Sony’s PlayStation Network enters the scripted series fray with “Powers,” a refreshingly R-rated retort to broadcast’s overabundance of comicbook serials. Fanboy-friendly edginess is as good a selling point as any for a show handed the superheroic task of simultaneously making PlayStation a name in original content, luring subscribers to the PlayStation Plus package and adapting already respected source material. Those are heavy burdens to bear, but judging by the first three episodes the creative team has a fighting chance.
Based on the award-winning comic series created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming in 2000, “Powers” flirted with feature film treatment and shot a pilot at FX in 2011. Neither went all the way, but it’s easy to see what piqued so much interest: the concept applies a classic police procedural structure to a fully realized world where superheroes are just common enough to be treated on the level of screen icons, rock stars and top athletes.
Homicide detective Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley), formerly known as Diamond, blurs the line between super and just plain human. He lost his powers years ago after an epic battle with Wolfe (Eddie Izzard), a cannibalistic supervillain doing time in a federal containment facility. Now Walker works to bring down anyone using their own special powers for criminal means.
Paired with feisty new partner Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward) to investigate the death of his former cohort Olympia, Walker is drawn into a seedy underworld. A power-enhancing drug dubbed “sway” has hit the streets and teenage superhero wannabe, Calista (Olesya Rulin), delivered some to Olympia right before he died. (She also took him to bed, hoping his powers would, um, rub off on her.)
But Calista clearly isn’t the culprit, she simply opens up a trail that leads to presumed dead crime boss Johnny Royalle (Noah Taylor), whose teleportation talents prove lethal. Meanwhile, Calista’s desperate antics draw the attention of Walker’s ex Retro Girl (Michelle Forbes, the early standout among an overall solid ensemble), an iconic hero still flying high, quite literally.
The first three episodes, launching simultaneously March 10 on the PlayStation Network (the pilot is free), position “Powers” as well-executed pulp. Though obviously made on a budget, the show doesn’t look or feel cheap (give or take a few dodgy visual effects) and gets a big boost from the capable cast and sturdy direction of David Slade (“Hannibal”), who helms the first two episodes and continues as an executive producer.
Unlike traditional superhero origin stories, “Powers” drops viewers right into the action — and proves all the more intriguing for it. The parallel universe setting looks so much like ours the pilot even includes Mario Lopez hosting an episode of “Extra,” where he just happens to be blabbing about heroes.
That’s one of several clever ways writer Charlie Huston combines heavy loads of exposition with world-building details. Another: When a frustrated medical examiner can’t explain why Olympia’s heart exploded and blurts out, “All I want is for science to work right, but the powers f—ed that up!”
Though unrestricted enough to make liberal use of that banned-on-broadcast word, “Powers” doesn’t go overboard with racy content in general. Graphic violence is limited to a few potently bloody bursts and sex is not explicit (so far the only nudity comes from Izzard, whose catatonic character is chained naked in his holding cell).
Instead of gratuitous thrills, the creatives — also including Remi Aubuchon (“Caprica”) and Michael Dinner (“Justified”) — emphasize story, with enough twists and turns in each episode to keep the target audience hooked.
The big question is exactly how large that audience will be, and whether or not “Powers” becomes enough of a phenomenon that it means more to Sony than an interesting experiment. Those curious enough to find out will have to stay tuned to PlayStation.