After consistent disappointment from the CW’s offering of superhero shows, Black Lightning served as a breath of fresh air. A thought-full and well written series with amazing performances, Black Lightning is the type of show that makes the over-saturated genre seem relevant and worth paying attention towards.
The basic premise of show is that high-school principle Jerfferson Pierce returns to the costumed role he retired from years prior. He does this to protect his family and home from the growing threat of the One Hundred gang and their leader, Tobias Whale. With the aid of his tech support and mentor Gambi, Jefferson takes on the criminal underworld as Black Lightning.
Black Lightning starts out with a strong emotional foundation, with a family man – Jefferson Pierce – wanting to protect said family. This provides a great source of drama for the series, as well as providing perspective most superhero programming tend to lack. His mission is personal and it’s not about saving the world or stopping threats, but rather about doing right by his community. This isn’t limited to his children as Pierce is concerned about the state of his community and the toll that gang activity is taking. He does deal with personal demons but they are never the focus of the series or his cause.
The family dynamic in the series was a compelling aspect of the show, as the family unit was presented through the lens of a superhero television series. Superpowers cause much of the family’s dysfunction, but each meta-human related problem is connected to normal family issue. Children going through puberty, aimlessness, divided responsibility are all relatable experiences, filtered through the concept of superpowers. Unlike other series like The Flash, superpowers function more as a metaphor for a characters emotional state verses just being physical enhancements.
One of the best example of how the show uses superheroes as a metaphor is Anissa. She is so much like her father yet doesn’t know what to do with all the energy and ideas she has for the world. Like many young people she’s all potential with no concrete sense of direction. She has the most well-rounded arc of any character on the series and the through her the show can tell a superhero origin without having it feel stale by shifting it to Anissa verses her father. That’s what makes her story-line so engaging. The juxtaposition between her storyline and that of Jennifer analyses what it means to have superpowers from more than one perspective, adding a new layer to the complex series. Not everyone wants to be a superhero when they get powers and while this change can be liberating for some, for others it can be oppressive.
The series is filled with great performances, with Cress Williams portraying the character of Black Lightning excellently. This is a character who bears far to heavy a weight on his shoulders and Williams makes it apparent in every scene he appears in, showing the stress of everything Black Lightning has to deal with on a regular basis. Jefferson Pierce is a hero in both side of his life, battling antagonistic forces as Black Lightning and as a principle. The route they went with the character was great, having him be a retired hero who comes out of hiding when his community needs him most. It’s something not common in most superhero stories on television so it helps the series stand out amongst the crowd — though the fact that it actually has quality stories also helps.
Gambi’s the company man who realized what he’s doing was wrong, which is a trope that can feel played out, but it’s his relationship with the Pierce family that keeps it interesting. He serves as Jefferson’s father figure after the elder Pierce’s death and helps keep Jefferson focused on what’s important, which comes from the lessons Gambi’s learned from his past. Christina Adams portrayal of Lynn Stewart, Jefferson’s ex-wife, was amazing. Lynn serves as the foil for Gambi, as they both remind Jefferson of the responsibilities he has and she serves to keep him grounded. She is a strong willed character who acts as the spine of the family.
One thing that raises this series above many other shows of the genre is that it does not have the villain of the week format. This played out formula of storytelling on TV is the weakness of many superhero shows because those one-off villains are never explored deeply. They provide obstacles without actually serving as real characters in themselves. Black Lightning follows a set group of antagonists – mainly focusing on Tobias Whale – and this allows them to develop into multifaceted characters. Tobias is a character with ambition, a difficult past and the will to make what he wants happen which makes him a genuinely terrifying antagonist. The series explains the character’s motivation and explore his background, even providing the emotional vulnerabilities for the character. Whale is by no means a good person, but by the end of the season viewers will understand the actions her makes which makes him a terrifying villain.
Lala is another notable antagonist, as his relationship with Jefferson shows what the hero is fighting for this season. Lala was a student of Principle Pierce who went down a wrong path, following the corrupting influence present in the community. Black Lightning exists so more children don’t grow up to be Lala. Sadly Lala isn’t the only character to go down this path, and serves to foreshadow some of the tragedy that occurs towards the end of this season.
A common criticism of the show was the pacing as the show only began to speed up when it hit the half-way point, but this was part of what made the show work. As the world of Black lightning expanded and the plot became more intricate as the season continued, the early episodes grounded the show emotionally, so that the world building of the later half would resonate more. This is good because as the scope of the show grew things started to feel more cliché. The deeply entrenched law enforcement corruption was a great component, but the larger conspiracy aspect of the series made it too conventional. Jefferson battling crime lord Tobias Whale and the One Hundred was enough to hold a season on it’s one, but the show managed to handled the increased scale of the threat by focusing on the well-established dynamic in the Pierce family.
While the ASA serve as an interesting set of antagonists that represent the pitfalls of any form of nationalism, the series distances itself from the urban setting and grounded tone of the early episodes. Now the threat they pose to the community is a metaphor for the larger threat of nationalism to society in general, but as the series continues they just become the ‘big bad that Black Lightning has to stop to save the day. It also doesn’t help that none of the ASA characters are particularly interesting and instead act as a largely faceless group of antagonists. Despite the investment in the Pierce family’s struggle against the ASA, they never rise to the level of other villains shown throughout the first season. This coupled with the shift in focus weakens the later half of the first season.
This show premiered the same year Black Panther was released into theatres, and much like that film it used the superhero genre to confront real-world issues. As mentioned before the antagonistic force this season represented the threat of nationalism in America. The series handles this with grace as it subtlety weaves in contemporary issues into the series storyline. Some shows such as Greys Anatomy, have a history of handling real-world problems with absolutely no nuance – such as their gun control episode – and Black Lightning largely avoids these missteps. It’s a show that cleverly weaves contemporary issues into it’s storylines in such a way the compliment the entertaining narrative without every calling attention to themselves. The exception to this would be one line spoken towards the end of the season — which is funny — really takes the viewer out of the story. However, that is one exception, as otherwise this series cleverly comments on society without feeling like a soapbox for the writers.
A thrilling series that dealt with contemporary issues and explored the family unit — all with great superhero action – Black Lightning is a must watch series. It’s a captivating series with heart that sets a high bar for other DC television series.
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