Right off the bat, let me say that Black Lightning has been renewed for a second season, and that I, for one, am happy about it.
I described my feelings about this series in my review of the premiere. And nothing much has changed in the interim. First seasons can be difficult. I am a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I will freely admit that TNG’s first season includes some of the worst television ever produced. It takes time for a series to find its legs. Fortunately, the CW seems to allow most of its programs to do so. Hence, the second season.
I still love the premise. A middle-aged superhero who comes out of retirement to protect both his family and his city. As an aging fanboy, I require more middle-aged (and older) superhero content out there. AARP has identified the baby boomers as a huge market, and while I straddle the line between the boomers and Generation X, I celebrate any of our powered heroes who aren’t in their 20s.
The fact that this hero is a black man (while I am not) is a bonus. Sure, we have black superheroes in the DC television universe. There was half of Firestorm on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, as well as Vixen. On The Flash, Wally West’s Kid Flash came before Black Lighting (at least, in order of production). On Supergirl, we have James Olsen (who was once white and redheaded in the comics) as Guardian. And, over on Arrow, we have John Diggle as Spartan (and, sometimes, as Green Arrow). But—and this is a defining “but”—none of these black superheroes headline their own series, and Black Lightning does. That’s an important distinction. On Black Lightning, the main hero is black, plus his sidekick, Thunder, is a black lesbian female who also happens to be his oldest daughter. I’m not certain it was necessary that I add the “lesbian” to Thunder’s description, but it was accurate. As the season ends, Black Lightning’s younger daughter also seems to be emerging as a superhero in her own right.
Powered superhero. Meta-human. Whatever. We all know what I’m talking about here, right?
These are all things that I celebrate. Another bonus is that the cast is, by and large, a likeable one. They are not all equally skilled actors, but even the least accomplished (by which I mean Jill Scott and Marvin “Krondon” Jones III) have presence.
Cress Williams was a good choice to play Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning. He is believable as a somewhat uptight, preachy high school principal and dad to two young adult daughters, complete with corny dad jokes and an endless supply of quotes from the likes of Malcolm X and MLK. I thought I had somehow missed everything he’s ever been in up till now until I realized that he played Wallace Fennell’s estranged father in four episodes of Veronica Mars, and that he was in one episode of Deep Space Nine, although I might be forgiven for not recognizing him from that one.
Black Lightning’s mentor and man-in-the-chair is Peter Gambi, played by veteran actor James Remar. In a strange hybridized way, Gambi is both Jim Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth to Freeland’s version of Batman, which is ironic because Gambi had a short engagement on Gotham as Jim Gordon’s Uncle Frank. I don’t think this series has necessarily showcased Remar’s acting abilities, especially since he’s playing the even-keeled Gambi, but I’ve seen him in enough other things to know he has range. He was Dexter’s adoptive father on Dexter, and he was Ajax in the late-’70s movie The Warriors. Plus, he’s done a lot of voice work over the years, which is probably why every line he has on this show sounds like ADR. He has a great voice. In Season 2, I think they should have Gambi wear a leather vest at least once, for old time’s sake.
I’ve singled out these two actors because the characters they play galvanize most of the action on this show. This doesn’t detract from any of the other actors, however. This series is family-centric in a way that you see hints of in the other shows set in the Arrowverse, but in a way that seems even more focused. The other DC series are more about extended families. This one is refreshingly about traditional family, even if the family itself is anything but traditional. Christine Adams is great as Jefferson’s ex-wife Lynn. Nafessa Williams and China Anne McClain are also good as Anissa and Jennifer Pierce, Jefferson’s daughters.
All of the actors hit their marks and say their lines well enough. Even though Jones’ Tobias Whale is little more than a large albino presence and a scowl, I do like the villain and was glad to see that he will still be around next season. Unfortunately, Gregg Henry’s talents were wasted in the role of Martin Proctor, a one-note bureaucratic villain who was consciously channeling Donald Trump before [SPOILER] getting killed in the season finale. Henry is a better actor than this role would lead you to believe, and, like Remar, he’s been in everything.
It has been the plot of this series, so far, that has brought down its overall rating in my eyes. Or, I should say, plots. There’s no single through-line here. You could say that everything that happens in the series is traced back to tests performed on the citizens of Freeland by the shadowy government agency, the A.S.A., which stands for something I’m not going to bother to look up. It was these tests that gave Jefferson Pierce his super powers, and Peter Gambi is a former agent for the A.S.A. Tobias Whale is also largely a product of this program. So, there’s that. Then, we get sideplots about a drug called Green Light (also a secret government project), and a street gang called the 100, led by a guy who calls himself La-La, who dies and comes back, with images of people he has killed suddenly appearing on his body as tattoos because—well, I don’t know why, but it sounds like magic to me. We also have Pierce’s daughters having to adapt to their own super powers. The younger daughter’s boyfriend is paralyzed by an assassin’s bullet and then is turned into a super-villain by Tobias Whale. Also, Jefferson Pierce wants revenge against Whale for murdering his journalist father. And then—and then—
It feels like Black Lightning is still trying to find its own voice, which is not unusual in early seasons of a series. In the premiere, I felt like the series had already locked in on its unique voice, but soon after it began to meander. In doing so, even a relatively small run of thirteen episodes begins to feel unfocused. And the season finale lacked the oomph that I’ve grown to expect in these Greg Berlanti shows.
I still like the show’s potential and will be watching next season. But, for now, it is, at best, 3 out of 5 stars. But, I remain optimistic.