tearful goodbye and perishes, but her memory looms large over the rest of the episode.

What could undermine the show’s likability is too much emphasis on the crime plots, as Kara goes up against a population of alien criminals who’ve come to our planet to take over. One of them — a tall, strapping fellow named Vartox (Owain Yeoman) — goes mano-a girl-o with Kara and she kicks his butt, despite his glaring physical advantages. Those special-effects battles, and some of the mythology involving Kara’s past and her parents, need to stay peripheral for “Supergirl” to continue to fly so effortlessly.

She spends 24 years there before being miraculously dislodged and sent back on her way to Earth—along with a floating space prison full of the galaxy’s deadliest criminals. We watch her choose a costume with the help of Winn who, naturally, has a hopeless crush on Kara. (In one of the episode’s most pointed and funny moments, Kara tries coming out to Winn as a superbeing, only to have him interrupt her and scream, “Oh my god, you’re a lesbian! That’s why you’re not into me!” Male solipsism, your name is Winn.) She rejects a pair of hideous hot pants and a crop top (“I wouldn’t even wear this to the beach. Where’s my cape?”) in favor of long sleeves and a miniskirt—a more sensible ensemble representative of Kara’s personality and Supergirl’s history.

The pilot suffers from a number of other flaws—CBS ominously provided critics with only the pilot—involving sometimes-clunky dialogue, cheesy special effects (Kara’s heat vision so strongly resembles the possessed schoolboys in “Total Eclipse of the Heart” that I had to laugh), and an irritating reliance on Kara’s lack of self-confidence to raise the dramatic stakes. Still, The Flash—the Berlantiverse show most similar to Supergirl in its hopeful, optimistic tone—managed to recover from like flaws and is now the most purely enjoyable supershow on TV. And, 40 years after Lynda Carter first took up the mantle of Wonder Woman—and one month before Marvel premieres its own first superheroine-led title, Jessica Jones—broadcast TV has been graced by the image of a 24-year-old woman, striding forward confidently as bullets bounce off her chest.

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