Fans were given a treat at last year's E3, when it was announced that Sony Television would be creating a PlayStation Network exclusive TV series based on the Powers comic book series. This dark drama is set in a world where superpowered individuals (also called Powers) exist, and they're treated like celebrities, but their special abilities don't allow them to overcome their human frailties. Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim homicide detectives in LA's Powers Division, normal cops tasked with trying to deal with superpowered crime. Except, Walker has some inside knowledge on how Powers think, because he used to be one until his abilities were taken away from him. The first season concluded this week, and it's difficult to tell if Powers made a superpowered bang, or if it was a weak fisted wimper.
The first season is comprised of several subplots woven together, but it's mainly about how a new designer drug is causing Powers to die. Complicating matters is a teleporter named Johnny Royalle; a girl named Calista who dreams of becoming a Power; a kid protesting the collateral damage Powered conflicts create, and a super villain named Wolfe (played by Eddie Izzard) who gets stronger by eating people, especially other Powers. The next subplot layer involves Walker, who wants to be extraordinary once again, and perhaps rekindle his relationship with the famous superhero Retro Girl.
It can be a lot to keep track of, but the series manages to keep it straight for audiences. The problem is, all the subplots that don't directly involve Walker or a specific Power quickly grows tiresome. Calista, who gets caught up in everyone's lives in her endless insistence that she has powers, never failed to get on my nerves. It's too obvious that she's the accidental troublemaker, and everyone around her ends up tripping over themselves in trying to help or protect her. Then there's the kid that wants to inspire people to stop worshiping Powers through graffiti and a viral video. It's hard to care about the plight of normal people when there are gods and monsters hitting each other for fame and glory.
It might help if the show has better special effects. Johnny Royalle's teleporting is a simple appear/disappear from the screen accompanied by a light popping sound. You can practically sense the strings attached as characters fly, and so much blood sprays out from Wolfe's feedings that it becomes almost comical. Even showier abilities like Zora's light bending are a little on the cheap side. Budget effects can be forgiven if the writing is good, but Powers has very uneven scripting. There are exceptionally tense moments, like when Walker is trying to decide whether or not take advantage of a fan girl half his age, and when the show reveals how he made his reputation as a hero. Then there are parts where things completely fall flat, like when a couple of soon-to-die cops are bantering about dating and wardrobe while trying to hunt down a superpowered cannibal. All of it is underscored by dialogue that frequently mistakes a lot of cursing for witty adult conversation, of which Deena Pilgrim's character is the main offender.
Yet, despite its cheap special effects and general sense of campiness, I found myself looking forward to each episode as they went live on PSN. Powers seems to have about the same production values as a lot low-budget of YouTube shows, but given how companies like Netflix are gaining new subscribers through offering quality, original, content, Sony would be foolish to not try the same strategy to grow PlayStation Plus membership. Microsoft is experimenting with the same thing by launching a Halo television series this fall.
So, Sony may have the leg up when it comes to original programming, which may be balanced out by how its series isn't tied to a popular franchise. However, it does demonstrate that Sony is willing to offer diverse content while Microsoft puts all its bets on the Master Chief. The thing is, I'm not convinced that either plan is a clear winner.
I enjoyed watching Powers despite its faults, which include a late-season murder investigation that practically gets thrown to the wayside, and a reason defying decision by a character to free Wolfe from his prison. But I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to my friends. More importantly, even with the free first episode, watching the series isn't necessarily incentive for me to become a PS Plus subscriber if I weren't one already. Having Powers available is a nice bonus to being a subscriber, but it seems like a weak hook for gaining new ones. Furthermore, my continued subscription isn't contingent on having original show content.
It's clear that both the PlayStation and Xbox One consoles want to branch out to a more diverse brands of entertainment to win new subscribers, but I can't say that Powers makes the same kind of impact on PSN that House of Cards did when it first premiered on Netflix - or even Daredevil, for that matter. I'm guessing the same might go for the Halo television series, which might require deep knowledge of the Halo game series and its lore to truly appreciate, limiting its potential audience to a built-in audience.
Even with its mature theme, Powers seems very apprehensive about crossing certain lines. Fight scenes are generally so-so, and there isn't a whole lot of gore to match the buckets of blood that are spilt. But then there are flashes of brilliance, like how no one can guess where Walker's true motivations are. His character is constantly struggling between upholding the law and trying to get his powers back. The show must be out to set some sort of record for the number of double crosses in a single episode.
Console exclusive television shows are another front on in the ongoing battle for platform identity. When it comes to games, Microsoft already locked in temporary exclusivity deals for games like Rise of the Tomb Raider and DLC expansions for other games. But judging from the first season of Powers, these programs may end up being extra rounds in the magazine instead of being magic bullets that will win over new subscribers.
Both Sony and Microsoft might be guilty of being too aware that their audiences are comprised of gamers. Powers tries to step around that self awareness by appealing to comic book and sci-fi fans, but the sense is still there. The key to Netflix's success, in addition to high production values, is that it has a range of shows to appeal to a variety audiences. It also helps that that Netflix is accessible on practically every entertainment and computing device. Although Powers can be watched from the PlayStation Store website, the fact that PS Plus subscriptions are deeply associated with a console experience leads to a disadvantage. Potential viewers might think that they need to purchase both a system and a subscription to watch a television show.
Powers may be a decent (albeit shaky) first step, but Sony will need to diversify its programming if it wants them to be taken seriously. We'll have to see Halo TV series compares, and whether Powers season 2 makes a marked improvement, before we know what kind of effect exclusive shows will have. They could just make existing subscribers happier to stay, or they could be tipping points that convince watchers to become subscribers.
The entire first season of Powers is available to watch now on the PlayStation Network, free for PlayStation Plus subscribers.