Towards the end of the latest episode of The Flash, “The Nuclear Man,” a character who has just discovered he is literally a walking nuclear bomb about to go off engages in idle chatter with the hero, Barry Allen. What do they talk about? Barry’s anguished love life, of course, conveniently recalling a conversation the two once had about a girl Barry clearly fancied before dovetailing into your standard, “Dude, I’m about to die. Take it from me – Life is too short; go get the girl!” This was in an episode in which not once, not twice, but thrice did Barry show up at his sort-of new girlfriend’s job to discuss their love life (or lack thereof), and had to ask the girl he used to like but doesn’t anymore to let him move on and not sabotage his new relationship. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the episode a remarkably bizarre love triangle (or quadrangle) was emerging because two minds now occupied the same man’s body, forcing one man’s wife to converse with her husband while he’s in someone else’s body and leaving one man’s fiancé totally confused (i.e., he still looks like my fiancé, but he’s being controlled by a different person now). Oh, plus, there were needlessly shirtless, hot young men multiple times, with Grant Gustin and Robbie Amell both getting to show off all the hard work they clearly put into their abs and pectoral muscles. It was…just so CW.
What does that even mean? It’s the lingering assumption that all CW shows are basically about glamorous young people with not enough shirts to go around, all of them glorified teen soap operas, the comic book ones being teen soap operas with bad costumes. There are those who still won’t watch anything on The CW because they feel as if they’ve aged out of the network’s target demo just as there are those who have now given up on something like Arrow because after a surprisingly self-assured and solid start it just became too CW for its own good. However, if you love fantastical genre television The CW has quickly become mandatory viewing. In fact, they barely even have any normal shows anymore.
Jane the Virgin and Hart of Dixie are the only two shows on The CW right now which I would categorize as “normal,” although calling the telanovella world of Jane the Virgin “normal” is pushing it. However, that’s going up against a line-up of shows where everything else is vampires (Vampire Diaries, The Originals), comic books (Arrow, The Flash), dystopian futures (The 100), demons, angels and everything in-between (Supernatural) plus a period piece which continually hints at something supernatural ala Game of Thrones (Reign). New shows on the way (iZombie, The Messengers) and those coming back (Beauty and the Beast) offer more of the same fantastical television. The same goes for the four shows the network has in development at the pilot stage: Cheerleader Death Squad (described as Heathers meets Alias), Cordon (what happens to the people inside of a quarantined area of Atlanta during the early stages of a disease epidemic?), Dead People (about a semi-alcoholic cab driver who suddenly starts communicating with ghosts), and a reboot of horror anthology series Tales from the Darkside.
This has been an astonishing new direction for The CW, which going back to its WB/UPN days always had a couple of fantastical genre shows going (Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Angel to Smallville to Reaper to Supernatural) but never to the point of it being their primary focus. It was literally just a couple of years ago that The CW was still the network of Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, 90210, and The Carrie Diaries. So, there’s a good reason people thought of it as the teen soap opera channel.
However, what they’re doing now is totally working for them. Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez brought the network its first ever Golden Globe, and overall viewership is up 18%, 11% among 18-34-year-olds and 10% among 18-49-year-olds thus making this most watched season for The CW since 2011. In fact, thanks largely to Arrow and The Flash the gender gap among CW’s viewership is shrinking, going from just 30% male in 2010 to 40% male in 2015. It’s not like they totally lucked into this. According to CW president Mark Pedowitz, “We had a strategy, we stayed with the strategy. We recognized that what we were was a high-concept, genre, serialized comedy, serialized drama place […]The success of Arrow helped push one thing; the success this year of Flash and Jane helped another, and last year, The Originals, The 100 and Reign got us back going.”
When io9 wondered why exactly this strategy was working for The CW it concluded that it’s a combination of the confluence of cultural trends (booming YA novel market and comic book movies), The CW’s ability to be a niche network with lowered ratings expectations, and the failure of the SyFy Network to own the “soap opera with speculative fiction” space. As of late, SyFy has been desperately trying to vie for sci-fi respectability and notoriety (See: Ascension, Helix, Defiance, 12 Monkeys), but it’s not trying to do it in quite the same way. For example, while 12 Monkeys contains a potential romantic pair as its leading characters their sexual tension has not been the focus of the show, not in the way Barry’s lifelong crush on Iris has occasionally overtaken The Flash or Oliver and Felicity’s will they-just do it already has on Arrow. The same can be said for what some of the major networks do with similar genre shows. ABC’s first comic book show, Agents of SHIELD, has its own romantic drama, namely between Skye and Ward and Fitz and Simmons, but it doesn’t go about it by so transparently objectifying its actors and appealing to internet shippers.
To be fair, though, “Nuclear Man” was basically Flash’s Valentine’s Day episode, and as the episode had Barry’s two love interests (Iris West and Linda Park) flat out say out loud he’s never even had a girlfriend before. As a result, to this point in the show’s run Barry’s probably had just as many heart-to-hearts with father figures (he’s got 3 of them!) as he’s had lovelorn talks with Iris. Plus, despite Grant Gustin’s impressive physique the show hasn’t really stolen his shirt from him that often. That’s more of an Amell thing, with Stephen on Arrow and cousin Robbie first on The Tomorrow People and now as Firestorm on The Flash. This was really the show’s first chance to have fun in exploring the Kevin Smith-Mallrats joke: What is sex like for people with superpowers? It suggested that perhaps Barry’s going to have to find other ways to satisfy Linda (Dirty thought: We know he can vibrate his entire body. Do with that what you will) because superspeed’s not so much a good thing to have during sex, but it did so in a way that made sense for a show that airs in what used to be called the family hour of television (8 to 9 PM Eastern time, 7 to 8 PM Central time).
What made it seem so CW is that Barry kept improbably showing up at Linda and Iris’ job, who both appeared to clearly be walking from desk to desk in the manner that someone waiting to be interrupted by a boyfriend/friend does on a TV show. Iris is now being transitioned into the “she wants him because she can’t have him” phase of her romance arc with Barry, and on the other side of the episode Caitlin was dealing with her complicated feelings for Ronnie Raymond, who was needlessly shirtless for quite a while thus seriously not helping Caitlin’s confusion! The actual origin story the episode gave for Firestorm, which is a fusion of Ronnie Raymond and Dr. Martin Stein, worked well with surprisingly great special effects somewhat covering for Robbie Amell’s mediocre acting (making him do a Victor Garber impression was probably not a good idea).
Plus, while it was saddled with a love-it-or-hate-it running joke about a horny cougar (I kind of liked it) Joe and Cisco’s investigation into the death of Barry’s mom was anchored by another strong performance from Jesse L. Martin. It illustrated the show’s increasing willingness to explore new character pairings, i.e., Barry and Caitlin hanging out together at a karaoke bar last week, Joe and Cisco getting their CSI on this week. It also positioned “Nuclear Man” as the odd romance heavy episode to get through before things get sci-fi awesome now that we know for sure the adult Barry Allen was one of the two speedsters in the room the night his mom was murdered. Time travel, bitches!
I am reminded, though, of a recent Vulture.com review of Vampire Diaries in which the writer praised the show for delivering its first sex scene in what seemed like forever, joking, “It has been way too long since two people got naked on this show. I am here for the make-outs, mostly.” That is someone who knows why she watches Vampire Diaries, which for all of its vampire, supernatural craziness is truly about the continual and ever-shifting mating habits of its characters (OMG, Stefan and Caroline are taking forever to hook-up, right?). What do I watch The Flash for? I love comic books, Grant Gustin is a great leading man, and Tom Cavanagh is turning into a fantastic quasi-villain. I genuinely like Barry Allen and most of the characters on this show, and I want things to work out for them, not just romantically. However, when an episode like “Nuclear Man” comes along and foregrounds the romance in such predictably melodramatic ways I find myself rolling my eyes ever so slightly, thinking “Such a CW thing to do.” I felt kind of similar in the previous episode when Caitlin and Barry had a SnowBarry moment, even though I like those two together. I had a similar reaction when I recently watched my first episode of Reign, which was incredibly fun but by the end I lost count of how many romantic hook-ups either occurred or past hook-ups were referenced or future hook-ups were teased. But can you really blame something on The CW when it does something pretty much like you’d expect a CW show to do? Can you really be mad when your teen soap opera continues being a teen soap opera that also happens to have superheroes, supervillains, and now time travel?
THE BOTTOM LINE
I could have done with less Iris love triangle and Robbie Amell doing a Victor Garber impression, but this episode did have great special effects, fun interactions between Cisco and Joe, a killer cliffhanger ending, and just opened the pandora’s box to time travel.
1. Firestorm overheard the argument the team was having about what to do with him because they argue loudly. Did they really sound that loud to you?
2. So, it’s settled: Linda must be a close-eyed kisser (most people are, apparently). Otherwise, surely she would have seen Barry’s torso literally start to vibrate at the height of their makeout session.
3. I’d amost forgotten about General Eiling, ie., Mean Clancy Brown.
4. No one was curious where Dr. Wells got the material they used to create the quantum splicer?
5. Other things that people seem to associate with CW shows: Pretty cast members who are often objectified, mediocre acting, and sometimes rather cheap-looking production values. Supernatural is an obvious outlier, although when it started its two leads were basically gorgeous models. The Flash infrequently objectifies anyone in its cast, and while not all of the acting on display is amazing it’s rarely ever embarrassing. Plus, while the actual Flash suit still looks kind of off to me, the special effects and production values routinely land above my expectations. So, it’s not very often that I’ve written off an episode as just being a standard CW kind of thing, which is basically what I’m doing with “Nuclear Man.”
6. Full disclosure: I have yet to watch The 100. I get the impression that similar to Supernatural it may not actually be a totally stereotypical CW show despite having an attractive cast of young actors.
AVClub – “I wish I had a quantum splicer so I could separate the good stuff in ”The Nuclear Man” from the parts that don’t work at all.”
Hushcomics.com – “Hush Comics gives “The Nuclear Man” a C for pointless love story taking away from a much more important storyline happening all around it. Also for Robbie Amell, meh.”