When Arrow first premiered on the CW, I was excited because the weekly format seemed the perfect fit for telling comic stories. As more shows got rolled out, I was even more excited. The Flash, Supergirl, The Legends of Tomorrow, as each rolled out, I was excited, I reviewed them with pleasure.
Now I am hoping for the television version of Thanos’ snap.
So it seems like you’d have to actually work at making it not work, of getting most of your series to jump the shark, not just once, but over and over again. Yet that is exactly what has happened, and it seems pretty easy to lay most of this at the feet of Greg Berlanti. He’s stretched himself too thin, trying to do too much. From Berlanti’s docket: Riverdale (rapist trash), Sabrina, Blindspot, the now-defunct Deception (which I was sorry to see cancelled, it was cute), All American, Batwoman (which despite the casting controversy, I’m excited about), and Stargirl. He wants to be a kingmaker, control an empire, but he doesn’t seem to care he’s doing none of it well. And he doesn’t seem to be learning from his mistakes.
There have been signs that the creative and production teams have been missing the mark for the while. Supergirl took the thing that made it great in season one, it’s clever commentary on feminist issues and Calista Flockart, and got rid of both. It spent a whole season getting Kara and Jimmy Olsen together (another mistake, but let’s prioritize), only to open the next season with her saying she had to find herself. There’s also the rubbish idea that Supergirl, for no good reason, is set in a different universe than all the other shows? Then there’s the undercutting of Supergirl herself by introducing, then discarding, Superman. The Flash spent months advertising that they were doing Flashpoint, then did a whole season they called Flashpoint but it wasn’t. Arrow had a rocky first half of their first season, but they found their footing in the back end. They were still plagued with issues though, mainly the tiresome use of flashbacks. (It’s just lazy storytelling to “fix” plot holes.) And the fans hated them, with a passion. So after none last year, the creators decided the solution this year was flashforwards. Really? Then of course there’s the disaster of the entire most-recent season, where the whole show just sucked.
It’s not the network, and it’s not all their shows, as notable exceptions are Black Lightning and The Legends of Tomorrow, and I would add the short-lived Constantine. But the reason these shows do well is because they ignore the mold. I’ve never seen anything like Black Lightning on television before, and they’re doubling down with their second season. It’s amazing. The Legends of Tomorrow is great for different reasons; they just don’t seem to care that they’re bizarre and out there, in fact they’ve embraced this, and the wackiness is what makes it great.
I would also add The Gifted on FOX to this list. Setting a series in the world of the X-Men with no X-Men is a risk. But as depressing as the parallels are, it’s a timely statement on the metaphor of immigrants as hunted people. The Gifted builds on the X-Men world in a way we haven’t seen before.
Certainly the CW’s superhero shows are not the only ones to have rocky narratives. The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D started out great, but started to wobble with the whole story line involving the betrayal of Grant Ward, and then it just got weird, not necessarily good, and got away from its roots that initially made it great. Now, with Infinity War, and the style and content of the last season up in the air, it seems like the show is a sad shadow chained to the MCU.
Marvel is hit and miss with its shows, especially the Netflix series. The first season of Daredevil and Jessica Jones got rave reviews, as did Luke Cage’s first season. Many of the critics commented on the unique and new form of storytelling as much as anything else. Luke Cage was hailed for its representation, both in front of and behind the camera. But second seasons proved rocky, and the white washing, tone deaf casting of Iron Fist meant the show was dismissed and hated by most before it even premiered. The Defenders helped some, mainly by making fun of Danny Rand. So the cancellation of Iron Fist was welcomed by many. Mike Colter came under fire for trash comments, and not long after that the cancellation of Luke Cage was announced. I wasn’t unhappy. The Punisher suffered from a different time of tone deafness. With the almost inconceivable statistics about police murdering people of color with impunity, the concept of Punisher as a vigilante, praised by paramilitary groups and cops, it was a bad choice.
Hulu’s series have not fared much better, The Runaways and Cloak and Dagger are different story wise, but they’re just not that interesting.
Into this glut of superhero shows enters Titans streaming on DC’s own channel, for a monthly fee. I was excited enough about both DC Universe and this show, to fork over the money. Other than knowing Dick Grayson, I didn’t know the Titans, so I was looking forward to something New.
My issues started with the very beginning. In the show, we’re supposed to buy that Dick Grayson, played by Brenton Thwaites, is a detective recently relocated to Detroit, after being a detective in Gotham for years. Except Thwaites looks like he’s twelve. So I don’t buy it.
The larger issue to me, after two episodes, is that Titans doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be when it grows up. The bloody, graphic fight scenes with Grayson still dressed as Robin, not Nightwing, seem to gesture towards them wanting to embrace a Daredevil aesthetic. But Grayson’s petulant attitude, his childish tantrum demeanor, in general, but certainly about his relationship with Bruce Wayne/Batman, undercuts this. The first episode has him saying “Fuck Batman” at the end of a fight. And I’m sure it was meant to distinguish the DC Universe as edgy, and this iteration of Grayson as separate from the Batman you know, but instead it comes off as a teenager acting out.
Titans also doesn’t seem to know if it wants to feature humans just trying to do their best to make a difference (like Grayson showing his scars and cleaning blood off his costume in episode one, or Hank/Hawk in pain and injecting himself to get through), or if it’s going to focus on meta-humans with supernatural skills like Rachel and Koriand’r. Since it can’t seem to make up its mind, it just jumps back and forth. Even the aesthetics are different, with Rachel and Koriand’r featured in bright, comic-book like colors, and “real” folks in dark, muted tones. In fact, the whole show is dark, and I’d like to have some severe words with whatever director of photography decided if we just couldn’t make out the action it meant the show was deep and edgy. There are ways to set mood, and tone, without having me squinting at the scene to make things out.
And I think this may be at the heart of why I don’t really care for most of these shows at this point, despite loving the idea of them.
They’re just too dark. The world we live in is quickly tipping towards dystopia. Climate scientists tell us we have 20-30 years tops. Democracy is crumbling before our eyes, and we’re just watching it unfold in real-time on social media. Children are kept in cages, in camps.
I’m a scholar, I get that popular culture is always a reflection of the historical and cultural moment. So I get it, I understand intellectually why we have these dark stories.
But I do not need to watch shows that show that there’s no hope. That society so easily slides into detaining people just for being different, and holds them indefinitely. Where people who are supposed to represent law and order kill and beat with impunity, and we’re supposed to just take it. When speaking out and reporting can make you disappear. Where hate, and bigotry, and misogyny seem to have won, and we’ve all just accepted that.
I don’t need a dark, dystopian world reflected on my screen. I see it every day. I want hope. I want heroes. I need to see that there’s a way through, a way out, a chance.
I’m not saying I want primary colors, and an unattainable “golly gee wiz, Batman” world. I’m fine with characters who struggle, who deal with their pain, their trauma, who fight and bleed for us. But just because you’re edgy and dark doesn’t mean you’re interesting. And I just don’t think these are the stories we need right now.
So I’ll keep watching, because I do have hope – hope that the characters won’t let me down, hope that the creators will learn, hope that maybe, just maybe, we can find our own heroes in this dark, depressing time.