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Interview: Powerless Showrunner and Writer Talk Superheroes, Comedy, Feminism, and Politics

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Patrick Schumacker is one of the co-showrunners on NBC’s new DC universe comedy, Powerless. Sabrina Jalees is one of the show’s writers, and is responsible for what is quite possibly the show’s most feminist first season episode. When I visited the set, I had the chance to talk with both of them about where the show is headed as its first season continues.

As you may already know, Schumacker and his co-showrunner, Justin Halpern, took over the show after show creator Ben Queen left. Though much about the show has changed, one important thing has remained, and that is a commitment to inclusivity and diversity, both in front of the camera, and in the writers’ room. Schumacker credits Queen for creating a near 50-50 gender split in the writer’s room, and is grateful to writers like Jalees for what they bring to the table.

“I can’t answer for Ben and his original hiring process,” Schumacker says. “But it only makes sense to me, on a show with a female lead, that you’d have a lot of female voices in the room. And because of that, we organically end up with some pretty diverse points of view. We aren’t coming to this completely with the point of view of the two privileged white males that Justin and I are. I think we have a pretty good knack for trying to letting everybody have their say in the writers’ room. It’s a meritocracy, and if something makes us laugh, something makes us laugh, no matter where it’s coming from.”

Jalees confirms the welcoming atmosphere of the writers’ room on Powerless, which is one of the thing that made her accept the job on the show in the first place.  “I’m lucky to be in a room where, it’s run by two dudes, but they’re very open and interested in my story and how it can bleed into our characters’ stories.”

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I was on the set watching as Jalees’ episode was being filmed (I believe it will be episode 3 or 4, but I’m not entirely sure), and the scene we were watching was one in which the female characters on the show were trying to explain to the male characters on the show the fact that they experience certain things very differently because of their gender. Schumacker calls it “the most pointed example of [the show] dealing with inclusivity and equality,” and he chalks that up to Jalees’ writing.

“There’s no mystery as to why that episode, considering who wrote the episode, dealt with that,” he says. “Sabrina is a member of the LGBT community, she’s half Pakistani, half Swiss, and from Canada. So, she’s about as anomalous in a Hollywood writers’ room as it gets. She’s kind of our resident social justice warrior. Not to say that other people are resting on their laurels, but she’s really active.”

In addition to the openness of the writers’ room, Jalees was drawn to the show because of the inherent possibilities. She explains, “What really interested me about [Powerless] was a) that it was this strong, female lead. I’ve always loved Vanessa Hudgens. And b) that we have this whole other universe to play with. And I think now, more than ever, with the title being Powerless, and the idea that we can all relate to having zero say in these huge, over-arching things that have huge consequences to our lives, and the only thing we can do is lean on each other and try and make the day-to-day better.”

Which inevitably brings us into the current state of U.S. politics. Obviously, Powerless is a comedy set in a comic book world, but there are certainly places in which the show aims to speak to what’s actually going on in the world, and the different perspectives in the writers’ room means a lot of what’s going on getting covered.

For Schumacker, the approach to superheroes on Powerless started as a commentary on professional athletes. However, he and the rest of the team soon realized there was much more to them than that:

“We’ve looked at it several different ways. There’s kind of a philosophical conversation that we had ongoing throughout the first season: Do we want to keep superheroes like gods in the sky? Like, they are sort of better than us and they don’t interact with us that much? But I think, as we’ve moved forward — and you’ll see with Crimson Fox a little bit — you’ll start to see them interact with our main cast even more. We like playing them, because they are the lesser-known heroes, [as if] they’re self-aware that they’re the ‘B team,’ if you will. That they’re never going to be members of the Justice League first team. And they’re a little pissy. Like, Crimson Fox is a little pissy that she got the invite to Justice League Europe, and not Justice League proper. It depends on the hero.”

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After many long discussions with the powers-that-be at DC, it became clear that the show could get a lot of mileage out of the Global Guardians, clearly a more obscure group of heroes, as the resident heroes of Charm City, where the show takes place. In addition to Crimson Fox, who leaves Charm City in Jalees’ episode, there’s also Olympian, a sort of Greek God. Schumacker also told us that Natalie Morales from Parks and RecThe Grinder, and The Middleman will be playing Green Fury, A.K.A. Fire of Fire and Ice for a multi-episode arc.

Jalees sees the heroes a bit differently. “Personally, I see it as our relationship to politics,” she says. “There are people out there who are looking out for us, there are people out there that are masking themselves as looking out for us, and doing the opposite, and there are people who are blatantly out there doing the opposite. That’s a pretty good analogy for me.”

She then goes on to speak more specifically to the feminism and politics in her episode.

“The end of this episode, I just feel like Jackie and Emily should just, like, march into the Women’s March, you know? It really has that vibe. I think this whole political situation for me, as a gay, brown woman, who also emigrated to this country, has just been a reminder of how important it is to tell our unique stories.This episode, at the top, Crimson Fox announces that she is gonna be leaving Charm City. And to me, that was sort of analogous for….the change that happened after…the President that we currently….ugh….I’m gonna vomit. Have? After the regime change, there is this period now where creeps feel emboldened. Men that had this sort of, what I see as a view of women that’s being phased out, now have this champion. To me, having less protection in Charm City being analogous with this period of time where it’s like Oh, maybe we should take these self-defense classes. Maybe we need to take all these new precautions for our own safety that we thought we were past. I wanted to sort of tap into that. So, that’s what this episode is about. It’s about the heroes leaving, and what it means to the men being different than what it means for the women. And this being an opportunity that Emily takes to make friends with Jackie.”

Schumacker reveals that the show became unwittingly more topical after the election:

“We all had a real good chuckle when we decided to make Lex Luthor the President in this world. In the pilot, it’s a total blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moment when you’re on the train at the very beginning, there’s a shot…and you’d have to pause it, and even if you paused it, you might not catch it, because the camera’s moving and there might be a motion blur, but there’s a newspaper being held up, and the headline on the front page is ‘President-Elect Luthor Vows to Make Metropolis Super Again.” And, it’s one of those things where, we joked and joked and joked, and we shot the pilot…right before the election. We thought it was just gonna be a little nod. Now, it’s like Well, maybe we can use this show as more of a forum for some topicality.”

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However Schumacker stresses that comedy comes first. Still, he says, “[I]f the story organically deals with [things like inclusivity or feminism], absolutely we’re all for it.” They’ve apparently already started thinking about fun ways in which to broach certain topics.

“We’re still trying to crack a good story that deals with female superhero attire as an analog for appropriate workplace attire for women,” Shumacker explains. “Kinda starting from a place of, like, Power Girl, or someone who is known for her…feminine assets? Someone like that being the subject of water cooler talk, and what kind of conversation does that give birth to in the office, and what sort of gender politics does that illuminate?”

Schumacker’s biggest hope, however, is that both hardcore comics fans and casual fans who only know of these characters through the films or other television shows will be served by Powerless. He says, “[Powerless] covers the whole breadth of the DC universe. It’s not just Batman mythology. You’re gonna see that immediately. In the third episode, we have Atlantean businessmen showing up. So, we wanted to use the Wayne name as sort of brand recognition, so it’s kind of an entry-point. Everybody knows Bruce Wayne. Everybody knows he’s Batman. So, having this [company] be a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises would at least be a touchstone for people who aren’t so hardcore into DC mythology. Everybody can say I know who Bruce Wayne is…I’ll check it out. Hopefully this show will be used as a springboard to introduce a lot of those more obscure characters to the general population.”

(images via NBC/Warner Bros. Television)


Check out my previous interviews with Vanessa Hudgens and Christina Kirk, Danny Pudi and Ron Funches, and Alan Tudyk on the set of Powerless.

Powerless airs Thursdays at 8:30 ET/7:30 Central on NBC!

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