The Turbulent Journey of Creating DC's First Sitcom
The highly anticipated show, 'Powerless,' was dead in the water until Patrick Schumaker and Justin Halpern came along.
While DC has been synonymous with gritty, hardcore reboots for roughly a decade now, its beloved properties have recently found a sense of humor and warmth on the small screen. Four seasons of the delightful (but still melodramatic) Arrowverse left fans primed for DC’s first foray into sitcoms. Powerless, debuting Feb 2 on NBC, revolves around a jaded, failing R&D team at Wayne Securities and the naively optimistic middle manager (played by Vanessa Hudgens) who is tasked with saving them.
Surprisingly, the original pilot which NBC screened seven months ago at SDCC is almost an entirely different show. Sharing only a cast and the DC umbrella with the show that’s about to premiere, the original pilot followed a team of insurance agents who resolved claims from collateral damage done in superhero fights. The sudden change in direction was heralded by creator Ben Queen’s departure over creative differences, and when co-executive producers Patrick Schumaker and Justin Halpern were tapped to take over, they were determined to make the show uniquely theirs.
Inverse caught up with Patrick Schumaker to talk about the challenges of taking over someone else’s creative vision, how Powerless has changed, and why regular people are more interesting than superheroes.
You took over the show from it’s creator Ben Queen, and in his version everyone in the pilot worked for an insurance company. Can you talk a little about that process and what else you changed?
That all happened when Justin [Halpern, the co-executive producer], and I were consulting producers on Ben’s show. We had a pretty lengthy pre-production with Ben’s version of the show, so when we took over, we agreed to do it with the condition that we would be able to do the show in the exact way that we wanted to do it. We went into it like, the show is theoretically shut down, so we’re either going to get to do the show the way that we want to do it, or there just won’t be a show. Again the show had already basically shut down, so it was a win-win situation for us. We took a big swing; we basically wanted to do an updated Mary Tyler Moore Show; that’s the way that we always pitched it.
You have Vanessa [Hudgens] as this optimistic central figure who is surrounded by a bunch of cynics. We felt like having Vanessa as this unflappable puppy dog who is so optimistic that you don’t mind her seeing her get slapped down because she’s … I don’t want to say naïve, but she’s green. She’s green to this new industry, she has all of the credentials that would be required to land a job, but she’s been thrust into this management position that she’s not necessarily … not everybody would be qualified for.
She’s young, she’s a millennial, and she comes in being the boss of some people that are slightly older than her. Once Justin and I took over, we sat down and talked to Vanessa about the [new direction of the] character early on, and it felt right for her. She is a young person who’s in a leadership position because she’s the lead of this show. She’s so experienced as a young actress that that confidence and that optimism oozes from her. We knew this was the right character to write for her.
I had read that you guys had switched the location from Retcon Insurance to Wayne Securities because it wasn’t giving you the angle to tell the right stories. What is it about switching to Wayne Securities that really gave you the angle to tell comedic stories the way you wanted? Were you worried about losing the more human, grounded angle of dealing with the aftermath of superheroes when you switched workplaces?
I wasn’t worried about that because I felt like it was already … the insurance angle for us felt a little bit … it was difficult to tell actual workplace stories because the writer’s room was a little bit confused about A) how insurance companies worked and B) it was like a victory for our characters meant screwing people out of money, and it was a hard thing to root for.
These are people that are living in a world where superheroes have existed for a really long time. I’m sure there is superhero and supervillain collateral damage insurance out there, but they’ve been around for awhile, so what has humanity done as a coping mechanism to move beyond just the damage control of it? Preventative measures seemed like a fun one. Security felt like a fun one.
It was a real group effort because I have to credit NBC with the R&D pitch. Originally our characters were going to be a sales team for a security company and NBC asked us to consider doing R&D. The more we thought about it, it was a very easy decision to shift into the tech-forward stuff, which has manifested itself in the storylines.
Did you have a similar conversation with DC?
Yeah, we also sat down with Aria Moffly and Geoff Johns over at DC when we were trying to reconceive the show. DC, I think, really wanted to make a show to express how much of a sense of humor they do have about themselves. So we got into one of their writers’ rooms over at their offices in Burbank and just brainstormed on what we’ll bring organically, in terms of the fun genre stuff, into our Wayne Securities.
How can we do that so that we aren’t dependent on superheroes coming into the office every episode? That’s not to discount that supers would do that. That’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen sparingly. We want to maintain a separation of demigods and mortals and a way of doing that was bringing in the gadgetry of an R&D security team.
Were there any other major challenges in reconceiving the show?
You can only do so much in the months that you have to gather up all of your thoughts and regroup and pound the pavement. We were in the uniquely terrifying position of having to essentially redo a pilot and also 11 follow-up episodes all at the same time. It wasn’t the usual luxury of shooting a pilot, then getting the pick-up, and then waiting to do the other ones.
We were flying by the seat of our pants and figuring out what works as it was going. Consequently, we did re-shoots of the pilot that you saw. It wasn’t super extensive, but there were parts of it that we were like, “Okay, this idea can be conveyed better.” We were doing that while also cutting a couple other episodes we had already shot and consequently, then you have to do a couple little re-shoots here and there for the other episodes. It has a domino effect, but the studio and the network have been super supportive about making it work. It seems like everybody’s really, really behind the show, and the marketing is … I don’t know, it feels anomalous to me, the amount of promotion they’re giving the show. It seems like they’re really pushing it, so that in and of itself is a relief. It feels like, “Oh, the network believes in it.”
We’ll see once the ratings come in.
I feel like you guys have a very good shot at being what people really want from the DC universe, especially because this show, as you mentioned, highlights the fact the DC has a sense of humor about itself. I mean Van Wayne’s obsession with his famous cousin Bruce, and his complete ineptitude at his high-powered job alone … in fact, all the best lines in the pilot are about middle management. Would you say that’s the real villain on your show?
Yeah, it’s interesting you said that. That’s why we put our protagonist in that position, because you’re getting it from both sides and you’re obviously powerless because you are a step down from the SVP in your position, and then you are powerless in that you’re thrust into the fire by being an authority figure over people that are skeptical of your abilities — and they, at first, don’t like you and don’t want you to succeed.
I absolutely think that that is something that we’ve managed to find in several of the episodes. It is a challenge coming up with the real-world workplace version of that and not running out of ideas. Given the election, however, we will probably have a lot of fodder for the concept of powerlessness moving forward. I mean, there are enough people guarding the brand that we won’t ever get too far with the political messaging. We are on NBC. There is drama to it, but at the end of the day, hopefully everybody’s walking away smiling and not brooding.
When I was finished watching the pilot, I was definitely grinning. The cast has great chemistry, which I’m sure is helped by the fact that many of them are professional comedians. You’ve got Jennie Pierson, you’ve got Ron Funches, you’ve got Danny Pudi.
It’s pure delight working with people who are that savvy and think on their feet. Justin [Halpern, co-executive producer,] and I were in a lengthy pre-production with [Ben Queens] version of the show, we brought in every single cast member just as a meet-and-greet, get-to-know-you kind of thing for the writers’ room and had lunch with everybody separately just to get at least some semblance of a primer. Justin and I love to, as much as possible, draw from the real personalities of these actors.
That’s going to sound like an indictment of Alan Tudyk or something, like he’s standard, pure Wayne.
But there are certain aspects, rhythms, and just certain things that they like to do that you try and write towards because they’re going to have fun doing it and that’s going to translate to the audience having fun watching it. The cast is already being protective of their characters in a really great way that might not happen as soon as it has here on other shows, you know?
What is it about people that are more fascinating than superheroes to you?
This is a comedy. Comedy, ultimately, is about dorks. Dorks are underdogs. If you’re going to make a comedy, why not tell it from the vantage point of powerless dorks?
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.