‘Black Lightning’ series premiere crackles with social complexity

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

The opening moments of the CW’s “Black Lightning” are electric. As Nina Simone’s haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit” echoes in the background, a lone voice declares, “Justice, like lightning, should ever appear, to some men, hope, and to other men, fear.” With this single, iconic quote, the show encapsulated its dedication to probing the boundaries of good and evil and exploring the repercussions of self-righteousness.

Based on the DC Comics character of the same name, “Black Lightning” follows Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), a high school principal and father to Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain). Series premiere “The Resurrection” sees Pierce galvanized out of retirement and back into action as the eponymous hero when gang violence escalates in his neighborhood. Unlike other shows under the CW’s superhero banner, including “The Flash,” “Arrow” and “Legends of Tomorrow,” “Black Lightning” is presently disconnected from the larger universe of its peer programs.

Thank God for that. In its first episode, “Black Lightning” establishes a sense of aesthetic ingenuity that distinguishes it from the repetitive cinematography of its television peers. The visual effects are cinematic in scope, from a wave of lights dramatically short-circuiting to rain obfuscating and intensifying an instance of racial profiling. It’s miles ahead of the competent — yet routine — style of other network-based superhero shows. The pressure that builds, culminating in Pierce abandoning his retirement, is palpable. It’s a product of the atmosphere conjured up by the showrunners, unshackled from a need to facilitate an aura of interconnectedness. “Black Lightning” succeeds because of its isolation, not in spite of it.

This success translates to the manner in which the season opener brilliantly contrasts its family dynamic against contemporary socio-political shortcomings. Police brutality, activism and the distinction between intent and impact are all given their commentative due. The show begins an impartial dialogue on these real-world, pressing issues. “Black Lightning” strikes a balance between outright condemnation of social inadequacies and an apologetic attitude toward them, conducting a complex investigation as to how and why these problems persist today.

Cress Williams reservedly portrays a man whose disenchantment simmers just below the surface as he walks the fine line between cognizant refrain from his dangerous past and overt inaction. Though he feels a responsibility to his city, Pierce’s character is unique in that his responsibilities don’t fade when he takes off his mask.

The show excels at defining Pierce’s dichotomous inner conflict — he needs to be Black Lightning for his community, but Jefferson Pierce for his family. His connection to his daughters is a highlight of the premiere, as the highs and lows of their relationship are cohesively weaved with his self-image. In an innovative move, the series isn’t simply interested in the superhero’s journey; it also invests itself in the independent journeys of those closest to him.

The episode only falters when it simplifies its characters’ motivations and on-screen conflict. Within a span of only 10 minutes, two guns are pulled on Pierce in separate locations as he simply goes about his day. His daughter Jennifer’s resistance to being considered popular and a role model in high school feels manufactured for the sake of drama, and the final action sequence — complete with a bulletproof superhero suit and quips — is shoehorned and rushed.

The show loses its thematic footing when it spends 30-plus minutes setting the stage for a relatively grounded comic book adaptation and then interposes an over-the-top superpower fight scene. The premiere’s stakes were at their highest not when its cast was faced with a physical threat, but rather a systemic one — a subtlety which its showrunners would do well to remember.

The first episode of “Black Lightning” is far and away the best series premiere of any of the CW’s superhero fare. Hopefully for the show’s continued narrative, lightning does strike the same place twice.

Contact Sanjay Nimmagudda at [email protected].