You can bring a hundred different interpretations to superhero origin stories. They’re metaphors for the emergence of inner strength, they’re our collective reaction to our flawed human leaders, they’re our fantasy of protection during crises – World War II, the Vietnam War, 9/11.
But when the superheroes are on the CW, and they have coifs filled with the best product known to man, and they are played by actors in their 20s pretending to be teens, and those actors are most likely from Canada or Australia, then the young superheroes are probably dealing with the advent of adulthood. They are teens whose bodies are presenting them with new possibilities, who are facing the age of responsibility and independence from their parents. Soon they must decide whether to use their gifts for good or for evil, to help others or to serve themselves.
“The Tomorrow People,” the CW’s new drama about a paranormal species living secretly among us, is a case in point. The show follows high school student Stephen Jameson (Robbie Amell) as he begins to recognize his powers of telekinesis, teleportation, and telepathy. He’s in what his fellow mutants call the “breaking out” phase, which happens after adolescence, when the latent powers begin to appear. (Yes, sometimes – though not so much here, although the argument could be made – the superhero story is a metaphor for coming out as gay.) Stephen is becoming a grown-up, and he is rejecting the model of his “lunatic, deadbeat dad,” as he puts it.
When we meet him, Wednesday at 9 p.m. after the return of “Arrow,” he has been waking up in different locations and hearing the voice of what his friend calls a “mysterious hottie” for a year. His struggling single mother, Maria (Sarah Clarke – Nina from “24”!), has him seeing a psychiatrist and taking meds, but nothing is working. He is alienated from his classmates, who don’t know what to make of his random outbursts during class. In the course of the premiere, Stephen finally meets the mysterious hottie, Cara (Peyton List — Jane Siegel Sterling from “Mad Men”!), and, in a secret fort in an abandoned New York subway line, she and her merry band of mutants explain the situation.
He is one of the Tomorrow People, they tell him, an advanced race who are being hunted by a paramilitary group of scientists known as Ultra. Led by Dr. Jedikiah Price (Mark Pellegrino – Jacob from “Lost”!), Ultra sees the Tomorrow People as a threat to humans, a rival species competing for the same resources. Stephen must decide: Will he join up with the Tomorrow People, who are cool and fun and, it seems, fighting for good in the world? Or will he join up with Ultra and help them destroy his own people?
The answer is complicated, of course. As Stephen forges his way into adulthood, trying to determine what the right path is, he learns bits and pieces of the back story of the Tomorrow People and their war with Ultra. And there is a major twist before the end of the first episode that make Stephen’s decision quite difficult.
Yes, this is all very familiar stuff, and not because “The Tomorrow People” is based on an old British series. We’ve seen this angsty teen sci-fi material many, many times before, and done with more style and vitality. Amell, whose cousin Stephen is the lead in “Arrow,” is pretty – and pretty wooden. Likewise, the atmosphere is bland, the special effects and fight scenes are underwhelming, and the tone is mostly humorless. Becoming an adult isn’t easy, perhaps, but it doesn’t have to be a trip down humdrum lane, either.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.