Friday, May 24, 2019

This Season - on "Supergirl"

At the end of last season, I'd kind of given up on the CW superhero shows.  Maybe there was some residual guilt - after all, I no longer have that mania for all things comics I once did, and whenever I realize I no longer care about something comics-related, it makes me... kind of sad?  That said - these days, there's so much superhero content out there, I long ago let go of watching *everything*, and now I'm lucky if I watch much of anything.*

I find a lot of network TV a chore - 22 episodes or so per year is a lot to watch in sheer time allotted.  But, more than that, unless you're talking 30 minute sitcom or a show that's more episodic in nature, keeping the thread over twenty-two 45-minute chapters is a lot of narrative to keep track of.  Frankly, it feels like it's too much for the writers a lot of the time on these shows, and by the time we'd get to the season finale, speaking especially of those CW superhero shows, it can feel like a tortured mess that you just want to see end more than you care about the events of the finale.

Anyway - after watching both The Flash and Supergirl for a few seasons, at the end of last year, Jamie and I decided to hang it up.

Of course, I'm weak, and always in need of something to watch while on the elliptical, I turned to The Crimson Comet and The Maid of Might.  As I currently work from home, I'd also duck in and watch half an episode while I ate my lunch.

With The Flash, the same feeling of slow-burn slogginess started to creep in around mid-season.  And I realized somewhere along the line I was a full four episodes behind and didn't miss it, but I'd simultaneously been keeping up with Supergirl.

I don't want to oversell the show and what they did this season, but they did some new things that worked extraordinarily well for what the show is, carried over plot elements from prior seasons with some polish, didn't do a lot of the things that were becoming tedious, and finally just went full-on DC Comics in a way it feels like the CW shows have edged toward in lurches and peaks, but never really rarely just lean into for more than an episode or two.

I'll try not to spoil, encouraging you to jump in and give this season a shot, especially if its been a while.

Frankly, I figured this would be another season with another villain set up in the season opener who we'd see show up and beat the hero 6 times or so before they'd finally lose and disappear, never to be mentioned again.  But instead, this season decided to be one long (and often times) clunky analogy for the rise of nationalism via the villianizing of immigrants - in our case, the literal outer-space-alien population of the United States.

We wound up with a compelling story of a lefty college prof who changes his tune when alien-related issues impact his family (played by Smallville alum Sam Witwer, who showed real chops freed from the leaden storytelling of Smallville post Season 3), and winds up a cable-news-ready anti-alien talking head (before deviating into greater levels of power and, this being Supergirl, some super powers).  The rapid build up of rounding up aliens as public sentiment turns.

Of course Supergirl is an alien, but the show pointedly brought on a new character in "Dreamer" (wink, wink), an alien/ human hybrid who was born in the US.  She is, of course, our "Dream Girl" of the Legion of Super-Hero comics, but I understand the change in name and what they did with her.  As an FYI - while not a huge part of the series, the show does acknowledge and include that both the actor playing Dreamer and the character are a trans-woman.  Yes, this show is super-woke.

The teased "Red Daughter" stuff from last season showed up as a slow-burn aspect of greater storylines (I had assumed she would be our Big Bad all season).  We saw Mercy and Otis Graves (Rhona Mitra played Mercy, and I'm wondering what the story was there that she quit showing up almost immediately).  Bruce Boxleitner as the President, and... Jon Cryer blowing everyone's mind by playing maybe the most comics-ready version of Lex to hit the screen.

The repetition that has marked all of the CW superhero shows who pick a season-long bad guy was simply absent.  While there most absolutely was a Big Bad (Lex Luthor is as big as it gets), eventually getting there and the how's and why's was surprisingly good serial television.  And, while the many public battles of Superman and Supergirl were a factor in the rise of alien-fear, our heroes were not the direct cause of, nor even directly involved in much of the villainous activity.

Structurally - our villains were up to their own business, and our heroes had to work to sort it out as one threat after another arose.  For once, the show wasn't actually about the heroes, their origins, their parentage, etc... in a closed loop - and it's remarkable how much giving the antagonists their own agency and motives makes the storytelling more nuanced and more deep.  Ie: vendettas aren't really that interesting, screenwriters.  They kind of wind up in one way, and it can be a slog to get there.  But - as Marvel has discovered - if the villains want what they want and the heroes are just an obstacle for them, we may not agree with the villain, but we care about them as something more than a cardboard character for our heroes to knock over.

This is a 20+ episode per season show, and they actually embraced the format and possibilities.  Whole episodes were dedicated to supporting characters, Supergirl in a red cape didn't appear in several episodes (even when she did as Kara Danvers).  We had flashbacks and realizations that whole storylines that tilted one way had undercurrents we didn't know about til later.

And, shockingly for a CW show - this season wasn't all about Kara finding love.  We went a whole year with no romantic subplot for our main character, and it was fine!  And the romantic sub-plots that did surface didn't distract and built slowly.

The multi-layered approach to the season read more like actual comics writing than anything I've seen on Smallville, Supergirl, Flash or any of the other CW shows (we can debate the Netflix and other Marvel shows elsewhere) - full of twists and turns, characters remaining in-character and not having issues just to give an actor something to do.  Not everything goes somewhere super-important, but it is all part of the tapestry of long-form serial storytelling.  And when things are important, when the writers agree that they have something to say - and there's lots to say when you're using Lex Luthor as your heavyweight villain - all of the big stakes of the show that can seem like just a  fireworks display where you know your heroes will save the day actually have weight, the battles and conflicts matter all the more.

I am sure the political tone of this season was uncomfortable for many - they weren't exactly subtle in their analogies.  But for the folks who grind their gears over getting politics into their sci-fi or superheroes, I can only shrug - that's always been there, even in the days of utopian futurism, which is no less a loaded political statement than Mad Max's crushing dystopianism.  Or the censored comics of the 50's or mature comics of the 80's.  If we're not saying something, I don't know what we think narratives are or what they're for.

I'm not calling this "Golden Age of Television, television", but I am saying we saw a new level of maturity in a show I had planned to give up on.  It was a pleasure to tune in to each episode and not know what would happen, how the stakes would up, and how our characters would react and need to grow and change themselves.  I had not expected to jump off of The Flash mid-season, but even their "oh, this is so DC" quirks and bouts of pure DC giddiness just felt like more of same as we trod down the same path as prior seasons, never really getting past the overall villain business and doubling down on a bad decision made at the start of the season, and telegraphing where it was all going.

And, frankly, this season saw Supergirl lean hard into some of that modern DC-ness with Lex's armor, multi-tiered plans, and plenty of other things that I wouldn't have given the show the credit to actually embrace a couple of seasons ago.  They always seemed like they felt like they were not quite sure when they'd actually nod at how the Superman comics look and work.  And it's a lot of fun to see on screen.

I don't know if Supergirl can and will continue to work at the scale of this season, but I look forward to seeing what they bring to the table as a new season is already promised.

*I'll talk Doom Patrol soon enough as one of the best things on TV of late (that I've seen)

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