Judging by the first episode of the CW’s newest superhero show Black Lightning, showrunner Salim Akil seems to want to focus on nuance. There are a number of small touches in this premiere that go beyond the standard good guy-vs-bad guy dynamic, and also call attention to real-world issues that don’t make it feel as if the message is being force-fed to the audience.
Of course, that isn’t to say the surface-level comic book storytelling of the show isn’t entertaining. Not only does it clear that bar, it blends rather well with the themes the writers want to address. The town of Freeland feels surprisingly more realistic than many of the shows in CW’s Arrowverse. While it’s never quite as graphic as some of the Marvel Netflix shows, it has an intensity to its tone that wouldn’t feel out of place in one.
Cress Williams is a very appealing leading man as Jefferson Pierce, a principal at Garfield High School (I’m fairly certain it’s named after the U.S. president and not the cartoon cat) who can seemingly only watch with regret as his school and community are overtaken by violence and crime. The 100 Gang are a constant, omnipresent threat, led by a very intimidating figure named Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones II). I don’t know anything about this dude yet, but he seems super badass and I hope he’s got a backstory as cool as how he comes off.
Despite the pleas of his tailor friend Peter Gambi (James Remar), Pierce isn’t keen on the idea of bringing back his old superhero moniker Black Lightning. The ability to transform your body into electricity and manipulate it doesn’t make your life easier, especially when your crimefighting takes its toll on your family life.
As Pierce’s ex-wife Lynn Stewart, Christine Adams has a very effective performance and a great poignant rapport with Williams. She understands how important Black Lightning is to the community, but she can’t stand to see him nurse his bloody wounds in the bathroom every night.
When Jefferson’s rebellious daughter Jennifer (China Anne McClain) gets in hot water at the 100 Gang’s club (after flirting with who turns out to be perhaps the stupidest, and I mean the DUMBEST henchman I’ve seen in a while), Pierce has no choice but to once again unleash his powers and start hitting people with his fists as opposed to his brain.
While he’s able to restrain his electric energy while he and his oldest daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams) are racially profiled by Freeland police officers in a very scary early scene, two equally bigoted cops and their cruiser aren’t as lucky later in the episode. There’s an undercurrent of systemic racism in the town that isn’t excessively lamp-shaded by the characters, but the story is always keenly aware of it.
Given everything that’s happened up to this point, the vicious way in which Black Lightning tears into the 100 Gang is pretty understandable. He’s a gruff but extremely loving and committed father, and his affection for his family is apparent even when he argues with them. It’s an interesting dynamic that extends to the other characters, like when Anissa plays the angry responsible sibling to Jennifer as confiscates her phone. Even with all of the tension and drama occurring, the show has a warmth to it that keeps it from feeling needlessly bleak.
We don’t have crystal balls, so I can’t guarantee Black Lightning is an automatic home run for the CW, but this pilot wasn’t a disappointment by any stretch. It really feels like a strikingly different series than most of the other superhero shows on the network, and I was always engaged in the performances, so I’d say check it out if you haven’t seen it yet. It was fun and sophisticated enough to earn my attention going forward.