(With over 500 shows airing each year, it’s only natural most television watchers eventually resort to binge-watching series. In my new column Binge Mode, I’ll be periodically sharing thoughts on the shows, old and new, I’ve been marathoning. As such, the following review contains spoilers for the entire season being discussed. Duh.)
With 376 episodes aired since its debut in October 2012, The CW’s Arrowverse has become the most sprawling, network-dominating franchise this side of Law & Order universe. Over that time, all of its long-running live-action shows – Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow – have calcified their serialized formula into an impressively reliable device for dense storytelling, building out unique worlds and personalities for each show within that similar framework.
Refined by over 260 hours of produced television, the CW DC formula is painstakingly familiar at this point, for better or worse: each one has pretty much the same strengths and weaknesses, similar abilities to deliver small scale spectacles while bumbling awkwardly to pace themselves through the massive episode count each show is given (for most, 22-24 episodes, with LoT and the recent addition Black Lightning offered shorter production orders). Bad romance plots and wonderfully crafted references to the DC multiverse, great production design and laughable special effects… to love the CW’s heartfelt, melodramatic, tiresomely lengthy universe is to take the good and the bad with each new season.
Recently, I sat down and watched through the first season of the C-List Super Hero Spin Off of the Arrowverse, Legends of Tomorrow, which aired in the spring of 2016 opposite the second halves of Arrow‘s fourth season, and The Flash‘s second season. On the surface, Legends of Tomorrow seemed like a shrewd, calculated bit of programming for The CW: take a bunch of actors the network loved, but couldn’t realistically keep involved on their current shows, and mush them together in Rip Hunter’s Waverider spaceship, Guardians and the Galaxy-ing the shit outta of their C-squad of heroes – The Atom, The White Canary, Firestorm, and Lincoln Burrows and Michael Scofield with cool guns – for the sake of filling the spring schedule with even more DC-flavored television.
The first few episodes of the series feel like a victim of the network’s focus group approach I noted above: the personalities of each character clashed together without much resonance, and outside of the mystery of “what time period are they going to travel to so they can make generic references?”, there wasn’t a lot of intrigue to Rip Hunter’s quest through time to stop Vandal Savage, and Legends of Tomorrow struggled to find its way early on. It takes until the sixth episode, “Star City 2046”, for even the plot to get interesting – and that’s only because the show teases us with Diggle’s son as Green Arrow, with a bitter, one-armed Oliver Queen to boot. But with the lamest incarnation of Deathstroke in recorded history, and the wasted opportunity of taking the The Dark Knight Returns reference even farther with a truly anti-capitalist Oliver, the small teases of character we’re offered with Captain Cold and White Canary in that episode are buried under the same bullshit that plagues the five episodes preceding it.
And then “Marooned” hits, a quasi-bottle episode that in theory would congeal the show’s individual aspects into something coherent, and instead mires the show in some of the clunkiest interpersonal relationship material I’ve seen in the Arrowverse (and this is a universe where Thea Queen’s had multiple romantic story lines). Of course, I’m talking about the Ray Palmer/Kendra Saunders love story, which initially debuts as a prime example of why these series should have shorter episode orders; left to fill space, the inclination to have these people fuck and get dramatic about it is run deeps through the heart of all the series I’ve mentioned so far, and it never feels like anything but a waste of time. In “Marooned”, which introduces this as a laughable love triangle between those two and Jefferson Jackson, it destroys any sense of momentum the season had been building to that point.
However, it’s the Ray/Kendra relationship that is the catalyst for the most interesting arc of the season, beginning in episode 9’s “Left Behind”. After being stranded in 1958 for two years, Ray and Kendra are “rescued” from the life they’ve built together, and brought back to the Waverider to resume their mission. This causes tension between them, because Ray wants to stay in 1960, and Kendra desperately wants to return to the mission of taking down Savage and saving The Timeline (the single most annoyingly overused phrase in the series, I might add): slowly, what appears to be a lame romantic dispute between two wildly underdeveloped characters, gives way to the deeper exploration of the series: what does it mean to be a hero?
That seed of an idea blossoms in the tenth episode, “Progeny”, is perhaps the first real episode of the series that is firing on all cylinders. When the team travels to 2147 to stop Savage from mentoring a young tyrant-in-waiting who is destined to unleash a virus on the world in 2166, the team has to reckon with the difficult decisions of trying to save the future. They attempt to kidnap the young bastard in the hopes of affecting the time line enough, but it doesn’t matter: as the characters are fond of saying through the series, “time wants to happen”, and suddenly the team is thrust into a debate about fate vs. destiny, and how much control we have over anything. While a thoroughly pedantic trope for a science fiction series to explore, Legends of Tomorrow takes this moralistic dilemma, and cuts it down into something more powerful as the season continues, culminating in the season’s penultimate episode, “Destiny”.
I’m willing to forgive a lot of the bullshit that comes between those two episodes – Kendra’s struggle to choose between Ray, and a dude she’s banged for over 4,000 years, silly politics involving the Time Masters council – because of how strong the thread is between “Progeny” and “Destiny”, and how it represents a truer vision for the potential of the series. In “Destiny”, each member of the time traveling team has to decide what their impact on the time line is going to be: what makes our lives memorable, to ourselves and the ones we love? When our lives inevitably end (again, time really wants to happen), do we want society to remember a heroic action, or our friends to remember the smaller moments that unite us? Without a family, can one be remembered at all?
When the series began, Rip Hunter brought each character on board under the false pretense of their lives being insignificant (he really wanted to flip a middle finger to the genocidal time council that employed him, but that’s besides the point): he offered them the opportunity to be legends, to leave an impact on the entire time line of history. “Progeny” forced characters to reckon with the ambiguity of saving the world from its own future: how do you know what will make you remembered as a “good person”? Is it the one heroic action you commit, or the sum of everything you decide to do in life? Other shows like The Good Place or BoJack Horseman have very definitive answers for this question: Legends of Tomorrow doesn’t, often exploring the idea that the universe is so fucking random, there’s often no way to tell what will end up being the right or wrong decision, the heroic or the cowardly, the legendary or the dangerously misguided.
Ultimately, Legends of Tomorrow posits, is that we can try and shape our destiny however we may – but our attempts to do so dishonestly have consequences. Captain Cold is able to redeem himself as a somewhat honorable man, but does so at the cost of his life: and on the other side of the coin, Rip Hunter’s selfish parade through time guarantees he can never save his own family, blinded by his own pain and driven by egotistical notions that he, and only he, could save the time line from the powers that be. Where Legends of Tomorrow really found its stride was in those moments: propelled by those two lead stories, normally lame B-plots like Martin trying to be fatherly to Jackson have a lot more pathos, grounding their silly inter-generational bickering in something much more emotional as Martin tries to guide Jackson to being, essentially, a better version of himself.
The season finale “Legendary”, is a bit of a letdown from the high of “Destiny” – but after 17 episodes of stretching out maybe seven episodes of actual story, it’s no surprise the final episode runs on fumes until it drops its obtuse references for what’s to come in season two, in the form of a dude named Rex Tyler who can’t land a time ship worth a damn. Again, it’s emblematic of DC shows as a whole: great premieres that don’t hit second gear until halfway through, followed by a strong second act that slowly dissolves into nonsensical chaos as it barrels towards a climatic showdown, before hitting the semi-reset button and signing off for the season.
But for those five episodes where Legends of Tomorrow really hits its stride and becomes the swashbuckling time adventure it promised (save for a super lame Jonah Hex appearance in an otherwise strong hour in the Wild West), DC’s strange spin off series offers a glimpse of a series on a slightly smaller scale, with much bigger – and much more promising – ideas and worlds to explore. With its fourth season scheduled to begin in October, there’s certainly plenty of…. time for them to figure it out (yes, that’s a fucking lame way to end a review, and I’m going to own it. Set time drive to max, Gideon!)
– I can’t get over how lame the Hawkgirl material is for pretty much the entire season. If Hawkgirl isn’t thinking about a man, she doesn’t really have much to do but spar with White Canary (inadvertently teasing a much, much more interesting potential romantic pairing).
– The dissonance between the younger and older halves of Firestorm are perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the show: Victor Garber outshines Franz Drameh in every scene of the series, something that feels both a byproduct of writing and performance for the characters of Martin and Jefferson.
– I still don’t understand the convoluted history between Hawkgirl/Hawkman and Vandal Savage, and I do not wish to.
– Caity Lotz and her stunt double run circles around everyone in this series; White Canary’s fight scenes are always more kinetic and powerful than anyone else’s (maybe because most of them rely on SFX magic, but there’s still some impressive work done by all the White Canaries on set).
– Rip Hunter fucking suuuucks, and boy, does the third act of this season realize it just in time (I gotta stop making these terrible jokes, I’m sorry).
– the costuming on this show really needs to take some direction from the Timeless production crew: the difference in the two shows and their ability to convey time periods is almost baffling.
– Hawkgirl is in her suit so little compared to the other characters on this show, it is silly.
– Heat Wave’s arc this season is all over the fucking place, but I really like the underlying dynamic of a lost soul just trying to find a home where he – in all his crazy, wildly violent ways – felt like he belonged.
– the Captain Cold/White Canary romance that suddenly appears at the end of “Destiny” is so fucking lame, it hurts.
– thanks for checking out my new, semi-regular column! I may or may not write more about Legends of Tomorrow in the future; if you have a show you think I should binge and write about, let me know!
The Mid-Season Replacements Podcast Episode 4: “Layers of Infinitude”
On this week’s show, Randy and Ricky reflect on iconic crossovers and career-defining performances.
Multiverses may fall, but The Mid-Season Replacements are forever! On this week’s episode, Randy is joined by guest host (and Goomba Stomp founder/editor-in-chief) Ricky D to talk about The CW’s blockbuster crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the larger Arrowverse as a whole. Their conversation then shifts to talk about Kobe Bryant’s final NBA game, and how it mirrored the complicated life arc of a cultural icon. The show wraps up with a reader question, and a brief February 2020 preview – enjoy!
Opening Clip: Supergirl Season 5, Episode 9 -“Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part I” (voice of LaMonica Garrett as The Monitor)
The Mid-Season Replacements Podcast is a weekly show hosted by Goomba Stomp and TV Never Sleeps’ Randy Dankievitch and Sean Colletti, with new episodes debuting every Tuesday evening.
Arrow Season 8 Episode 9 Review: “Green Arrow and the Canaries”
Arrow looks to the future in an intriguing, clumsy penultimate episode/backdoor pilot.
It’s not often the penultimate episode of a long-running series is constructed as a backdoor pilot to a spin-off. But even rarer is a show heading into its final two hours with its titular character already enjoying a hard fought, well earned dirt nap after casually saving the universe – a fate both hero and viewers alike were aware of well over a year ago. It is under those strange, post-Crisis on Infinite Earths circumstances that “Green Arrow and the Canaries” exists, a backdoor pilot trying to leap frog off a near-decade of world and character building, to continue building the next generation of Arrowverse heroes alongside shows like Supergirl and Batwoman.
It is tough to strike a balance to find between carrying the torch of an iconic series, while still finding room for its own identity; that is the challenge facing both Mia and Arrow, as the Arrowverse looks to its next generation of storytelling.
As Arrow – and inevitably, The Flash – ride off into the sunset, The CW’s grasped the opportunity to diversify its starting lineup, on full display during the five-part Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover. No longer is the Arrowverse just led by Oliver Queen, Barry Allen, and Rip Hunter: with characters like Jefferson Pierce, Sara Lance, and now Mia Queen-Smoak, the Arrowverse is heading into the next decade with a refreshed starting lineup, a creative re-invigoration that reverberates through “Green Arrow and the Canaries” in some really interesting, if limited, ways.
Like most of the CW’s attempts to introduce new characters and worlds, “Green Arrow and the Canaries” is an awkward mash of ideas and tones, establishing a new Star City in 2040 post-Crisis, with all the inconceivably ridiculous machinations it takes to get there. Frankly, it does not do a great job of catching anyone up who is new to the Arrowverse, or is checking in with the final few episodes of Arrow to see what’s next: anytime it tries to explain how Mia lost her memories of 2020 (and how Dinah Drake ended up in 2040 Star City), “Green Arrow and the Canaries” strains credulity with its own premise.
Though, there is something to say for the episode’s very Legends of Tomorrow-esque approach to not really giving a fuck: we get cool shots of Dinah singing in a bar she owns (under her apartment, which looks like it is in the original clock tower Sara used as a hideout? Please don’t quote me on this if I am wrong), and it never lingers too long on trying to justify its existence. After all, how do you logically explain how the Earth-2 version of Laurel Lance, a Dinah who hasn’t aged in 20 years, and Oliver Queen’s adult daughter end up working on the same case (trying to find a kidnapped granddaughter of the Bertonelli family)? Smartly, “Green Arrow and the Canaries” only makes a few flimsy attempts before saying fuck it, and running with its narrative.
It makes for a fairly engaging experiment; with Mia Queen at the center, “Green Arrow and the Canaries” basically hits the reset button on Arrow‘s story of legacy, with Oliver as the deceased patriarch of the family, and Mia facing a world without either of her parents around (they do not mention Felicity at all, which is… very weird). How does someone follow in the footsteps of the man who saved the entire universe? “Green Arrow and the Canaries” doesn’t directly attack this issue, but the pressure of reputation, and the echoes of the trauma of losing him, provide this potential spin-off with an interesting emotional framework.
It also features Black Siren, as the Kate Cassidy redemption tour continues; after years being stuck in a laughably thin character (and equally limited performance), the integration of Earth-2’s badass, morally ambiguous Laurel Lance was a boon for Arrow‘s late season resurgence – a renaissance that welcomely continues into this new series, channeling Laurel-2’s goth bitchiness into a powerful, driven portrayal of a rich supporting character.
“Green Arrow and the Canaries” is not without its limitations, though: despite the inherent pleasure of seeing these three characters team up together (and the simple fact it is vastly superior to the languid, mediocre Batwoman), the actual dramatic arc of the episode is cookie cutter material, formulaic in the way any experienced Arrow or The Flash viewer will recognize. There’s plenty of intriguing potential here (like the maybe-return of Deathstroke 3.0, as Mia’s now-estranged fiancee), but unlike Legends of Tomorrow or Black Lightning, “Green Arrow and the Canaries” doesn’t really introduce any wrinkles to the well-worn Arrowverse storytelling formula, which could quickly lead any spin-off down a disappointing road of dwindling returns.
The Arrowverse as a whole is in a strange place; as The Flash winds down (or at least, appears to be), Legends of Tomorrow continues to fucking rule, and shows like Supergirl and Black Lightning cement their place in The CW’s lineup, the massive universe Berlanti and company have built (and with Crisis, completely integrated) is both on a promising path, and heading toward a critical crossroads.
If “Green Arrow and the Canaries” becomes Green Arrow and the Canaries, it must be careful not to follow in the footsteps of the disappointing Batwoman (which suffers from the unwieldy combination of poor plotting and dismal performances). Following the series that started it all is a challenging affair, and one that comes with the high stakes of tainting what came before it (after all, it wasn’t long ago that Mia Queen-Smoak was one of Arrow‘s weakest points, through most of season seven’s flashbacks).
But there’s a lot of potential here; if Green Arrow and the Canaries harnesses the energy of its central trio, it could be so much more than a carbon copy of its hallowed predecessor – which, at its worst moments, briefly turning Dinah into Felicity and Mia into proto-season one Oliver, it comes dangerously close to being. It’s tough to strike a balance between carrying the torch of an iconic series, while still finding room for establish a new identity; that’s the challenge facing both Mia and Arrow in “Green Arrow and the Canaries,” as the Arrowverse continues to look for the anchor of its next generation of storytelling.
“Crisis on Infinite Earths” Concludes By Going Big… and Going Home
Crisis ends, and DC’s television universe looks towards a bright future.
After three hours of thrilling cameos, bold narrative design, and clumsy dramatic crescendos, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” returned to air its final two episodes, concluding what’s been arguably the most ambitious experiment on a broadcast network post-LOST. Its final two parts – aired as the ante penultimate episode of Arrow, with Part V serving as the Legends of Tomorrow season premiere – are much like the three that aired in December; equally ridiculous and resonant, able to transcend an undercooked central premise with a combination of heart and humor unlike anything else in the superhero genre.
Equally ridiculous and resonant, Crisis on Infinite Earths transcends an undercooked central premise with a combination of heart and humor unlike anything else in the superhero genre.
“Part V” particularly benefits from being able to serve two critical roles: it serves as both a testament to the core characters of the DC-CW universe and their continued legacy on the network, as well as a poignant reflection on the impending departure of Green Arrow. And despite the obvious similarities, it would be a little simplistic to call Crisis on Infinite Earths the Endgame of the DC Universe: through characters like Sara Lance, Black Lightning, and The Flash, Crisis – and Part V in particular – is a reminder that even 500+ episodes into its universe, there’s still a bright future ahead for its super powered paragons.
That being said, let’s be honest: “Part IV” is a hot goddamn mess, rush through a web of silly plot twists and unnecessarily drawn-out scenes, that builds to one of the most laughably incoherent action climaxes of recent memory. Watching the heroes fight anti-matter ghosts was bad in “Part I” – by the time we get to the end of “Part IV,” and Ollie the Spectre is trading energy beams with the Anti-Monitor while everyone else stands around punching the air, the conceit of the whole endeavor almost falls flat on its face.
The only reason it doesn’t is because of what comes before it; though it is understandable to criticize “Part IV” for the strange collection of brief flashbacks into Oliver’s past (experienced by our paragons as they exist within the Speed Force), there’s a certain balance between chaos and clarity that’s found in the random assortment of moments The Flash, Supergirl, and company experience. The Speed Force is an unruly, uncontrollable force, and “Part IV” establishes the difficulty of their ability to even exist in such a state: given that, it makes sense that much of what we experience in the Speed Force is unsatisfying, or feels like it is missing out on key moments.
There’s no doubting how clumsy everything around it is: from the Monitor’s origin story, to the inexplicable beard Ray Choi grows, much of “Part IV” feels like filler material, hamster wheeling its way to its final two minutes, where the paragons…. look up a CGI hill, and think really hard about what they’re the paragon of? While the notions behind the final moments of “Part IV” are certainly noble – the idea that the super friends’ greatest powers are not their physical attributes – the execution is sloppy at best, and teeters towards being utterly ludicrous in its most critical moments.
But when the Anti-Monitor’s siege is (temporarily) defeated, Crisis on Infinite Earths drops the entertaining, if superficial conceit of unpredictable cameos and absolutely insane world building and turns towards deifying Green Arrow. And though it falls utterly flat in landing its emotional beats in “Part IV” (admittedly, it’s hard to take anything seriously after the Climactic Collection of Stares), once Crisis leaves Arrow to move to Legends of Tomorrow, all the pieces begin coming together, to deliver a rather touching homage to the long shadow cast by Stephen Amell’s impending departure.
By centering on The Flash and Sara, two characters who spend most of the episode refusing to believe Oliver doesn’t exist in this new universe (where every character in the DCTV universe has been integrated into one world), “Part V” is able to grasp an emotional thoroughline “Part IV” is way too busy to find. Especially with Sara Lance; as she reflects on her journey from philandering sister, to dead assassin, to captain of a MF’in time ship, Crisis finds resonance in Oliver’s departure, and how that has a rippling effect on every hero left behind.
Even more interesting is how the subtext of Sara’s reflections give voice to the anxiety of uncharted seas lying ahead for the minds behind the DC television universe: without their original protagonist, their dramatic bedrock of nearly a decade, there is a changing of the guard happening on both sides of the camera. Positing Sara as the de facto protagonist moving forward is a logical move: her journey to becoming a true leader on Legends of Tomorrow might be the single most satisfying arc of this entire dramatic experiment, something “Part V” openly acknowledges as it begins to fill in the landscape of its new shared universe.
By the time “Part V” ends (which, let’s be honest, it takes a long time to get to), there’s a Hall of Justice, a Super Friends table, a brand new conflict for Supergirl to face, and plenty of intriguing new threads for its new and returning series to explore in the coming months and years. The impact of Crisis will ripple through the DC televerse for years to come, and that’s an exciting creative kick start for some of its long running series: though sometimes Crisis certainly feels more interesting to dissect than it is to actually experience, the impact of its conclusion offers infinite potential to rejuvenate series like The Flash, and a fresh slate for shows like Black Lightning, the new Lois and Clark series, and the upcoming Stargirl to begin building a new, more refined foundation on.
Though the minute-to-minute quality of Crisis on Infinite Earths is wildly uneven – and ultimately, it comes up dramatically short in its climactic moments – it is undeniably one of the most exciting television events in recent memory, a crossover that should be lauded for its sheer ambition, and heartfelt delivery. Though the Arrowverse will be losing its bedrock when Arrow departs the air at the end of January, “Part V” proves the new, post-Crisis universe is clearly in good hands heading into the new decade.
It is not surprising the two MVP’s of the entire crossover are both Legends of Tomorrow regulars: Brandon Routh pulling dual roles before his own swan song from the universe (“Wait… there was a Super-me?”) and Caity Lotz absolutely fucking chewing scenery in the final half of “Part V”.
Best moment of the crossover? I mean, it’s gotta be the scene with Ezra Miller and Grant Gustin, right? Extremely impressed how they kept that cameo under wraps. The Doom Patrol dance is probably a close second, though.
Swamp Thing cameo!
The sidelining of Constantine in the final two parts is a bummer, though I guess having a dude who can access the world of the dead might make the whole eulogizing Green Arrow thing weird.
Gotta say it: it sucks there was no Felicity in “Part IV” or “Part V”.
Mick Rory the author continues to be the greatest subplot of the DC universe.
Unfortunately, Batwoman sticks out as the weakest part of the new Super Friends lineup. I want to like Ruby Rose in the role, but it’s just not working for me, at least so far.
It is no surprise the best episode of the five-part series is the Legends of Tomorrow season premiere.
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