The importance of not underestimating the CW

Contributed by
Nov 28, 2017

LGBTQ issues. The 2016 presidential election. Everyday heroes. Diverse representation. If you're surprised that any or all these issues have been thematic undercurrents within shows currently airing on the CW, you haven't been paying attention.

Since the CW made its debut in 2006, it’s carved out space for itself as the prime network for a young adult audience - but it’s within the last few years that some of its newest shows have found ways to smartly address some of the most pervasive subjects in the real world. Next to networks more famous for airing so-called “prestige” television, the CW may actually be rising in the ranks, with enduring series like The Flash and new additions like Riverdale proving to be as popular as second-season acquisitions like Supergirl. In short: it shouldn’t be overlooked - not just for the shows it’s adding to its roster now but also for the subjects it shines a spotlight on.

At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss Supergirl as the type of show that wouldn’t necessarily be relevant on a number of levels - but after making the transition over to the CW for its second season, it has managed to be both cleverly subversive and blatantly referential in tying its stories to the cultural climate. Nothing about the show feels overly politicized, but there are undeniable parallels to be drawn between the fictional National City’s alien registry and the current presidential administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. And real-life inspiration can easily be cited for several of the series’ one-off male villains referring to certain female characters as “nasty women,” whether they’re villains themselves or not. While some of the more obvious resistance buzzwords have occasionally popped up in the show’s dialogue, another place they’re less obviously incorporated is within the episode titles themselves. Supergirl’s two-part season two finale, which was touted as some of the series’ best episodes yet, were dubbed “Resist” and “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”

One of Supergirl’s main stories last season was relevant irrespective of timing. The show offered a representation of relatable LGBTQ issues while also pairing two characters off in one of its most popular relationships. When Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) realized she was having feelings for Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima), a significant early portion of the show's second season was devoted to her exploration of her own sexuality - as well as the journey of coming out to her family, including Kara (Melissa Benoist). Audiences praised the show for providing a jumping-off point to have similar conversations in their own homes, and by the time the second season wrapped up it was Alex and Maggie (given the portmanteau “Sanvers” by fans) who represented one of the most stable relationships on the show. Although the future of the ship wasn't a lasting one - the couple broke up after Lima decided to leave the show - the importance of Sanvers within the scope of representation on the network should still be recognized, and, if anything, indicates the need for more queer relationships on television in the future.

The Flash can be examined in a similarly critical light, considering that the two characters shared a crossover episode even when Supergirl was still on a different network and several more crossovers since the Supergirl's transition from CBS to the CW. Out of the roster of shows that are currently airing on the CW as a part of the DCTV universe, it can be argued that The Flash and Supergirl are also closest in overall tone. But while Supergirl definitely benefitted from the switch to the CW - and not just because it positioned Kara alongside her fellow superheroes - The Flash geared up to air what could still be one of its most daring seasons yet, and it all revolved around what happened when The Flash himself wasn't there to rush in and save the day.

At the end of season three, Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) made the decision to enter the Speed Force - partly to atone for his actions earlier in the season which contributed to the alternate universe called "Flashpoint," but also to ensure the safety of Central City and those he cared for. In the time between Barry's departure and the return that was teased out in season four, it was up to the team he's left behind to protect people. And although "Team Flash" is made up of both superpowered metahumans and ordinary individuals, the show positioned Iris West (Candice Patton), Barry's fiancee, as the de facto leader. This matters not just because Iris doesn't have powers of her own but because over the course of the previous season, she wasn't given all that much to do, narratively speaking. The majority of her last story arc revolved around Barry trying to save her from a seemingly inevitable death at the hands of one of his toughest enemies, so Iris becoming the leader of the team in his absence is proof that The Flash can take turns centering characters and giving them more equal narrative footing - not an easy task for a series with a big cast. As the season continues Iris has not only remained an integral part of the team, but she's also begun to strengthen her relationships with other characters outside of her romantic pairing with Barry.

Riverdale also had to juggle quite a few narrative balls over the course of its freshman season - and all with a particularly large ensemble, to boot. There's a lot that may not make complete sense about Riverdale on the surface - a murder mystery rocks the small town that, up until recently, had been associated with the vibrant happiness of classic Archie Comics. But fans of more recent Archie-related fare know that the town of Riverdale has lent itself to darker storytelling over the last few years. In any one issue, Archie Comics has tackled everything from zombies to the Predator. But as the franchise has evolved over the years, so have its characters - and with this latest adaptation, the cast of Riverdale is diverse in a way many teen-centric shows haven't been in previous seasons.

The first season stumbled a bit in terms of the amount of screen time that was afforded to people of color on Riverdale - but the opportunity is still there. Veronica Lodge isn't just a brunette, she's played by Brazilian-American actress Camila Mendes. Reggie Mantle, all-American jock and a traditionally white character, was played by Asian-American actor Ross Butler in season one - though the role was handed off to AsAm actor Charles Melton in the second season. Josie and the Pussycats, the most popular band in Riverdale, is made up of three young Black actresses - Ashleigh Murray, Asha Bromfield and Hayley Law. Series creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has spoken several times about wanting the show's inclusive casting to be more reflective of the real world. Now that we're firmly in season two, there's every potential for Riverdale to build on what it's already established when it comes to representation on television. Josie and Reggie, two characters that were mostly sitting off to the sidelines in season one, are now much more enmeshed in the stories that are being told in season two.

Looking ahead to new programming, the CW appears to be making more great strides. Black Lightning, an upcoming series featuring the comic book character of the same name, will feature a retired black superhero returning to a life of crimefighting when his community is threatened by increasing gang activity - all while maintaining a relationship with his two young daughters. It’s a concept that shouldn’t be all that revolutionary at this stage, but in the face of perpetual conversations surrounding race and diversity on television feels like a breath of fresh air for a network that continues to expand its horizons.

Of course, it's difficult not to discuss the subject of the network itself without also addressing the recent allegations that have surfaced against Andrew Kreisberg, a showrunner for two of the aforementioned CW shows (The Flash and Supergirl). Newly airing episodes have come under scrutiny, cast in an unfortunate light as a result of Kreisberg's alleged harassment against his staff. That's not to say that these shows should be immune from criticism, and many of the critiques leveraged against both Flash and Supergirl in recent weeks have been valid.

However, when it comes to television, it's important to remember that the process of making a show takes more than one person to be successful. There are also the actors, writers, producers, and staff who voiced their commitment towards making these sets a safe and inclusive space for everyone - and it's because of these individuals that the future of these shows is more promising than ever. The CW has already taken significant steps forward on the small screen - not just in genre television, but also with shows like Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend which have tackled such issues as immigration reform and mental health, respectively. The slogan the CW has adopted for itself has never felt more apropos than it does right now: it’s daring to defy. Here's hoping it continues to do so.