Friday, November 12, 2021

Supergirl on the CW Ends

I started watching Supergirl from the pilot when the show had big ambitions and was going to air on CBS.  The pilot of the show is... not great.  You could feel the hands of CBS, home to a wide array of boring shows I don't watch, all over the show and kind of wringing themselves with all this superhero weirdness.  But they did bring in a decent cast, and seemed to have some ideas for modernizing the Maid of Might from her incredibly goofy origins in Action Comics 252.  

I won't get into it here, but Supergirl as a property allows for some flexibility as the character's titles never last, no one working on the latest iterations seems aware of prior incarnations, and once on the title, never seems to know what to do with the character for more than 3-6 issues.  I have probably hundreds of Supergirl comics, and there's been exactly two modern runs that I would recommend.

The show started off on CBS, which was always an awkward fit and probably one of the things that drove DC and WB to realize that working with network suits was more trouble than it's worth.  For the first half of the first season, the show felt deeply uncomfortable with itself, bucking against old network tropes and trying to make the domestic life of Kara Zor-El as basic as possible.

There were some nice surprises once it became apparent CBS was probably going to do one season and out and lost interest.  Kara's boss, played by Calista Flockhart in a scenery chewing turn as Cat Grant, went from irritant, antagonist and impediment very quickly to role-model and bon vivant - which may have always been the plan, but it was a nice turn.  

I'll never quite get what happened with her sister starting episode 1 as a doctor and that going out the window to be the 2nd banana of a secret alien hunting government agency.  Or - when they decided to change Hank Henshaw into J'onn J'onzz, which was infinitely more interesting.  

Star Melissa Benoist managed a girl-next-door/ every girl persona that - honestly, against my expectation - didn't feel cloying or too precious as Kara, and made it work as Supergirl (even long after it was clear she was a 30-something woman, which the show stopped bothering to hide a couple of years ago).  

The show ran for six seasons, so I won't get into all the in's and out's.  They had some great guest stars - including Lynda Carter as the President, and the introduction of Tyler Hoechlin and Bitsie Tulloch as Superman and Lois Lane.  There was a near complete turn over of key cast from the show's start to the last season, minus David Harewood, Chyler Leigh and Benoist.  An abandonment of the very expensive DEO set and set-up for a "watchtower from Smallville" set-up that got positively stupid this season.  We got Legionnaires and in classic DC style, they treat going to the future and past like jumping between the US and Canada. 

I think it was starting with Season 2 that the show put a stake in the ground and started pursuing storylines that stood as analogs for real world issues, as well as directly dealing with actual real world issues.  Immigration, sexuality, the industrial prison system came up at least twice...  the show took on a lot.  It was often clunky, but the messages clear and tilting toward lefty sentiments while also making the concerns universal or understandable.  I suspect it did mean the show lost viewers.  

But, mostly for the last two seasons, the show's budget was clearly given the hatchet many times over, the moralizing mostly sidelined, and no one in the writer's room seemed to give a fuck.  

I mean, after returning from a mid-season hiatus, this season just veered off into lazy fan fiction-style writing, seemingly just borrowing from whatever was at hand, from Harry Potter to the doofy ending of Wonder Woman 1984 and seemingly mostly concerned with Alex's wish fulfillment and Brainiac5 refusing to button his shirts (is this a thing again?  What was that?).  For the second season in a row, after a season of build-up, the villains were defeated so quickly and with so little pomp and circumstance (and I mean this literally) I had to rewind that part to figure out what happened as I'd looked away for a second and suddenly the characters who had been a threat to all of existence for 20 episodes were just... done.  

In short - the show was way out of gas this year.  It wasn't even working out stories about relationships - it was just showing people in them.  Characters experienced made-up and inconsistent-with-what-we've-seen-before internal drama, usually resolved in an episode or two.  Personal, melodramatic conflict would come up that the CW once upon a time would have stretched out painfully all season.  Now, the conflict was initiated, percolated a bit and resolved by end of episode - which just makes it feel like nothing is actually a problem, it's just about getting the five minutes with the person you injured to apologize.  But then everyone moves on and does not speak of the problem again.  Yay!

And, at some point, the show decided Kara's problems were going to sound like someone interviewing for the first time and being asked "what is your greatest weakness?"  "Gee, sometimes I care TOO MUCH."   But that is absolutely where the show went for two full seasons of the six.   I don't want to admit I started rolling my eyes at a character being earnest about doing their best and wanting to help people, but at some point... I started rolling my eyes.  

Like, that IS the question of superheroes - what can you do and how do your do it that goes beyond what others can do?  But at some point the show turned the world into Kara's personal gerbil cage that had gotten out of hand.  I don't know why that's the tone they picked, but it was not great.  Somehow the show went from our lead wanting to help people to sounding lowkey narcissistic, basically suggesting in many episodes only *she* could solve the worlds problems -  in a room full of aliens, science-witches and vigilantes all wearing spandex and working together to save the day was...  kinda gross.  I genuinely thought the show would address this, and it did: only in the most round-about, nonsense way with the finale's "oh, Kara convinced everyone to be their own hero instead of depending on her for everything".  

Which... what?  Supergirl, you were directly or indirectly responsible for like 75% of the bad stuff that happened on the show.

Supergirl went from "gonna watch this during dinner" viewing, to Jamie bailing and me watching later, to me watching it when I was on the elliptical and just needed something on while I did my best not to keel over.  Had the show not been in the final season, there's no way I would have kept watching.  The overall plot of the season never really made sense, and since it was resolved by just chucking the baddies into the Phantom Zone - why not do that ten episodes prior?*

Anyway - maybe the most galling thing is that the season's baddie arc wrapped at the 15 minute mark (badly.  Just, so badly) of the finale, and then the last 45 minutes were perfectly serviceable television.  Better than anything the show had seen in years as they wrapped up everyone's arcs and pushed Kara in a bold new direction in the last minute of the show.  (SPOILER:  she gives up her secret identity)  

And you realize - the back half of the season could have been this.  They could have wrapped with the nonsense of chasing horcruxes and they could have, instead, worked towards Kara's revelation.  People could have come into their own without the distraction of a 5th Dimensional Imp with Bangs (I like the bangs, for the record) vamping it up with her little pal.  There could have been some exploration of who they were and what they were doing.  There could have been reflection and closure on old storylines and what that means for the future.  But we got a scavenger hunt.

I don't know what's wrong in the CW writer's rooms, but there's no real reason the shows should start this well, hang in for 3 seasons or so, and get this bad this quickly.  At some point, The Flash started circling the drain and I bailed on that (and y'all, I love The Flash).  Already the second season of Stargirl was a ridiculous bore.  

Some shows grow an audience over time.  It's possible.  I think maybe Legends of Tomorrow is doing that now by just throwing everything out that started the show and now just doing whatever.  Some shows - some super hero shows (see: Doom Patrol), even - manage to do more with character in two episodes than Supergirl would wrangle out of a season for the last three years.  

And I guess that's what I'm on about.  

We're way, way past the point of genre = under-the-radar fun trash.  Marvel is out there making Loki and WandaVision.  And I know the budget is different here, but maybe CW needs to do more than aim for the "fandoms" that are going to stick by something religiously because they caught the first few episodes and bought the t-shirt.  What are the showrunners doing to make a show worth watching for people who do not believe that devotion to a mediocre show is a personality?

The actors on this show were fine to pretty good (Cryer's Lex did reach "great"), so you can't blame them.  And you have an opportunity with any show to do good work.  Of course being a 20-episode stretch is a handicap - and that's just punishing an audience at some point, as well as the cast and crew.  But in a season like this one, where it was cleanly split in two, they had a chance to slow it down and maybe reconsider a bit, but instead it felt like they left the interns in charge and everyone was planning to just come back for the end of the series wrap. 

If I thought they'd swung for the fences with this show the last three seasons - we'd be having a different conversation.   But they didn't.  

I'm aware that in theory these shows are aimed at teens, but teens have options, man.  And 22 episodes of hour-long TV is not the format they want, anyway.  I dunno.  It used to kind of be funny, but now I just feel like DC is wasting opportunities and good will.

*I'll also say - the show absolutely threw away an opportunity to do something novel and make the bad guy see the light and go be a good person, which it hinted it was doing.  And then did the opposite.  I don't know if this was me imagining things, poor writing or a change at the last minute, but..  what we got was, instead, unintentionally hysterical.

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