Written by Sam Keeling
In 2012, the CW — the low-budget and lesser-known sister network of CBS — launched the first season of “Arrow,” an adaptation of the DC superhero Green Arrow. It was a low-risk effort by comic giant DC to gain some popularity in pop culture at a time when Marvel’s cinematic prowess was only increasing — the show was a bigger success than people predicted.
Fast forward four years, and the CW’s popularity is steadily rising, thanks in large part to its four DC shows. The prime 8 p.m. time slots on Monday through Thursday are held by “Supergirl,” “The Flash,” “Arrow” and “Legends of Tomorrow.” With the exception of “Supergirl,” which started its first season on CBS before transferring to the CW, each show is in the same universe, and characters often appear across each show.
Because the shows are so connected, they are very similar. Aside from some tonal differences, all four share the same shortcomings. For example, the visual effects are universally hampered by a relative lack of budget (a standard hour-long drama has a budget of $3-4 million; “The Flash” and “Arrow” are estimated to have a budget of $1.5-2 million). Actors are typically casted based on beauty rather than talent. The writing is ham-fisted and sometimes egregiously melodramatic, and that sappiness is definitely inflated by the corny soundtracks. However, the shows do have their own individual characteristics that either make or break them.
“Arrow,” the show that started it all, is ironically the one least worth watching. Its first two seasons, which are available on Netflix, are excellent. Unfortunately, the past three seasons have gone downhill.
The show suffers from its doom-and-gloom, dark personality. The writing is far too direct to successfully capture the moral anguish taking place inside Oliver Queen, a troubled billionaire turned bow-wielding vigilante. On top of that, the hand-to-hand combat has gotten tiresome over five years, and there hasn’t been a truly compelling villain since Slade Wilson, the heartless mercenary better known as Deathstroke, stole the show in season 2.
The newest addition to the roster, “Supergirl,” benefits from a lighter tone and more varied action scenes. What really defines this show, though, is the titular hero. Kara Danvers (Supergirl) is played wonderfully by Melissa Benoist, who is perhaps the best performer out of all four shows.
While the focus on Supergirl as a feminist icon is respectable, it’s sometimes tampered by the heavy-handed writing, with characters expressing their feelings in such a direct way that it leaves no room for the viewer to analyze or interpret a character’s emotions. Many viewers with even the slightest discomfort at such feminism were turned off by the show’s message of “girl power.” Although it is sometimes groan-inducing in its cheesy sentimentality, the CW deserves to be noticed for its devotion to adding gender diversity in a typically masculine genre.
Like “Supergirl,” “Legends of Tomorrow” is best when it tries to be fun. Its concept — a group of C-list heroes and villains who team up to travel through time and defeat threats against humanity — allows almost endless possibilities.
In its first season, the group travelled to the 70’s, the 50’s, the wild west and hundreds of years into the future. That, coupled with a clever group dynamic, allows for a guaranteed hour of stress-relieving fun every Thursday. Unfortunately, plot holes arise around the time-traveling scenarios, and some unnecessary group romances keep the show from reaching its full potential.
The crown jewel of the CW’s superhero schedule is certainly “The Flash,” which is as close to truly high-quality entertainment as you’ll get with this lineup. “Glee” alumnus Grant Gustin proves exceptional in a field of iffy actors, playing speedster Barry Allen to perfection. At once both charming and awkward, Gustin has propelled the show forward, although he is certainly aided by a surprisingly well-written supporting cast.
The first two seasons let loose some glorious highs and legitimate sadness; in fact, “The Flash” may be the only source of genuine emotion out of all four shows. The third season, airing now, continues that trend while adding some more speedsters and Tom Felton (of “Harry Potter” fame) to keep things fresh.
Although they don’t lack in shortcomings, all of these shows are a fun escape that work best when offering heroics and avoiding attempts to explore darker or more complex themes that are being handled with much more nuance on different series.
Superheroes are meant to save the day — sometimes, all that takes is an hour of decent television.
Arrow: 2/5 stars
Supergirl: 3/5 stars
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow: 3.5/5 stars
The Flash: 4/5 stars