The new workplace NBC sitcom Powerless set in the DC Universe — one of them, anyway — is on the verge of replicating a formula seen before in comics. Gotham Central from Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, and Michael Lark was a procedural comic book series that ran from 2002 until 2006 and spanned 40 issues of human drama in a superhero world. Although the tone and story between Powerless and Gotham Central are complete polar opposites, their goals remain the same.
Powerless, which started as a mundane office sitcom with a jaded central character, was retooled in its second pilot into a quirky, very colorful comedy in the vein of Better Off Ted. Starring an ensemble cast led by Vanessa Hudgens as Emily, the new manager of Wayne Security’s R&D division, her team creates new consumer tech designed to protect people from superhero battles. Because comic books tend to focus squarely on the superhuman, it’s rare to see the actual humans who inhabit the universe. Alan Moore’s Watchmen from 1988 was revelatory in this aspect as it stripped superheroes of their capes to reveal real, broken human egos within. Powerless won’t be that severe — at least for now — but Powerless is about people figuring out the mess left by their more godlike defenders.
The darker comic book Gotham Central also did the same, but with fewer jokes and more meditations on the pathos of the human condition. Set at the Major Crimes Unit (MCU) of the Gotham City police force, Gotham Central followed a group of cops and detectives investigating cases that intersected with superhuman activities: There were gritty murders done by and to supervillains, cold cases involving the Mad Hatter were reopened, and the whole precinct would be under siege by Two-Face or the Joker from time to time. The relationship between the police and Batman is also deeply explored, such as in issue #25 “Lights Out,” where the cops remove the Bat Signal after the 2004 storyline Batman: War Games.
With some of the best writers in the business — Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier was the foundation for 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Gotham Central turned to contemporary dramas like The Wire, The West Wing, and Law & Order as a basis for its take on a superhero world. Things went full circle when Gotham Central was loosely adapted into its own live-action network procedural, Gotham on FOX.
Most Batman media use Gotham cops as background noise, but the point of an interconnected universe is that there are billions of stories to tell. Batman and the Justice League’s point of view are just a couple; there are still more humans than superhumans in the DC Universe, and their view from the ground is sometimes unbelievable. It’s in the best interest that Powerless can do the same.
Powerless airs Thursday nights on NBC.