It’s hard to come up with a fresh take on the already overpopulated superhero genre on TV — but “Black Lightning” gets points for delivering a topical drama honoring the DC Comics character created in 1977 by Tony Isabella (“Luke Cage”) and Trevor Von Eeden.
As in the original, the action revolves around Garfield High School principal Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), who returns to his hometown to find it overrun by a nasty gang called the One Hundred, who kidnap local girls and put them to work turning tricks at the Sea Horse motel. The gang is clearly a menace to society and run from afar by Black Lightning’s archenemy, Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III).
As played by veteran character actor Williams (“Hart of Dixie,” “Code Black”), Pierce is a thoughtful, middle-aged man, a former superhero who’s reluctant to get back into the game, which cost him his marriage to Lynn (Christine Adams). It’s his conviction that he can keep his school a safe haven for students, including his daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King as a voice for nonviolence.
But Pierce is also a strapping fellow who can outrun his daughters, and when they’re kidnapped at school by a gang member, his eyes flash and he fires up his electrically charged arms and legs and springs into action. After taking care of business, he’s ready to soak in a tub and try to convince his ex-wife that these special-effects days are behind him so she can move back in. But the One Hundred arouses his wrath again when Tobias’ flunky, Lala (a genuinely sinister William Catlett), murders the mother of one of the Sea Horse’s working girls. And so a procedural is born.
Part of the fun in watching this socially relevant, sci-fi hybrid comes from seeing Williams zap boys half his age, sending them tumbling down stairwells, slamming into walls and, in one case, crashing through a car windshield from midair. Costume designer Laura Jean Johnson has given Williams an imposing costume of black rubber, with twin white lightning bolts breaking across his massive chest. The overall effect completes his transformation from earnest, conservatively dressed high school do-gooder to rule-breaking, buff badass.
Black Lightning isn’t the only member of the family with special abilities. In the DC Comics iteration, Anissa and Jennifer are metahumans capable of feats of strength. In the episodes made available for press, we only see Anissa’s abilities manifest when she leans on the bathroom sink and breaks off the front, and later stops a drug-store holdup by tossing the thief over several aisles of supplies. Perhaps she can intervene when her dad needs a nap or a massage.
The 2018 TV season is only a week old and we already have one new fun show, Fox’s “9-1-1.” With “Black Lightning,” The CW has given us another entry — an entertaining, edgy piece of escapism that adds some much-needed diversity to the network’s lineup of white-bread soap operas.