It’s important to get out of the way that this is a family show, first; yea, the trailers are flashy, and drew me in with the promise of a fun superhero serial—which it completely delivered on, but more on that later—but it’s so much more than that. So much more than many superhero (or otherwise) offerings bring to the table, these days.
It all starts—and ends—with our protagonist, Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams; Never Been Kissed, Fallen), a.k.a. Black Lightning. I like him—he’s a father first, and Lightning only comes out as a last resort when his home and community fall under threat. That, and all that follows, is hit upon in the “A Family of Strength” featurette on the Blu-Ray. In the show, we get to explore the life of a “retired” superhero; Jeff was Black Lightning, and is trying to lead a normal life after a brush with death nine years ago. Lightning is his Mr. Hyde—all the power, fame-slash-infamy of the job, but also the one thing that could, and did, dismantle his home-life and personhood. It’s questioned, several times over the course of the show, if this is, in fact, an “addiction” to his electric alter-ego—the same endorphin buzz one would get on a theme park rollercoaster. Parallels between Jeff and his principal role in the school over which he presides, and Lightning’s role in protecting the streets of Freeland, is exquisite. We see the toll such power and heaped-on responsibility can take—especially Jeff’s, being more of an elemental superpower. His coming-of-age daughters are his priority, and, in his teachings to them, he wants them to become better people. By learning from his mistakes, they can, in turn, become better everyday heroes.
Of course, the rest of the main cast is great, too.
The family dynamic in the Pierce home is electric, in itself—and I can almost guarantee, I’ll exhaust the use of that word by the time this is all over and written.
Nafessa Williams (Twin Peaks (2017), Code Black)’s Anissa is a great, surprise addition. She came from behind, filling a stereotype “young warrior” role in the beginning, but maturing as a character and becoming a season strong-point—everything her father hoped she could become as an empowered black woman, just finding her footing and purpose. There’s a scene with her, in the beginning, that teases nudity, but it’s tastefully-done; this isn’t about the on-screen visuals or objectifying her, but setting up an arc that Anissa can follow through the course of the 13 episodes. Though some plot-points are brought up, abruptly dropped, and never spoken of again—such as her relationship status, which, to me, at least, was important—I can forgive the show for, instead, giving me a lovable and iron-willed character, the likes of which I’ve rarely seen, even by today’s liberal offerings. That she’s black, female, gay, and gifted is a tremendous mantle, and Williams executes it perfectly—definitely want more of her in season two.
China Anne McClain (A.N.T. Farm, Tyler Perry’s House of Payne) as Jennifer surprised me, too. She can really pull off drama, and a good part of the second half of the season focuses on her, as she, reluctantly, battles the same demons her father and sister have gotten roped in with. It’s a growing experience for her, and McClain does wonderfully with it. Hope to see more of her—outside the show, as well, on other projects. She’s come a long way since her Disney Channel days.
Christine Adams (TRON: Legacy, Batman Begins) as Lynn, Jeff’s estranged spouse, serves as the emotional core and anchor to the rest; she’s the level-headed one, offering life advice and motherly wisdom, while also trying to cope with the fact her family and home of Freeland is evolving in ways she never thought or planned for.
None of the Pierce women are to be trifled with, and this is made clear in all three of their cases.
Love-hate allies Inspector Henderson (Damon Gupton; Bates Motel, Whiplash) and Peter Gambi (James Remar; The Warriors, Dexter) are Jeff’s Commissioner Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth, respectively, but are both dynamic and deep characters in their own rights; I cared just as much about their differences and getting over them with Jeff as much as I did the softer, more heartfelt moments where bullets and brawn just wouldn’t cut it.
Though his role is relegated mainly to a punching bag for Lightning, Marvin “Krondon” Jones III is a relative newcomer, but what an explosive entrance it is. His villain character, Tobias, combines familiar elements of Kingpin (Netflix’s Daredevil), Lex Luthor, and Luke Cage’s Cottonmouth—that suave, sinister yet oddly-sympathetic and disturbingly-charismatic crime boss that can’t help but steal the show whenever he’s on-screen. Thought for sure this would all end badly for Tobias, as a showdown between himself and Lightning was being built towards from the very beginning, but I think a lot more of him is in-store for next season. The showrunners bait the audience with tantalizing scuffles and skirmishes, but are waiting to pay that big superhero-supervillain showdown off at a later date.
Full to the brim with pop culture jabs, social and political allegories (a bit heavy-handed at times, specifically in the latter episodes), and meta commentary, Black Lightning made me reconsider a lot of “established” problems with the superhero genre. As I said, this is a family story, before and above all else. The makers go to lengths to develop their characters get us to care about them, solidify them as a great and wholesome family unit—albeit, with their own problems and angles—before taking it a step further (no spoilers). There are a few two-dimensional, throw-away characters, sure, and I wish they had been explored further, but I’m not going to dwell on what’s done. On-screen VFX and comic book-style graphics are cool and unique to the show. Science behind and explanations for Jeff’s powers are also something that’s rarely explored in this saturated market—it’s either “because magic” or “you already know the story”. Hoping that’s a mold shows like Black Lightning can break.
What showrunner Salim Akil does well is put a finer on the pulse of our turbulent present-day, and translate that into an entertaining experience that people of all races and creeds can watch, revel in, and walk away having learned something. Plot twists, as well as conflicted characters with complex morals and motivations are great and all, but amount to nothing without a solid core. The core of Black Lightning’s got soul, if a bit preachy, in parts. All-in-all, though, it does the escapism thing well, offering a hopeful alternate reality where superheroes exist, are embedded and grown in the community, and can rise up to fight for what’s right…with the authorities there to back them. The soundtrack is legit—from Bob Marley and Earth, Wind & Fire, to more contemporary R&B, hip-hop, and mainstream rap, the musical accompaniment is as well-rounded and culturally-rooted as the premise. The humor gave me a few good chucks, but was not overdone. Twists come naturally, if not a bit predictably, but give great depth to the show and hurdles for the characters to overcome.
We have a meaty story; a lot happens, even before mid-season.
Some suspension of disbelief is required. Uncomfortable, awkward, and unreasonable (though brief) bits of dialogue and plot-holes pervade the show, but we move past them so fast that, at the time of writing, I’ve forgotten a lot of those qualms. As explained in the “Art Imitating Life” featurette, Akil’s goal was to tell a modern-day story with a hopeful, yet believable, twist. Superheroes are real and rampant…but, how does a divided world deal with that fact?
Fight scenes are quick, erratic, intense, well-choreographed, and fun to watch. There’s a definite binge-ability factor; if I hadn’t anything else on my calendar, I would’ve gladly finished this season in a single day, rather than my reluctant three. For that, I’m definitely going to keep my ear to the ground for updates on the upcoming second season.
Fun, expertly-shot, and a wholesome and relevant story, Black Lightning earns its ****/* final ‘Risk Assessment.
Season two of Black Lightning airs Tuesday, October 9th, on The CW.