Naomi bursts onto The CW with invigorating energy and a double-knotted mystery

·10 min read
Kaci Walfall stars in Naomi 
Kaci Walfall stars in Naomi

2022 is already proving to be a challenge for the Arrowverse. The CW’s superhero franchise kicks off the new year minus two of its DC series (Black Lightning and Supergirl), Legends Of Tomorrow has entered the last stretch of its seventh season without being renewed for an eighth, and two weeks ago saw the news that parent companies ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia had put the network up for sale. Its future DC superhero ambitions would look rather grim were it not for the positive energy absolutely radiating off of The CW’s latest Arrowverse debut: Set in a northwestern town rife with mystery and starring Kaci Walfall as the blithesome, eponymous heroine-to-be, Naomi is so far a winning adaptation of the 2019 DC/Wonder Comics miniseries that represents a promising new day for the beleaguered network.

Naomi McDuffie may share the trappings of the typical superhero—her glasses obscure the truth of her origins, her adoptive parents may know more about her past than they’re letting on, and she has a bestie who’s one crisis away from going full “guy in a chair”—but Naomi wants you to know that this isn’t going to be your typical superhero tv show. One thing that certainly helps it stand apart from what’s come before: The presence of Ava DuVernay, the Academy Award-nominated director and producer who developed the series and co-wrote this premiere episode, and whose body of work (13th, Selma, A Wrinkle In Time) indicates that this particular CW/DC series will have more on its mind than the standard-fare stuff you’ll find in other Arrowverse shows. More Black Lightning, less The Flash.

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That’s not to say Naomi doesn’t look and feel like recent Arrowverse offerings. Its central locale of Port Oswego has the same picture-postcard veneer as Blue Valley in Stargirl and it has the same military presence that Smallville has in Superman & Lois. Plus, like Blue Valley and Smallville, Port Oswego has its share of shifty-eyed locals and buried secrets, and it has a tendency to attract superpowered dust-ups that both mess up traffic and kick off season-long story arcs. In the case of Naomi, the superpowered fight that ignites the intrigue of these first two episodes involves Superman, here a fictional comic book character who is adored by Naomi (you see, they’re both adopted) but is also, apparently, real? It’s a whole thing.

That brings us to the question of where Naomi lies in the Arrowverse, which by the end of “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” and “Unidentified Flying Object” is still very much left up in the sky. Is this yet another alternate reality in the DC multiverse? (Probably!) Is the Superman who appears in this episode the same Superman who appears in Superman & Lois? (Probably not!) Why do people keep saying that Superman isn’t real? And why are there actual DC comics in the hands of Lourdes (Camila Moreno), the purple-haired comic maven who has a crush on Naomi and is also handy with a lockpick? If you’re looking for answers to these pedantically nerdy questions, Naomi doesn’t have them for you—at least not yet.

Barry Watson and Mouzam Makkar star in Naomi
Barry Watson and Mouzam Makkar star in Naomi

The function of Naomi may feel familiar, but those aforementioned superhero origin tropes are as close to comic book archetype as Naomi McDuffie gets: her life is going quite well when we enter her story, a far cry from the browbeaten underdog sagas of Peter Parker or even Clark Kent. Naomi is incredibly well-liked in her high school (she has at least two entrances in this episode that elicit cheers from her classmates); her adoptive parents (Barry Watson and Mouzam Makkar) are professionals in their fields and trust their daughter to make good life choices on her own; and, my goodness, does she like to date. (These first two episodes find Naomi flitting between three potential romantic interests. “I feel… a lot of things!” she tells her folks. Eat your heart out, Archie.)

Kaci Walfall is terrific. As the nucleus of this Gen-Z drama she is the source of its spritely energy, and Walfall explores the emotion of any given moment with a degree of grace and measured patience that makes her compelling to watch. When she explains to a crush why the combination of Superman’s spandex and cape make him cool, you believe it. (This Superman fan believed it.) Later, she makes it clear how important the “Superman incident” is for her; she doesn’t pursue the mystery just to generate clicks to her Super-fansite (hers is #3 in the world), she does it to better understand why the hero has always appealed to her so dang much. The Superman myth is built around the concept of a found family; The Kents were strangers to the House of El and yet they raised baby Kal as their own, and the McDuffies adopted Naomi and raised her with the same absence of caution. Just love.

Alexander Wraith stars in Naomi
Alexander Wraith stars in Naomi

But Naomi’s pursuit of truth triggers change, abrupt and radical and frightening. There’s far more to her past than she knows: Her biological parents died in a car crash, she’s told, and the reason for those conspicuous glasses is that she has a degenerative disease in her eyes and the glasses… slow… the damage? Sure. Also there’s the matter of Dee (Alexander Wraith), a smoldering tattoo artist with a dark past who somehow has a connection to the Superman incident and also just happens to know the exact date when Naomi was adopted by her folks. “Don’t believe everything you think” isn’t just the tagline for this season of Naomi, it’s literally said to her by the mysterious (and almost comically glowering) Zumbado (Cranston Johnson), at the precise moment when Naomi’s investigations begin to show signs of dramatic peril. The deeper she goes, the less she understands.

The mystery of Naomi’s past is hefty enough (UFOs! Thanagar! Destiny!) but the Superman wrinkle—is he real or not?—feels strangely off, almost like some kind of network concession. The events of “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” and “Unidentified Flying Object” are largely pulled from the first three issues of the Naomi miniseries published by DC back in 2019, but these episodes’ curious story changes have a ways to go before they can be considered improvements from the source material. (Naomi McDuffie was created by Brian Michael Bendis, David F. Walker, and Jamal Campbell.) In the comics, Naomi’s a Superman super-fan. In the show, she runs a popular Superman fansite. Fine. Here is where things get a bit screwy.

The opening sequence of the comic has Superman battling an alien and they happen to ding up a bit of Port Oswego’s downtown drag along the way, one of those day-to-day inconveniences that comes with living among titans. Here, Superman is a fictional character and even though Port Oswego gets smashed up but good at the beginning of the episode by someone who flies in dressed as Superman, most everyone treats it as though it were an elaborate hoax (“best stunt ever!” they all say). It’s a big deal for Naomi—she passes out just as she approaches the skirmish and later she begins to develop… abilities—but so far the series approaches this presumably monumental event like it were a Nancy Drew-meets-X-Files mystery. (Naomi even rallies all her crushes to investigate the brooding Zumbado’s used car lot for clues, replete with My Little Pony walkie-talkies.)

Daniel Puig and Kaci Walfall star in Naomi
Daniel Puig and Kaci Walfall star in Naomi

That change, making Superman (and all superheroes in general) a work of fiction in the story of Naomi, makes its world feel paradoxically untethered by sense. At one point, Dee confesses to Naomi that he orchestrated this elaborate hoax (“I hired a guy with a jetpack”), but there are no consequences that follow this confession. (Her father’s military superiors conduct their investigations on the q.t. without bringing in the only person of interest in what should be a national security emergency?) Nor does the populace of Port Oswego shift into some sort of crisis mode now that something traumatic has just occurred in their treasured small town. Her classmates are all abuzz, but as for the rest of the town? Its citizens often come across more like the possessed avatars of WandaVision than a living, breathing community.

Naomi knows what it is, which is the latest CW teen superhero drama in a long line of teen superhero dramas, but it also knows that it has a unique opportunity to change the paradigm. What sets this series apart from the rest of the pack is how it bolsters the growing black representation that has been atypical of the majority of CW DC dramas since Arrow launched back in 2012. Naomi has a chance to lead the Arrowverse towards an exciting (and fun!) new future, just as soon as its lead gets a few things sorted about her own crazy past. “My whole life has been about being different, and now I have to accept the fact that I’m literally an alien,” Naomi tells her friend Annabelle (Mary-Charles Jones). The future is uncertain, she knows this, but that doesn’t change her resolve. Her words—“we have to decide who it is we want to be”—become even more impactful when you realize that the Arrowverse is entering an uncertain future of its own, only this time its new guiding light is someone as indefatigably good as Naomi. With a whole new generation ready to look up to her.

Stray Observations

  • “Hi-fives are out?” “Yeah, like 10 years ago.” I have yet to receive any such memo, one decade hence.

  • The song towards the beginning of the episode (Jaden Smith’s “Icon”) repeats the lyrics “I am just an icon living.” I don’t know if this was an intentional musical choice, but there is a DC/Milestone character named Icon, which was co-created by M.D. Bright and the late Dwayne McDuffie, Naomi’s namesake.

  • Naomi’s adoptive mother is a linguist and her adoptive father works for the military. These are jobs their comic book counterparts did not have; presumably they’ve been changed for dramatic reasons that will bear fruit in the weeks to come.

  • On that tack, Naomi’s folks needs to show a little more awareness about what’s going on with their daughter. Concerning the conspiracy chart that was once their living room: “What’s all this?” “Oh, Naomi’s working on a project!”

  • I haven’t been to school in forever, but “I need this for my site!” sure doesn’t feel like an acceptable excuse to ditch class. Maybe I’m just getting old.

  • Alexander Wraith is really good on this show. He comes off as unnecessarily cryptic in the first episode, but once those wings go wide he shifts quite naturally into a potential mentor role for Naomi. Kaci Walfall has great chemistry with everybody on this show, but there’s something very special about her interactions with Wraith. More of this, please!

  • Superman didn’t fight “a blue guy” in the first issue of Naomi, but a purple/yellow alien named Mongul. Maybe Superman & Lois gets first crack at the megalomaniacal despot? He’s sort of a big deal in the Superman mythos, so that tracks.

  • Dee hails from Thanagar, the homeplanet of Hawkman and Hawkgirl, for those of you who aren’t DC- or Legends-heads going “aw, yeah!” As to whether or not that’s also where Naomi’s from... let’s leave spoilers out of the comments for now.

  • Mrs. McDuffie is famous for her smoothies. I have to know: What is she putting in those smoothies, they do look great.

  • So what did you think of the premiere of Naomi, group? Is that a part of Superman’s cape in that little plastic box? Do Naomi’s parents know more about her biological folks than they’re letting on? Who is Naomi gonna smooch first? (My money’s on Lourdes.) Let’s speculate wildly in the comments below.