Monday, January 15, 2018

TV REVIEW: The CW's 'Black Lightning'

The CW will premiere its new original drama series Black Lightning on Tuesday, January 16 at 9/8c. The drama stars Cress Williams, China Anne McClain, Nafessa Williams, Christine Adams, James Remar, Damon Gupton and Marvin "Krondon" Jones III.

Read on for my thoughts on the superhero drama after screening its first two episodes.

The CW has become known for its superhero shows. It's the genre that has revived and defined the network ever since the 2012 debut of Arrow. Now, that franchise incorporates four shows on the network's schedule - with annual crossover events being the most successful nights in the ratings for the network. So, it's not surprising that the network has developed yet another superhero show from executive producer Greg Berlanti. But Black Lightning isn't like those other shows. The creative team of husband-and-wife writers Salim and Mara Brock Akil has opted not to be a part of the same shared universe. This show has a different story it wants to tell. It wants the opportunity to be defined as its own thing without inviting comparisons to what is happening in the other shows and having to fall in line with that specific tone. Of course, that still leaves the possibility open for crossovers in the future. But right now, it's important to highlight the differences between the shows. Black Lightning opens strong with its own unique identity and purpose. It's a compelling and smart take on the superhero genre that reinvents the formula after it's seemingly been done to death in so many shows across a number of networks.

The most powerful statement that Black Lightning can make is simply who the hero of the story is. Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is the lead character who has the metahuman power of being able to control electricity. He also happens to be a middle-aged black man who has seen the chaos and prejudice of the world and has been a very active participant in trying to change it. The social commentary is profound in every second of this series. The visual of seeing a black superhero alone is gripping to watch. Jefferson slides into his suit and can battle the criminal elements of his city just as easily and confidently as the other superhero characters toplining their own shows. Just like with Netflix's Luke Cage though, it's an important statement that the man with these incredible abilities is a black man who understands the importance of trying to improve the community to the betterment of people of color. It's a show that his its pulse on what is happening in America today while understanding the many different ways people have tried to address these systemic problems.

These opening two hours make such a point in telling the audience that Jefferson Pierce is so much more than Black Lightning. He doesn't live an isolated life of notoriety where putting on the suit and being called a hero is the only thing that he has. He actually has quite a full and fulfilling life. This show isn't trying to tell the origin story of a man getting these miraculous powers and figuring out how to be the hero his city deserves. Instead, it's a contemplative narrative about the impact of one's actions across a period of time. Jefferson is trying to do right by both his community and his family. The show doesn't shy away from what it means to be black in America today. Even though he's a public figure in the city of Freeland, Jefferson is still wrongfully pulled over by the cops and held at gunpoint. But it also fosters such a spirited debate on what's the most effective way to change minds and provide opportunities to those less fortunate. For years, Jefferson lived as Black Lightning. He was making an immediate difference in the city by going after crime lords. He put his whole life into that work at the expense of his own family. His wife, Lynn (Christine Adams), tried to stand by him but just couldn't. And in the end, his actions are nothing more than simply putting a bandaid on a bullet wound. He stopped the immediate threats but was doing nothing to improve the conditions of the community for long-term growth.

And so, the show tells the story of Jefferson Pierce as a high school principal and father to two daughters. He truly believes he does more good as a public figure this way than he ever did punching criminals on the streets. It's him providing the guidance and lessons to educate people and ensure that they can become the best possible version of themselves. It's a profession that certainly allows Jefferson to move up in life. And that allows the show to have an honest and frank conversation about class as well. Jefferson can have philosophic debates about the best way to improve the community because he's a success story who is providing wonderful opportunities to his two daughters - med student Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and track star Jennifer (China Anne McClain). They are following in his footsteps of being seen as role models in this community. But it's still a bubble that Jefferson has created for himself. He's allowed himself to believe that the students who graduate from his school go off to better lives. Instead, the true reality may be that they are simply returning to the crime-filled streets that exist around the school. Jefferson has worked hard to get gang violence outside of his school. He has influence in the community. But he's naive about certain things as well. It's such a spirited debate that thrives through conversation and intimate looks in the way these characters process what is happening to them.

Of course, Black Lightning is still a superhero show. It's still all building to those moments where Jefferson puts on that suit and beats up a bunch of criminals with ill intentions to the city. But the show has found a fascinating way to change up that familiar pattern. Yes, there's still the introduction of a season-long villain, Tobias Whale (Marvin "Krondon" Jones III). But it's surprising just how fleeting those moments of superheroics actually are. It's a show that recognizes the importance of the story it's telling. But it's also quickly become a compelling character study about this family that is trying to do what's best for themselves and each other in a world that is only getting more and more complicated. These characters are active. The performances are terrific - from Cress Williams, China Anne McClain and Nafessa Williams especially. It's a show with a lot on its mind and the execution to make it all palatable to an audience in an instant. It deserves to be a standout for 2018. I'm completely intrigued to see what will happen next and how this creative team plans on continuing all of this profound social commentary in a superhero tale.