Fall Premieres 2014: The CW

AntennaFallCWFox 3While we’ve not yet reached the point where the trades refuse to accept The CW as a broadcast network, there’s no longer any faith that any of its shows will break out and signal a new era for The CW. This isn’t to say that they’re not trying new things: Jane the Virgin wears its telenovela origins on its sleeve, for example, in a direct effort to appeal to Latino/a viewers, while The Flash joins Arrow in seeking young male viewers to go with the young female viewers who are most aware of the network and its programming. But as long as The CW largely ignores comedy and works tirelessly to capture millennial viewers who are by far the most evasive generation, it seems difficult to imagine a scenario where this strategy does anything but run them in circles around attractive teenagers.

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THE FLASH [Premiered Oct 7, 2014]

In this spinoff of Arrow, the DC Comics universe expands to Barry Gordon, who gains unexpected powers following a tragic explosion and wakes up with a new, motion-blurred view of the world, one that sheds light on tragic details from his childhood.

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Paul Booth, DePaul University

Full disclosure. I have never read any of The Flash comics. But I was a big fan of the 1990 CBS version of the show, and I love the current CW show Arrow, which spawned the current CW version. I have no knowledge of the character Barry Allen nor if creator Greg Berlanti is screwing up the mythology or not. But, because I watch Arrow each week, I have a number of Wikipedia sites and DC pages bookmarked to aid my understanding of each hint and nudge towards the larger mythos. Gorilla Grood? Can’t wait!

But here’s the crux: Is Flash a good show? It may be too soon to tell, but I really enjoyed the humor, especially at the beginning, and the hints towards a larger mystery—indeed, the fact that (spoiler alert) time travel might be involved really makes me eager to see where (when) they’re going. But I’m sure it’s not a spoiler to reveal that The Flash illustrates DC’s major problem with women. While both Iris (Candice Patton) and Dr. Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) are supposed to be smart female characters (despite the fact Iris seemingly doesn’t know how to backup her dissertation on Dropbox), they are also both hindered with awkward and unnecessary relationship baggage – and Dr. Snow is even told to “smile more.” Yikes.  But if The Flash can move beyond the trappings of teen angst, there’s the possibility of a truly interesting sci-fi show at its heart.

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Bradley Schauer, University of Arizona

Whereas Gotham, unable to use the most popular superhero on the planet, must struggle to establish its generic identity, The Flash can dive right in, with Barry Allen in costume 35 minutes into the series. This was a strong pilot, establishing a number of interesting narrative threads in a way that felt tantalizing more than overstuffed. Grant Gustin is a bit bland in that CW way, but he’s likable enough and provides a different type of male protagonist than Stephen Amell’s macho Oliver Queen (who appears in a gratuitous but inevitable cameo). I hope to see a little more wit and humor from Barry as the show progresses — boyish earnestness only gets you so far, and the Wally West version of the character always provided a welcome tonic to the grimness of most of DC’s other superheroes.
The Flash does reflect co-writer and co-producer Geoff Johns’ take on superheroism, in which a murdered parent is the only possible motivation for becoming a superhero; but it wisely focuses on Barry’s relationship with the living parent rather than a grim obsession with his dead mother. The supporting cast is appealing from top to bottom, particularly Jesse L. Martin — and hey, it’s TV’s Ed, everybody! Checking some of the comics message boards, I’m disheartened (and, as a comics reader, embarrassed) to see that much of the discussion has been about casting a black actress as Iris West. Comics fans really don’t deserve nice things, do they? Besides adding some diversity to the Flash’s lily white Silver Age world, the casting of Candice Patton also perhaps helps the audience forget that Barry is crushing on (essentially) his stepsister. I’m with Iris on this — it’s a little creepy. But I look forward to following the expansion of the CW/DCU, as B and C list characters like Vibe and Firestorm begin to show up, and more of the Rogues are introduced. For all of its awkward struggles on the silver screen, DC has proven quite adept (since Batman: The Animated Series, really) at adapting its superhero properties for television.
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Jenna Stoeber, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The premiere of The Flash is so predictable, there’s no real need to bring you up to speed. Every choice is safe, in a timidly bland way. We are introduced to a whole cast of characters that fit neatly into tropes: love interest, love-triangle-rival, alternate love interest, secret villain. In true/bad comic book form, Barry Allen’s mother is introduced, then fridged in literally the very next scene. Everybody announces their emotions outright, presumably because it’s too hard to make facial expressions that say “I was worried about you” or “I’m sad.” Other times, characters blurt out their backstories so awkwardly that I felt uncomfortable seeing it, like being stuck in an elevator with a couple of strangers having an argument. The climactic moment- wherein Flash has to spin counter-clockwise against a tornado to dissipate its energy- is so awkwardly contrived that it made me seriously doubt the show’s ability to find a problem every week that can be solved with running really fast.

There are so few chances taken that it’s hard to find anything specifically good to say about it. About the only notable thing in the episode is the special effects, which were surprisingly good, given the difficulty in making running fast look interesting and cool. In the end, the show doesn’t do much wrong and it doesn’t do much right. The Flash will likely survive long enough to develop a fan-base, but there’s no guarantee it will ever find its footing.

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JANE THE VIRGIN [Premiered Oct 13, 2014]

What would happen if a twenty-something virgin was accidentally artificially inseminated? And what would happen if the sperm involved was attached to an absurdly contrived set of circumstances that create legitimate tension over whether or not the pregnancy should be terminated? Jane the Virgin is here to tell this story.

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Melissa A. Click, University of Missouri

Jane the Virgin is one of the best pilots I’ve seen this fall. Based on the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen, the series follows 23 year-old Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), a virgin who is accidentally artificially inseminated while at a routine checkup. Building on the telenovela’s strengths as a genre, the series lays out a complicated story—a story that would take many paragraphs to explain with clarity. Suffice it to say that it will take the whole season to untangle Jane’s life, which until the accidental insemination, had been meticulously planned. The story, adapted and produced by Jennie Snyder and Ben Silverman, is reminiscent of Ugly Betty, yet thankfully lacks that series’ endless jokes about Betty’s appearance.

Unlike many of the other female characters on The CW, Jane is honest, thoughtful, and principled; she truly wants to do the right thing. The trouble is that everyone in her life—from her grandmother (Ivonne Coll), who likens Jane’s virginity to a flower (if crumpled, “you can never get it back!”), to Jane’s boyfriend (Brett Dier) who proposes to Jane on the same day she learns she is pregnant—has a different opinion about what Jane should do. The series’ complex story is strengthened by its playful narrator (Anthony Mendez) and Jane’s wild telenovela-inspired daydreams. Such devices remind the viewer of the implausibility of the story, but they skillfully anchor the series in its Latin roots and help it stand out among the CW’s standard fare. And Jane the Virgin should stand out—put this one in your weekly line up!

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Kyra Hunting, University of Kentucky

Jane the Virgin’s most obvious asset is the actress playing its titular character, Gina Rodriguez. Ms. Rodriguez was instantly charming and expressive in a way that added depth to often funny but occasionally awkward dialogue. While the narrator as a device is one that I have largely been burnt out on, in this case I found its storytelling capacity and tone deeply appealing (and oddly evocative of Pushing Daisies). I entered the first episode deeply skeptical about what seemed like an unsupportable premise and was impressed by how intrigued – and sometimes surprised – I was by the series. While the Catholicism of Gina and her family is important, it is not the simplistic motivator that I had expected it to be, and so instead the series appears to offer a rare representation of faith on television that articulates it as important, complex, and sometimes influenced or complicated by the exigencies of real, messy life. In many ways the pilot episode suggests a series with a strong eye for effective diversity and cultural specificity done in subtle ways. It should particularly be applauded for having a very important, and complex and likable character, speaking almost exclusively in (subtitled) Spanish. While I still am skeptical of (and somewhat offended by) the way in which the series instigates the pregnancy, its ability to give Jane real agency and emotional depth, its offbeat humor, and its interesting family dynamic charmed me. Like fellow telenovela adaptation Red Band Society, it charmed me and I will likely continue to watch as long as it remains on the air – which I hope, but doubt, will be long enough to see her child go to preschool.

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Karen Petruska, University of California – Santa Barbara

With critics like the typically grumpy (and CW-disparaging) Bastard Machine, Tim Goodman, praising the heck out of this show, I pretty much expected the second coming of the Lord. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find the show is much harder to categorize, and that’s terrific. There’s plenty of potential for soapy drama, with rival lovers for our heroine, an absentee father back in town, and a ridiculous set of coincidences motivating all our characters to action. And yes, there’s a lot that is hard to swallow—an emotional doctor accidentally inseminates Jane with the ONLY sample cancer-stricken Rafael will EVER produce? (and that is among the least crazy elements of the show). But Jane the Virgin’s carefully calculated tone, balancing the craziness of its inspirational telenovelas with a lovely performance by Gina Rodriguez as Jane, intrigues more than it alienates. Jane also has two loving women in her life, grounding the otherwise whimsical series in the stuff of real life for a girl raised in a Latina, working-class matriarchy.

I’m not sure if this will be world’s slowest developing pregnancy, such that the program will sustain multiple seasons through it alone, or if it will find newer, crazier plot points down the road. I’m also not sure how this is a CW program, aside from the love triangle at its heart. Perhaps Jane is evidence of the CW working hard to defy expectations of what the network can be. But the part I’m most hesitant about is “baby as excuse for a love story,” a subgenre within which Knocked Up is my least favorite example. Should the writers remember that this pregnancy can provide an opportunity for Jane to learn more about who she is as an adult person, there may really be something unusual here beyond the tone.

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Sharon Ross, Columbia College Chicago

Te amo, JtV! And te quiero—because I want more! This telenovela-like pilot was utterly enchanting, waltzing gleefully through the premise of mistaken artificial insemination to settle warmly on a core of familial love and the unpredictability of charting one’s personal growth in relation to those around you. The acting was top-notch; it is not an easy thing to walk the fine line of genuine, dramatic moments and comedic whimsy but every actor pulled it off. This is a testament to skillful writing and production as well—from the pop-up type set that painted quick pictures of the characters tongue-in-cheek, to the true-to-life dialogue as Jane worked her way through dealing with her pregnancy and the ripple effect of this with her mother, grandmother, and boyfriend.

I am a cynical watcher, particularly when it comes to shows being highlighted in part for their diversity. JtV won me over quickly, however, creating depth for most of its characters (the conniving wife Petra could stand some backstory that I’m hoping will involve the tarot cards we kept seeing). This has the mark of Ugly Betty (Ben Silverman can be thanked for that), but with a gentler form of humor that lets you suspend disbelief just enough to embrace the emotional realism. By the end, I had enjoyable tears in my eyes, desperately wanted to see the next episode, and really wanted to have a grilled cheese sandwich. This show is like fabulous ice cream—the kind you go to a funky ice cream parlor for (green tea ice cream with chocolate chips); it’s sweet but not in an expected way, you won’t get the headache, and you sense that in the near future you’ll be returning to see what flavor emerges next.

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