The year in comic book TV: Go small or go home?

Senior Television Writer
12.16.14 31 Comments

FOX/CW/ABC

This is, to put it plainly, one hell of a time to be a comic book nerd.
All my favorite characters(*) are making the leap from the page to either the big or small screen. Marvel can seemingly do no wrong with its film output, turning an obscure and downright goofy property like “Guardians of the Galaxy” into one of the year's biggest and most beloved hits. TV's most popular comedy (“Big Bang Theory”) has a comic book shop as one of its primary sets, and a main character often seen in Flash and Green Lantern t-shirts. TV's most popular drama series (“The Walking Dead”) is based on a long-running comic book, and there are currently five other comic-based shows airing on the broadcast networks (ABC's “Marvel's Agents of SHIELD,” FOX's “Gotham,” NBC's “Constantine” and the CW's “Arrow” and “The Flash”), with more coming fast. (The CW has “iZombie” set for mid-season, Netflix will premiere four different Marvel series over the next four years, and adaptations of “Supergirl,” “Preacher,” “Lucifer” and more are in development.)
(*) Okay, maybe not my personal favorite Wonder Man, whom Joss Whedon said was basically the only Avenger he never wanted to put into a movie because, “I never did figure out what he was for.” My retort would derail this column, so let me simply point to this gif I made, featuring Wondy in the greatest of all his interesting costumes, along with the broad pro-Wonder Man argument.
These shows are becoming so pervasive that at Thanksgiving dinner, a cousin who reads my blog complained, “You need to stop writing about so many comic book shows.”
Comic books were, once upon a time, a mass audience product. At the peak of the medium's popularity during World War II, every boy, girl and G.I. Joe in America knew all about Superman and Batman. Eventually, though, they became a niche product, where an adaptation in a more mainstream medium – say, the campy '60s “Batman” TV show – could for decades define public perception not only of one character, but comics as a whole.
That's why the huge success of the Marvel films (and DC's attempt to imitate them by using the next Superman movie to jumpstart a Justice League franchise) has been so improbable, and so cool from the perspective of a lifelong fanboy. It's not just that so many of these films are huge hits that cross multiple demographic lines, but that they cover so many genres and tones, tied together mainly by the Marvel logo at the start of each film. They've taken something that was culturally marginal and made it very mainstream again, and it's easy to understand why the TV business in turn has treated comic books as the new gold rush territory. 
The hope was that these comic book shows with their familiar heroes and/or brand names could quickly find a mass audience in a fractured landscape where almost no new series does that anymore. But the one major commonality among all the current broadcast network comic book adaptations is the way they demonstrate that on television, comic books and superheroes are still very much a niche business.
Now, “Arrow” and “Flash” are two of the biggest hits the CW has ever had, and “Gotham” is FOX's biggest hit of the fall. But those successes are all relative, because the CW has such a small audience base to begin with, while most of FOX's schedule this fall has been a dumpster fire. NBC declined to give “Constantine” a full-season order (though there's still a chance it could get a second season), and “Agents of SHIELD” ratings are a fraction of where the show started last year. Just in terms of total live viewership, all these shows finish well behind the ongoing saga of that police superwoman CopMom MomCop (aka “The Mysteries of Laura”). And when I walk around in my Flash t-shirt these days, I get smiles and compliments, but almost always from “Big Bang Theory” fans (“Awesome Sheldon shirt!”) oblivious to the existence of the CW show.
There's nothing wrong with that, by the way. The anomaly has been the sweeping popularity of the comic book movies, not the more modest success of their TV counterparts. Comics are a niche market, and television has become a business of niches as well, with the likes of “Walking Dead” or “NCIS” – which soundly thumped “Agents of SHIELD” when ABC pitted the shows against each other last year in an act of scheduling hubris – growing increasingly rare. A comic book show is the exact kind of project a lower-profile network like the CW should have been trying, and executives there are rightly over the moon with how “Arrow” and “Flash” have done.
And creatively, these shows (even the mighty “Walking Dead”) have done their best when they haven't pretended that they can be all things to all people – and also when they've kept things relatively focused.
Not that any of its lost viewers have returned to notice, but “SHIELD” has turned from a bland procedural with vague superhero trappings into an entertaining and confident serial. It's finally taken advantage of its lower profile by having fun with some of the less in-demand characters and concepts from the vast Marvel Universe, whether with a convincing take on the Absorbing Man or Adrianne Palicki instantly taking over the show as Avengers C-lister Mockingbird. This used to simultaneously feel like a show mainly interested in brand extension (Here's what happened to that thing that fell to Earth at the end of “Thor: The Dark World”!) and like one ashamed of its own comic book origins; now it's gotten much better by concentrating on its own characters and stories, while celebrating whatever toys are available to it.  
“Arrow” also took advantage of the relative obscurity of its main character, which gave the writers the freedom to try any approach with him without upsetting their corporate bosses' larger media plans. Green Arrow's more important to the Justice League than Mockingbird is to the Avengers (he's a B-lister, at minimum), but still not someone who's likely ever going to be invited to be in a Zach Snyder movie. DC at the time didn't want to make a Batman TV show (and arguably still doesn't, but we'll get to that), but with Green Arrow – a character who began life as a shameless knockoff of the Caped Crusader – the creative team tapped into the character's origins as an imitation Batman to make what's essentially a Dark Knight series in everything but name.
And because that creative team (which includes longtime DC writer Geoff Johns) had a while to work out all the kinks, “The Flash” – more technically ambitious, and with a lighter and more optimistic tone than “Arrow” and the various Nolan/Snyder films – was able to (pardon the unavoidable pun) get up to speed almost instantly. These are two shows that don't require a PhD in superhero comics to follow – though there are plenty of Easter Eggs for the well-studied – but nor is there any of the embarrassed throat clearing whenever the source material gets too out-there. One of the “Flash” supporting characters, Cisco, is essentially an audience stand-in who asks nerdy questions about the limits of Barry's powers and comes up with colorful names for all his villains. (And, as a hat-tip to Sheldon Cooper's fashion sense, Cisco has been shown wearing a Bazinga! tee.)

“Gotham” is the comic show now most obviously suffering from the Too Many Cooks problem(**) that plagued “SHIELD” in its early days. The series has a lot of strong individual pieces – first among them Robin Lord Taylor's performance as Oswald Cobblepot, the future Penguin – that very rarely fit together into a cohesive whole. At one stage in development, it was just meant to feature the young Commissioner Gordon, plus early versions of Bat-villains, but at a certain point FOX pushed to be able use Bruce Wayne – even if he's a kid at least a decade away (i.e., never to happen on the show) from putting on the cape and cowl. This way, both sides get what they want – FOX can promote it as a Batman origin show, while DC makes sure there's no actual competing version of Batman to pull focus away from Ben Affleck – while “Gotham” itself gets weakened in the bargain.
David Mazousz and Sean Pertwee make a solid duo as Bruce and Alfred, but they're part of a show that's overcrowded, with a tone that's all over the map, so that early versions of iconic characters (say, a young Harvey Dent) are seemingly introduced because the network can put them in a promo, and not because there's any room for them in a busy ensemble. With young Master Bruce, the show is understandably taking its sweet time in following the step-by-step process this kid must follow to one day become Batman; with some of the villains (the future Two-Face is probably the worst offender here, as well), there's almost no room for them to grow as characters between now and when they adopt funny names and costumes. There are five or six different shows elbowing for room inside “Gotham”; any of them on their own could be very strong – the show's best episode by far concentrated entirely on the mob war and the way Oswald has been manipulating both sides – but that would first require the many people in charge to acknowledge the limitations of the show and the good-but-not-great size of its audience.
For that matter, while “SHIELD” and “Arrow” have a better sense of what they are at this point, both can still suffer from overcrowding in the supporting cast. But that's more a case of those shows trying to excite the pre-existing fans – Hey, kids! It's Wildcat! And the Atom! And maybe you'll like Roy and Laurel more if we put them in costumes! – than a futile, creatively self-destructive attempt to expand beyond the audience that's likely to watch a TV show about a vigilante archer with a hi-tech lair and a colorful rogues gallery. (“SHIELD” could stand to streamline its cast a bit, and my fear is that the recent storyline about Skye's origin will lead to more of the Marvel brand tail wagging the TV show dog; my hope is that the producers have figured out how to tease future movies without upstaging their own creations.)
If all these comic book shows are being made under the belief they can be as popular and broadly-appealing as the films, that ignores decades of history showing that certain genres do better on the big screen than the small. (See also science-fiction, where “Star Trek” is a blockbuster movie franchise and a TV cult success.) And if everyone's chasing “The Walking Dead,” then they're ignoring how that series – like “The X-Files” 20 years ago – is a nerd show in mainstream drag. It's based on a comic, and it has zombies, but the ongoing characters are presented as recognizable humans who just find themselves in an extraordinary situation. (The two characters from the comic who would seem most at home in a more traditional superhero title are the Governor and Michonne; not surprisingly, the TV show's fans never liked him much, and only warmed to her once she started being written as a person, rather than just a scowl with a samurai sword.)
But the fact that most of these shows are limited in their appeal is actually a feature, not a bug, in the ever-fracturing world of TV. The business is only going to grow more niche as time passes, not less. It's why FOX is keeping around a marginally-rated show like “The Mindy Project” simply because it generates passion among its small audience, and why NBC's recent plan to go with broader-appealing retro comedies like “Sean Saves the World” and “The Michael J. Fox Show” was doomed to failure. Once upon a time, the holy mission in TV development was to come up with shows that would appeal at least a little to as many people as possible. These days, the safer bet is finding something that a smaller group of people will care about, but that those who do will care about a lot. And these comic book shows at their best(***) all have the ability to do that. That's why Netflix invested in four years' worth of Marvel shows (most of them revolving around terrific but minor characters like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones) sight unseen, why Playstation is doing an adaptation of “Powers” (homicide detectives in a superhero-filled world) as a come-on to get more people using their streaming service, and why I wouldn't be in the least bit shocked if the trades report that shows about Squirrel Girl, Matter-Eater Lad and the Inferior Five are all in development this time next year. (I would also dare Joss Whedon to make a Wonder Man/Dazzler team-up show set in the '70s and not have it be entertaining as hell.)
(***) That includes “Constantine,” which still has lots of room for improvement – replacing the original female lead hasn't really fixed that part of the show, for instance – but which has from time to time felt like more than just a generic “Grimm” companion piece. The show's fourth episode, “A Feast of Friends,” locked in on one of the most interesting aspects of the various John Constantine comics – that Constantine, while on the whole a force for good, brings horrific things on anyone foolish enough to be his friend – and pointed the way towards the very good series it could be if NBC's patient.
The enormous success of “Iron Man” and “The Avengers” fueled the dream that the entire entertainment-consuming world had been conquered by the nerds. The more modest success of comic book shows doesn't really kill that dream, though. All it means is that everything on TV will soon have to be fueled by nerd-level passion, even if many of those passions aren't classic nerd pursuits. And the sooner the people making these shows understand that, the better it'll be for the quality of those shows, and for those of us at home in our Sheldon Cooper couture.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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