The latest DC Comics series on the CW looks very much like a belated response to the challenge of Netflix's Marvel Comics shows. Inevitably it'll remind people of Luke Cage because of its largely black cast and its focus on inner-city crime. It also resembles the Netflix shows in its shorter format -- the first season only had thirteen episodes -- and in its freedom from the increasingly tiresome relationship preoccupations of Greg Berlanti's other productions. While the other shows are about "family" in the intimate-friendship-with-a-common-purpose sense, Black Lightning is about a literal family. The father, Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), is a high-school principal and former costumed vigilante with metahuman power over electricity who returns to crimefighting when a local gang -- ironically or in-jokingly named "The One Hundred" as if after the network's brutal sci-fi series, which will take over this show's time slot for its new season -- starts pushing an especially dangerous new drug at his school. Jeff's a divorcee, but his return to action and the manifestation of mutant powers by his daughters bring him and his ex-wife (Christine Adams), a scientist, back together. The elder daughter (Nafessa Williams) gains superhuman strength by disciplined inhaling. The younger, still a student (China Anne McClain), develops the ability to generate energy, which she uses to give her dad an occasional jump-start. There's some predictable secrets-are-bad drama as the elder daughter (speaking of predictable, she's a lesbian) discovers that dad has hid his superhero activity from her for years, and then the younger daughter discovers that dad and sis have kept their powers secret from her. But you get the impression that showrunner Salim Akil hurried to fill out the CW checklist of tropes so he could move on to matters that interested him more. We heard nothing of "Thunder's" love life during the second half of the season, for instance, and from that point the show is largely free of the "drama" that always threatens to define the Berlanti shows to the detriment of superhero storytelling.
If it matters, Black Lightning takes place on none of the multiple Earths on which the other Berlanti shows take place, and doesn't seem designed to fit the now-annual crossover pattern. On Black Lightning's Earth Supergirl is one of many comic-book characters, while most actual superhumans are the products of government experiments, most notoriously a Tuskegee-esque program intended to render inner-city populations docile. That program created superhumans as a side-effect, but most of them have been confined in suspended animation by the shadowy ASA. In the present, that organization conspires with the drug gangs to introduce greenlight, an enhanced version of the original drug, to the youth of Freeland where the Pierces live. A repentant former ASA operative, Peter Gambi (James Remar), acts as Black Lightning's informant and tech specialist, but that's the extent of the hero's support team. In a pinch, Gambi will join the action with guns blazing, and in one such scene, wielding two guns with a scarf over his mouth, he looked tantalizingly like The Shadow, but nothing has really followed from that. In any event, the show's main focus is on its gangster villains. Like Luke Cage, it has two charismatic villains, teasing one as the successor of the other. Tobias Whale, an albino (Marvin "Krondon" Jones III) has developed a healing factor that keeps him from aging while enhancing his strength. Whale killed Jefferson Pierce's father many years ago, and more recently Pierce thought he'd killed Whale. His reappearance -- he was actually saved by Gambi -- provokes the return of Black Lightning. While Whale has been Black Lightning's arch-enemy since the characters were created in the 1970s, he's upstaged in the middle of the season by a surly underling known as LaLa (William Catlett) who, apparently executed by Whale, comes back from the dead with mysterious powers of his own, haunted by the people he's killed. Catlett gives the best performance of the season, a low-key mental breakdown as LaLa struggles to comprehend what's happened to him while moving to usurp Whale's leadership while the boss recovers from an assassination attempt.There's something both tragic and threatening about him, especially when he learns that he'd been Tobias's stooge all along. Until then, LaLa was just about the most frightening villain, judging by attitude rather than raw power, that the Berlantiverse has produced.
Black Lightning seems designed to annoy comics fans who resent political or social commentary on their shows. Early on there's a gratuitous scene in which Thunder destroys a Confederate statue -- our only evidence that Freeland is somewhere in the South -- and in the first episode Jefferson Pierce is subject to racial profiling. More effectively, in a later episode in which Pierce is framed for drug-dealing, we're shown his harrowing, humiliating journey to a jail cell, including the ultimate indignity of a cavity search. The writers sometimes go cartoonishly overboard in expressing white villains' racism, but there's something compelling in about the emergence of superheroes from exploitative government experimentation that shouldn't be dismissed as partisan paranoia. More importantly, the show works very well as a superhero story. From their powers to their unashamedly colorful costumes, Black Lightning and Thunder can pull off impressive superhero tricks and look good doing so. Superhero fans should be able to enjoy the show regardless of their political leanings -- left, right or indifferent. While not on the level of Luke Cage or the best Netflix Marvel shows, Black Lightning is a breath of fresh air on The CW that one hopes won't grow stale in its second season, when the temptation to lapse into convention and cliche will certainly be strong.