'Supergirl' and 'Jessica Jones': Welcome to Peak Superheroine TV

Two new comic-book series take the notion of XX-chromosome crimefighters to the next level

Melissa Benoist, left, as 'Supergirl'; Krsyten Ritter as 'Jessica Jones.' Credit: Cliff Lipson/CBS, Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

One of the craziest TV twists in recent years: They've finally figured out how to do superheros right. Supergirl and Jessica Jones are totally different stories, from different comic-book universes, yet they both feel like shows that couldn't have happened 10 or even five years ago. Supergirl is America's sweetheart, while Jessica Jones is a bad-girl noir detective with a taste for rough sex, booze and sarcasm. When Jessica perches on a barstool to knock back a few with Luke Cage, you get the strange feeling things might get out of hand. And then things get out of hand. Then a little further out of hand. This is definitely a next-level TV superhero.

Television always had trouble getting comics right – usually by fudging the question of whether they wanted to appeal to the geeks or newbies who just wanted a decent TV version. Eventually the networks cracked the secret: If the geeks ain't happy, nobody's happy, because it's crucial to get the details right. Even those of us who don't know bupkes about the Daredevil comics want to know we're entering a TV version that's true to the original. It's like the science on The Big Bang Theory – you don't recognize the Feynman equations scrawled on the whiteboard on the background, but the comedy depends on being able to trust that it's the real thing. ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, Netflix's Daredevil, Fox's Gotham, the CW's Arrow and The Flash – they're vastly different in terms of visual style and story-telling, yet they take the characters seriously and trust the story. The Sixties Batman is a great counter-example of how to go the other way and completely ignore the dark tone of the comics – all you needed was humor, energy and Julie Newmar as Catwoman. (Lee Meriwether? Never that. And Eartha Kitt gets an eternal pass.)

Melissa Benoist is the key to CBS' Supergirl, all plucky zest as she learns how to use her powers. Benoist's enthusiasm is what makes it work — she's not one of these neurotic superheroes tormented by her powers, but actually enjoys the process of being awesome. She's Superman's cousin Kara Zor-El, who left their doomed home planet Krypton as a 13-year-old girl. By the time her escape pod got to Earth, after getting lost in the Phantom Zone, her cousin was already Clark Kent. Her earth parents are cleverly played by former big-screen Supergirl Helen Slater (last seen in the Mad Men finale as Don Draper's Zen guru) and former small-screen Superman Dean Cain (who spent all those years on Lois and Clark bewitched by Teri Hatcher's cleavage). Now the 24-year-old Kara works for the fabulously nasty media mogul Cat Grant, the long-lost (and never-better-or-even-close) Calista Flockhart, who stomps into the office snapping, "Drunk, 9 a.m. – that's the last time I have breakfast with Ruth Bader Ginsburg."

The Girl of Steel has troubled memories of Krypton – unlike Superman, she actually grew up there – and she makes some endearingly klutzy gaffes as a rookie superhero, like when she accidentally causes an oil spill. (It evokes the image of Cher Horowitz's immortal "My bad!") Mastermind Greg Berlanti gives Supergirl the same pop energy he brought to Arrow and The Flash, with a lot of help from his cast. Flockhart gets some of the best lines, claiming she "branded" Supergirl to compete with the Daily Planet's Superman scoops. But she's not impressed with the caped youngster so far, snapping, "This inexperienced idiot has barely had a run in her tights, and yet there she is at the epicenter of danger."

Jessica Jones is a whole other beast, with its heart on the dark side. It has the same gritty Hell's Kitchen vibe as its Netflix (and Marvel) sibling Daredevil, except with an even more troubled hero. She is the epicenter of danger. It's a daring move since Jones is a character known only to the hardcore Marvel heads – but you'll know her name now. Krysten Ritter prowls the mean streets as the hard-drinking P.I. in a leather jacket. Ritter brings the devil in Miss Jones, with a real sense of unstable menace – she's deserved a role this juicy ever since Don't Trust The B– In Apartment 23. But the whole cast is great, especially Doctor Who's David Tennant as arch-villain Kilgrave and Carrie-Anne Moss as a glam lesbian lawyer. Supergirl and Jessica Jones are miles apart in terms of mood – one is an upbeat crowd-pleaser, the other a downer for adults. But they're both achievements that could only be happening right now.