At the premiere for the second season of Powers, Sony PlayStation’s first and only original streaming series, I found myself chatting with Michael Madsen about our travels to Thailand. “You have to watch yourself in Bangkok,” cautioned Madsen. “Make a wrong turn and weird things can happen.”
In the second season of Powers—a superhero-charged crime procedural based on the graphic novel of the same name—wrong turns are made and things definitely happen. After a first season that needed better writing and narrative rhythm, brutal cliffhangers inject the right amount of mystery and attitude into the new episodes. Madsen plays SuperShock, a soulful and supremely powerful former superhero who’s forced by violent circumstances to don his superhero outfit after 40 years. “That’s a one-piece outfit,” says Madsen. “It’s hard to get in and out of. So I went to a bank in Atlanta to make a transfer—in the superhero outfit. The bank teller didn’t know what to think because I didn’t have any ID. There’s no place for it in the costume. Eventually, she called the bank manager who recognized me.”
Initially the series showed promise, but it couldn’t quite find its voice. “Last year, it was all about getting our feet wet,” says Shawn Layden, chairman of Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide. “We all learned a lot about story. We have to be true to our gaming audience, and in a couple of months you’ll be hearing announcements about more shows. But this year, Powers is really about better narrative and building the plots.”
With a new show runner and generally tighter scripts, Powers can indeed blend shock with nuance. You really don’t see a suicide coming, for instance, especially since the sad deed is done by a generally sympathetic character. It’s a darker, more devious Powers. That feels right for a show that’s as much about spoofing pop culture as it’s inspired by David Simon’s taut non-fiction tome Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.
What happens? After the death of Retro Girl, the superhero who watches over, well, everything, chaos builds among evildoing factions. There’s a vacuum that needs to be filled. That’s where Olesya Rulin’s Calista steps in. While wearing one of Retro Girl’s outfits, she learns how to use her powers. She becomes a pickup truck thrower and a tough puncher who nearly beats her abusive deadbeat dad to death. Rulin, who’s been acting since she was a child, explains: “Calista is a young character trying to find her place. One of the things I asked was, ‘What does her vengeance plan really mean?’” Sitting alone in a room contemplating revenge along with Calista’s new-found powers “allowed me to go deeper—much deeper.”
Rulin says Calista “saw Retro Girl as the last promise of her childhood, the last promise that everything was going to be OK. As long as Retro Girl was there, she was going to make it. When (Calista) steps into that costume, she thinks it’ll be like she a security blanket. Maybe if she has just a little piece of her, she thinks she will feel safe and will feel sane again. But when she does that, she realizes that’s not what this Calista is about.” It’s a personality that becomes far more complex. It can be sadistic. Even worse, it can be addicting. “Once she’s in,” says Rulin, “she can’t get out.”
In this election year of shenanigans, thinly veiled lies and pure racism, Powers’ satire of the media is spot on. “It’s not just Trump and it isn’t that the media’s nastier,” says Brian Michael Bendis, the show’s executive producer and the co-originator of the Powers comic. “We’ve been dealing with the media since the first issue of the graphic novel. We ask, how does the media treat superheroes? It’s similar to how they treat actors and musicians. They build them up. But when will they knock them down? It’s grotesque and it’s weird and I’m never not fascinated by it.”
Throughout this season, you’ll see how the media manipulates the story. “My character brings people the truth—that’s the way I see it,” says Jason Wesley, who plays Terence Pelham, a TV news host who’s like Larry King meets Bill O'Reilly meets Don Lemon. “We have to find out why Retro Girl was killed, and we have to get some people pretty upset in order to do that. It’s freedom of the press at whatever cost.” In the episode called “Hell Night,” Pelham’s aggressive field reporter gets a riled up mob to break into a store just so the event can lead the 24-hour news cycle.
Says Bendis, “We wanted to amp things up this season. But we had to figure out how to do it so that it wasn’t imitating the comic book. Because that would be death.” So they hired a new cinematographer, new production designer, even made a Mad Men-like show introduction. There’s a bigger budget for special effects, too. “If you’re doing it right, you get more money the second time around,” says Sony’s Layden.
That doesn’t mean some things don’t need to be more carefully edited. While Powers is set in a re-imagined Los Angeles, one scene prominently shows a billboard displaying a well-known street in Atlanta, where the show is filmed. And while the score properly raises tension at just the right time, the dramatic pop songs used to elicit emotion can jar you out of the experience like a crash throws you out of a car. Finally, there’s a little too much reliance on using TV news to move along the plot.
Still, it’s more compelling this year. As action combines with melodrama, the characters seem tormented by an abiding gloom that emanates from within their souls. It’s not the overriding darkness of, say, Netflix’s arresting Bloodline. Powers lets up to inject humor and even sexual satire, as in a scene in a blood red-hued sex club: One character rides a swing, fireworks raining down from up his butt. “You probably won’t see that in any other show,” says Bendis, who wrote that episode.
As the lights came up at the theater, after the season premiere’s gut-wrenching finale, Michael Madsen squirmed in his seat. He already knew Powers was a good gig for him, a role that released him from the villain archetype and even allowed for the occasional improvisation. But there was more to it. As Layden walked over to him, Madsen leaned forward. “That show was good,” he said to Layden. “That was something.”