Once a network known for teen soaps aimed primarily at young women, The CW has successfully rebranded itself in recent years as broadcast television's superhero network. Since launching Arrow in the fall of 2012, the network's schedule has expanded to include four distinct superhero series all existing within an interconnected universe shepherded by super-producer Greg Berlanti. With the potential threat of superhero saturation looming -- the CW only has 10 hours of primetime programming every week -- the network is turning toward a new kind of hero.

On Tuesday, The CW will debut Black Lightning, a series based on the DC Comics character of the same name and DC's first black superhero. The mature, grounded drama draws from executive producer Salim Akil's own experiences to deliver a topical family drama that breathes new life into the superhero genre and as a result stands apart from the rest of the network's catalogue of costumed characters.

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The series, which is not currently part of the Arrowverse, stars Cress Williams (Hart of Dixie) as Jefferson Piece, a metahuman with the ability to manipulate and generate electricity. But it is not the superhero origin story viewers are accustomed to seeing on film and television. There's no montage featuring the hero learning to use his powers. There's no storyline involving him questioning the morality of using his powers. Instead, the series tells the story of a man in his mid-40s who must come out of retirement and learn to balance the responsibilities of being a working parent with the responsibilities of fighting injustice to save an entire city.

Jefferson is a father and a respected high school principal trying his best to keep kids off the streets at the start of the series, having hung up his superhero alter ego Black Lightning nearly a decade ago in an effort to save his crumbling marriage. But when his youngest daughter, the rebellious high school-aged Jennifer (China Anne McClain), is pulled into the crosshairs of a local gang known as the 100, Jefferson finds himself suiting up once more in a renewed effort to rid the city of Freeland of the criminals threatening to turn it into a violent playground. The result is a revitalized superhero story wrapped in a complex family drama.

"It's all, how do you [save Freeland] while you have a daughter who's in high school and a daughter who's out of high school and is an adult yet you don't want her to be an adult? And how do you that when you're trying to get your wife back?" star Cress Williams tells TV Guide of the series' complex narrative.

Cress Williams, Black Lightning

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Down the line, as readers of DC Comics know, Jefferson's two daughters eventually become superheroes in their own right. Although viewers will have to wait a while to see Jennifer, whose alter ego is known as Lightning, come into her powers, the series wastes little time in revealing those of Anissa (Nafessa Williams), an activist and Jefferson's eldest daughter who comes to be known as Thunder.

By centering the series not just on Jefferson but on the turbulent lives of his family as well, the series is one of the few on TV to feature a predominantly black cast focused on telling stories that depict black America.

"This is a story about me, and it's a story about the people that I know," executive producer Salim Akil recently told reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. "This project is very personal to me. I try to maintain the balance of this has got to entertain and it's got to be fun and he's got to use his powers, but, ultimately, it's a very personal, artistic expression for me."

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Originally from Richmond, Calif., Akil drew inspiration from the men and women he knew and the environment in which he was raised in order to create the complex but fractured world of Freeland. "It wasn't a choice made out of, hey, this is what we want to say; it came out of a choice of this is what I know," he said.

The result is what Akil's wife, Girlfriends and Being Mary Jane creator Mara Brock Akil, who also serves as an executive producer on the series, calls "black on purpose."

"One of the things that Salim and I set out early on '' and it's a through'line in all of our projects '' is that we do black on purpose," she said. "It's important to us to paint our humanity '' put our humanity into the picture, into the tableau that is out there in storytelling."

With this guiding principle in mind, Black Lightning becomes a show that isn't just about Jefferson's heroic journey or his desire to save his daughters from the clutches of gun-toting, drug-dealing criminals. It's a show about a race and poverty. It's a show about ineffective law enforcement. It's a show about a very specific community in the way that very few superhero narratives tend to be.

"We are the only [CW superhero] show that's rooted in a real community," Williams tells TV Guide of the show's strong social commentary. "We're also a show that's not tackling saving the world or fighting aliens or some sort of outside influence. We're trying to tackle, how do you save a neighborhood? How do you save a community, on some level, almost one block at a time? And [we] do that in the midst of real-life issues, in the midst of gun violence, in the midst of police brutality, of drugs and all the ills of communities that live below the poverty line."

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"When I watched it, I kind of just forgot that it was a superhero show until we saw [Jefferson] in his costume," admits Nafessa Williams. "I just felt like it was a show with family about love and issues that they're going through, the family dynamic that we have, the community. I think it focuses on more than just being a superhero. It goes in depth, I believe, with each character and that opens it up."

Tracey Bonner and Cress Williams, Black Lightning

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The representation the show offers comes approximately a year and a half after Marvel's Luke Cage introduced Netflix's first black superhero in unforgettable fashion and a month before the the highly anticipated feature film Black Panther hits theaters. It joins shows likeInsecure, Atlanta, and The Chi, a new Showtime series from Emmy winner Lena Waithe, in pushing black representation forward on TV. And although Freeland may be a fictional city, the people portrayed within its story are very real.

One of Oliver Queen's favorite phrases early on in Arrow's run was, "You have failed this city." Although his actions, on the surface, were always done in the name of bettering Star City (formerly Starling City), the truth is the show has never been inclined to dig beneath the surface of the city's problems to explore the people and communities of the city itself. Even though Oliver is now the mayor, viewers still don't know much about the city's problems except for those that directly affect his team. Similarly, on The Flash, despite the fact several characters have worked within Central City's police department or have covered local news, viewers don't know much about the city beyond the fact metahumans are running rampant as a result of an explosion at Star Labs. Meanwhile, Supergirl and DC's Legends of Tomorrow often find themselves concerned with problems much larger and stranger, which tends to happen when aliens and time travel are introduced into the equation.

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And that's where Black Lightning differs, and shines. Within just the first two episodes, viewers have a firm grasp on the plight of the city and the problems facing its inhabitants because the writers have put in the effort to depict the different people, areas and neighborhoods of the city of Freeland. The opening sequence of the series tackles racial profiling, while the second episode puts Jefferson's place as a public figure of authority within the community in the spotlight as a lens through which to effectively discuss topics such as gun violence and the wellbeing of minors. And while Jefferson is ostensibly the good guy in a storyline that involves talking a woman who drew his daughter into a prostitution ring off of a ledge, Black Lightning thrives in shining a light on why those not as good as Jeffferson are still worth saving.

Far too often comic book-based shows focus too much on the men and women donning those suits and capes and not enough on the people they're helping. Black Lightning never loses sight of the complex issues and what's at stake for the people of Freeland. The antagonists of the show aren't mustache-twirling villains; they present real threats and obstacles that many men and women face every day. Although the show's themes of good versus evil are certainly familiar and well tred by now, Black Lightning is using them to tell stories about the real world that no other superhero series is telling. And that, above all, is its greatest strength.

Black Lightning premieres Tuesday, Jan. 16 at 9/8c on The CW.

Additional reporting by Lindsay MacDonald

(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS, one of The CW's parent companies.)



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