If you are familiar with CW’s comic-book shows — a family of programs that includes DC Comics’ “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Supergirl,” and of course the Archie Comics’ oddity “Riverdale” — then you probably know what to expect from the network’s debut “Black Lightning,” which takes the story of an embattled high-school principal and turns him into a community crusader. The superpowers in executive producer Greg Berlanti’s shows all have the same splashy, glowing quality — as do the teenage romances, whose ups and downs are irresistible even for an audience well past their teen years.
But of course “Black Lightning” is different, in one way that feels both really big and really minor: Its titular superhero is a black man. Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), principal of Garfield High, is trying to keep his students safe so they can all invest in the neighborhood around them. Those students include his two daughters — Anissa (Nafessa Williams), now a teacher at the school, and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), a rebellious, popular high schooler prone to skipping out of her dad’s speeches. Jefferson has superpowers, but he hasn’t been Black Lightning in almost a decade, following through a promise he made to his estranged wife, Lynn (Christine Adams). But his alter-ego — secret from his daughters and most of the world — will rise again. In the remarkably tight pilot, Jennifer starts flirting with a minor lackey of the fearsome gang that runs the neighborhood — The 100 — and ends up bringing her father into a direct clash with gang violence that he’s been avoiding. And in examining the story of a man driven to righteous violence, “Black Lightning” is cutting into one of our culture’s thorniest subjects: The inconvenient anger of black men, and what to do about it.
Through the lens of a superhero’s struggle, “Black Lightning” engages directly with some of the prevailing questions about race that are currently political talking points, making them into some of the ongoing anxieties that Jefferson and his family have to face. This includes his fraught relationship with the police. During a traffic stop where Jefferson is pushed to the ground in the rain by two white cops, you can see the lightning of his superpowers begin to glow behind his eyes. He has to force himself to disengage. But complicating matters is the fact that his friend Inspector Henderson (Damon Gupton), who is also black, is the law officer he most often goes up against, suggesting how complicated the relationship can be between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
Similarly, Jefferson’s adversaries in The 100 are not just black men, but black men he knows; in the pilot, we meet a terrifying gang member who attended Garfield and remembers Jefferson fondly. “Black Lightning’s” contemporary, sharp gaze is not just interested in race — with Anissa and Jennifer, the show examines sexuality, success, and destructive drinking — but it never ignores it, either. In one of the show’s most fascinating commentaries, which is derived directly from the original comics, Black Lightning’s primary foe is the notorious Tobias Whale (Martin Jones III), an African-American with albinism. (Jones is also albino.) It’s an outsize way of examining subtle issues — but sometimes, outsize is what you need.
By the second episode, “Black Lightning” falls back on the soapier character drama that keeps the show humming along, with just enough cheese- and/or beefcake to remind you you’re watching a show for teens. But overall the show is an object lesson in how to revive what is otherwise a tiresomely ubiquitous format — the superhero show — by finding a new entry point for its drama. DC has been outflanked by Marvel properties when it comes to African-Americans on screen; “Marvel’s Luke Cage” debuted on Netflix in 2016, and the studio’s hotly anticipated “Black Panther” comes to the silver screen next month. But better late than never; “Black Lightning” — with its promise of Anissa becoming Thunder in short order — is a good, satisfying, layered addition to the CW canon.