The CW premieres a new series based on a DC Comics character tonight following The Flash.
Yes, another one.
Black Lightning, however, definitely stands out from the pack with a very well-crafted and thoughtful story and direction from Salim Akil (Being Mary Jane). It certainly doesn’t feel like The CW’s other superhero offerings… and with no disrespect to those shows, almost all of which had excellent pilots, that’s a good thing.
Black Lightning’s pilot episode and subsequent second episode were made available early to critics, and the most impressive part of it might be that it’s really a family drama with the superhero part added as an extra bonus. One thing that has always made Black Lightning stand out, from his first comic books released 41 years ago as created by Tony Isabella with artist Trevor von Eeden, is that Jefferson Pierce is a good man even when not wearing a costume or using his powers: As principal of a school, he does everything he can to make a difference. Because of this, the superhero action and also the non-superhero material seem to mean something.
The family aspect of this series is also shown so well in seeing Pierce (played by Cress Williams) and his interactions with his two daughters (China Anne McClain and Nafessa Williams) and his ex-wife, Lynn (Christine Adams). The combination between the direction and Williams’ acting shows his feelings so strongly, even when he’s not speaking. One could also consider the “family” aspect extending to the people of the fictional city of Freeland. Some have found family in gangs, most notably the One Hundred. Some find family in the school. Some find family in very uncomfortable situations. But it’s there. Family also explains why Black Lightning went away in the first place — and why he and Lynn are no longer together, despite having an obvious love for one another.
Black Lightning is also notable in that the series has an almost entirely African-American cast. Even with the success of a series like Empire, networks haven’t always gone after this demographic, and then they seem to act surprised or shocked when it does well, because this is an audience that deserves to be represented on broadcast TV. Why did it take this long to have a leading African-American superhero on broadcast TV? The last time I can remember this happening was M.A.N.T.I.S., and if I remember correctly, even that one seemed to bring in a bunch of white characters between the pilot and the series. (The CW had the chance to have this when David Ramsey’s John Diggle took over as the Green Arrow on Arrow, but this was only temporary, alas.) The only Caucasian character that is a regular part of the cast is James Remar as Gambi, a tailor who develops Black Lightning’s new costume and serves as a means of encouragement for Jefferson to get back into the field.
The show has also (so far) done a good job in creating deadly antagonists. Some are reluctant villains, brought in because that’s the only life they know or a situation they were forced into. “LaLa” in the first episode is a great example of that. Others, like Marvin “Krondon” Jones III as Tobias Whale, are a force of nature, certainly not to be messed with.
What might not be good for Black Lightning?
At a certain point, audiences are going to tire of all of these DC Comics shows, and there is a chance, despite being a very different kind of show, being show #5 (or #6 if you count iZombie) might cause fewer people to check the show out than they might otherwise. There’s also the matter of being on up against This Is Us, but this is what DVR is for, right?
All in all, Black Lightning is off to a great start and I can’t wait to see beyond the first two episodes. It’s an important show, and one of my two favorite midseason pilots this year (with the other being NBC’s Rise). If allowed the chance to stand out, it could be a big success story for the network.
Black Lightning airs Tuesdays at 9PM ET/PT on The CW.