Stage and Screen Adaptations Launch in Lightweight Week of Television

Superior Donuts, Powerless, and Training Day don't make much impact.


'Superior Donuts'
'Superior Donuts,' CBS

Superior Donuts. CBS. Thursday, February 2, 8:30 p.m.

Powerless. NBC. Thursday, February 2, 8:30 p.m.

Training Day. CBS. Thursday, February 2, 10 p.m.

In honor of your New Year's resolution to lose weight, the broadcast networks are rolling out a whole night's menu of Television Lite this week, fluffy spinoffs and remakes with minimal caloric intake. It may not be great TV, but it's arguably the best news for dieters since the FDA backed down from its threat to ban saccharine,

The best of the bunch is probably CBS' sitcom Superior Donuts, an adaptation of the Tracy Letts stage play about a tattered old donut shop fighting to survive the gentrification of its uptown Chicago neighborhood.

Judd Hirsch plays Arthur, the 70-something owner of the shop, which is so frozen in time that its jukebox plays vinyl records—or would, if it hadn't broken down a few decades back. When the gentrification threat hits Defcon 5 with the arrival of a Starbucks down the street, Arthur reluctantly hires his first employee: a street-smart black kid from the neighborhood named Franco (Jermaine Fowler, part of the troupe on TruTV's sketch-comedy Friends of the People). Franco promises that with a little guerrilla marketing, he can "help you bring this place into the 20th century."

"You mean the 21st," corrects Arthur. Snaps Franco: "No I don't."

Critics who thought the stage production of Superior Donuts was a little too sweet for its own good—and there were a lot of them—are likely to go into insulin shock at this one. In the play, Arthur was an ex-'60s radical whose occasional nostalgic musings about the age of Woodstock sometimes struck a bittersweet note of self-examination about why the world didn't get saved. But if Hirsch's character has any such wild card in his background, it's not on display in the pilot; passion, such as he has, is reserved for rants against the cronut, the macchiato and other modern debasements of the donut trade. Even the quirks of the small group of squirrely customers who keep the shop (barely) alive seem to have been bled out; a guy who carries around a portable fax machine needs aspirin, not Thorazine.

Yet Superior Donuts is far from unwatchable. The snappy repartee between the crusty old white owner and his hustling young black employee may not quite draw the blood that the thematically similar Chico and the Man did, but it's not without its chuckles. And Fowler brings a madly exuberant charm to his role that marks him for future stardom.

NBC's Powerless is a welcome lampoon of the comic-book superhero genre that may still develop some muscle, though for now it mostly should be called Punchless. It stars Vanessa Hudgens (Spring Breakers) as Emily Locke, the new director of research and development at Wayne Security, a not-very-profitable cog in the ubermachinery of Wayne Enterprises, which is owned by you-know-who. (If you don't know who, Powerless is definitely not the show for you.)

Wayne Security's business is selling products that minimize the collateral damage of the various super heroes (all of them from the pages of DC Comics, which licensed the show; don't expect cameos from Spider-Man or Sailor Moon) rampaging around America, knocking down bridges and tossing trains over their shoulders in their brawls with the bad guys.

But as Locke learns on her first day on the job, Wayne Security hasn't had a hit since sales of Joker Anti-Venom began lagging a couple of years ago, sending employee morale into a death spiral. Four of her predecessors as R&D chief have already been fired this year. "We'll do whatever you want until No. 6 comes along," says one employee in a tepid vote of confidence that's somewhat undercut when she learns her staff is working on an alarm that will warn them of her approach.

Powerless is part workplace comedy and part waspish satire of a world in which the constant presence of superheroes has become a grating annoyance. It succeeds, occasionally, at both. Hudgens is a winning presence as the rapidly sobering corporate idealist from Wharton (guest appearance by possible classmate Ivanka Trump upcoming?). And it's hard not to be amused at a city where the weary citizenry often says stuff like, "We should probably go inside soon because there's an evil pumpkin flying around."

The problem, a large one, is that there are long dry stretches between the laughs. Too many of the punchlines land weakly or not at all. This may be the product of an abrupt and extensive makeover of the show at the last minute—Emily Locke was originally written as an insurance adjuster frustrated by the big payouts her company was making to innocent bystanders at superhero dust-ups. The vast horizon of insurance humor, alas, will remain unexplored.

Powerless may yet get juiced. That is unlikely to be the case with Training Day, which, when it isn't irritatingly imitative, is hopelessly stupid. Which can also be said of the team at Jerry Bruckheimer's studio that brought it to life, using that word rather loosely.

Many of problems with Training Day were also present in the 2001 film on which it's based, in which a rookie cop spends a day being evaluated by a senior officer only to discover that his instructor is wildly, homicidally corrupt.

Why such an utterly compromised officer would show his true colors to a naive kid he's just met was one of those questions that can be finessed when you've got Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in the cast. But when the cops are played by journeymen Bill Paxton and Justin Cornwell, the silliness of the premise gets much harder to ignore.

Cornwell is cast as Kyle Craig, a heroic young patrolman sent undercover to spy on veteran detective Frank Rourke (Paxton), who police brass suspect has gone off the rails in his role as head of a squad that hunts Los Angeles' most violent and dangerous criminals.

Rourke, whose investigative techniques run from stealing donuts out of the squad room's vending machines to using Molotov cocktails to shut down drug dens, describes himself as "somewhat economical with the truth." Not so. Actually, within hours, he and his partners are openly discussing murdering suspects in front of Craig.

From there, Training Day alternates between war-zone level bang-bang and florid arguments about the lengths to which police must go in protecting society, with Rourke delivering Nietschean harangues and Craig prattling back like a student in a 9th-grade civics class. Tedium, thy name is cop on a soapbox.

To the extent Training Day has ideas, they were discussed earlier, and better, in FX's epic rogue-cop drama The Shield or even in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. To the extent it's trying to tell an interesting story … well, it doesn't. My advice: Forget your diet and make this a Netflix night.