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Sunday, March 15, 2015

How The Flash Pulled Ahead Of Arrow As The Best Superhero Show On Television

Does anyone dispute that CW’s Arrow and its spin-off The Flash are by far and away the best superhero shows on television right now? While I have high hopes for Netflix’s Daredevil (its entire first season will be made available on Netflix on April 10th), FOX’s Gotham, ABC’s Agents of SHIELD and Carter, and NBC’s Constantine (that’s still a show, right?) aren’t even close to being in the same conversation as CW’s DC properties. When our Nerd King Patton Oswalt recently went on a Twitter rant about the embarrassment of riches that is quality television programming, he had this to say:

“No, Gotham isn’t perfect, but neither was Agents of Shield. They’re being given time, and they have Arrow and The Flash to guide the way”

Arrow and The Flash are television's Golden Standard for how to run a quality superhero epic on cable TV. While sometimes the CW melodrama of both shows can drag it down, there’s no denying the crossover success the CW was able to have. Hell, I’m a 27 year old man and I fully admit to watching two shows on the CW. I don’t think those words would have dared to have been uttered three years ago. While both shows essentially have the same smart brain child running them, and exist in the same universe (It seems like Starling City and Central City are like right next to each other), the two shows could not be more different from each other.

However, what both shows get right is that they actually focus on their lead superhero first and foremost. It seems obvious, but Gotham is a Batman show without Batman, and neither of ABC's Marvel properties have a superhero as its star either. You go to see an Avengers movie to actually see The Avengers, not to see the bureaucracy behind The Avengers. However, both CW shows not only have its lead in almost every scene, but it explores who these characters are and why they have the relationships they do. Arrow’s Oliver Queen is a deeply flawed and hypocritical character who uses the ends to justify the means. Queen is portrayed by Stephen Amell who I think doesn’t get enough credit for bringing depth and humanity to what was a cliché and poorly written character. I think people mistake his Queen’s stoic nature for bad acting, but one just has to look at his flashbacks scenes (Arrow always has scenes where magically what happened to Oliver Queen five years ago parallels what’s happening to him today) to see the differences between who Oliver Queen used to be and who is he now. Arrow delves deep into this past and his current contradictions to create legitimate conflict on a show that could very easily veer into melodrama- when Arrow is melodramatic, it’s because its purposefully doing so to appease the CW core. The Flash follows Barry Allen- a Crime Scene Investigator who becomes the fastest man alive thanks to a freak particle accelerator explosion in town. While Allen is not as cynical or dark as Oliver Queen (he’s actually quite the opposite), The Flash still focuses around Allen’s relationship with his real dad (who is falsely incarcerated for killing Allen’s mother), his step-dad , and his surrogate dad in Dr. Harrison Wells (played by the great and charismatic Tom Cavanagh).

That being said, that’s basically where the distinction between these two shows ends. Arrow is very Nolan-esque- it’s gritty and dark with brooding characters. It also doesn’t help that Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen are basically the same person- a playboy billionaire who fights crime at night in a costume in an attempt to save their city. The Flash on the other hand is very lighthearted and Barry Allen is a very trusting and hopeful person who does good for the sake of doing good. Arrow is a serialized show taking an event and arc by spreading it over multiple episode, whereas The Flash is basically a straight procedural where The Flash fights a new Meta-Human every week. The Flash’s tone and optimism doesn’t inherently make it better than Arrow, but it certainly isn’t hurting its case either.

Normally a dark, serialized show should beat a feel good procedural every day of the week. It’s the reason why Season 2 of Justified is one of the single greatest seasons of television and Season 1 of the show is just very good. A serialized version of a show allows the viewer to become more invested in the characters and the choices they make whereas a procedural lowers the stakes because you know everything is just going to start new and refreshed next week. However, I think procedurals are the way to make a superhero show work. It’s what Gotham should be doing- having detectives Gordon and Bullock fight a new Batman villain or mob boss every week. I also think that, surprisingly, The Flash is more focused right now. I’m a sucker for origin stories and The Flash is still building Barry Allen's and pushing his powers by fighting a new villain every week. On the other hand, Arrow seemingly has no idea what it wants to do right now. There’s a storyline with Ra’s Al Ghoul that I couldn’t care less about, a murder of one of Arrow’s compatriots that went on for way too many episodes, and it prominently features the villain from Season 1 that should have been dead by now. Arrow also had the disadvantage of being compared to The Flash and how well that world is staying strong and afloat.

It will be interesting to see what will happen in the years to come. The Flash has the benefit of not only being young enough so there is still plenty of material to use while also being able to fix any mistakes made by Arrow along the way. Part of the reason Arrow is suffering is because they’ve exhausted so much material at this point. Oliver Queen has not only squared off against dozens of minor and major villains throughout its almost three seasons, but it’s used many arcs and storylines along the way. However, we’ve seen, and seen recently, how great Arrow can be. Season 2 of the show, in particular the second half, is some of the best filmmaking and action screenwriting that we’ve seen in a while. It’s the reason we watch superhero shows and movies to begin with. Further, the writers of Arrow (and The Flash as well) have shown an uncanny ability to write off things that just don’t work. Oliver Queen’s ex-girlfriend Laurel Lance used to just be a waste of space, who only existed because a CW audience needs to see a sexy lead with his sexy love interest. Now Laurel Lance has become a superhero in her own right and has been integrated into the main action without it feeling forced. When Arrow made the transition from a procedural in its own right to a serialized show, it did so with ease.

No matter my problems with either Arrow or The Flash, these two shows are clearly heads and shoulders above the rest. They are entertaining and compelling and I want more shows like them on television. Between the two shows, The Flash might have the advantage over Arrow, but I predict that will shift in the upcoming years. But for now, let’s just enjoy the fact that we have these two shows in our lives right now.



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