By Jim Sabataso
It’s a good time to be a fan of superhero television. Between ABC, CW and Netflix, it’s an embarrassment of riches, with a bevy of shows ranging from pretty good (“Flash”) to great (“Jessica Jones”). It’s been a while since we’ve checked in on some of these network shows, so this week, let’s do a run down of where they’re all at.
‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ (Tuesday, 10 p.m., ABC)
In season four, “Agents” the show continues to follow the emergence of new superpowered Inhumans as well as explore some of the MCU’s supernatural concepts. Ghost Rider shows up for an arc, but fails to leave a lasting impression despite some decent (and pricey) CGI effects. Putting Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) back in the field, though, was also a good call; he’s much more fun running missions than acting as a bureaucrat.
This being S.H.I.E.L.D., skullduggery and intrigue abound. Everyone has secrets and agendas and secret agendas. The motives of a new Captain America-esque Inhuman director are unclear. As are those of Aida, a life-model decoy (android), who appears to be going full “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” on her fellow agents. LMDs are a messy but fun plot device used in the comics to conveniently retcon deaths and dodgy character behavior. There is a lot the show could do with this, especially if they play the long game and hold off the reveal for more than a couple episodes.
“Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.” continues to be a show where fleeting moments of greatness are overshadowed by long periods of mediocrity. That’s not to say it’s a bad show; it’s just hamstrung by Marvel Cinematic Universe mandates that prevent it from really taking off. Add to that the fact that showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen don’t take full advantage of the massive MCU sandbox — four seasons and not one appearance by Advanced Idea Mechanics?! — and have a tendency to keep stories too grounded and procedural. The result is a series that feels like it’s on cruise control, filling time between MCU films with serviceable story arcs that consistently underwhelm.
DC on the CW
Compared to Marvel, DC and Warner Brothers have done nearly everything wrong both in tone and in plotting in their construction of a cohesive cinematic universe. Somehow, the exact opposite is true for its TV projects. Monday through Thursday, DC rules primetime on the CW with four series that fit together in satisfying and interesting ways. Character cameos across shows are frequent and organic, giving the universe a lived-in depth that not even the MCU, with all its connective tissue, pulls off as gracefully. (To be fair, it’s much easier to do this on TV, where production schedules run concurrently.) November’s four-episode crossover, which brought together every character in the DC TV universe, was both well-executed and a heck of a lot of fun, even if the invading aliens were pretty lame.
‘Arrow’ (Wednesday, 8 p.m., CW)
After a slightly uneven fourth season, made better by the addition of Neal McDonough’s delightfully malevolent Damien Darhk, “Arrow” has stepped back from supernatural big bads to focus on Team Arrow itself. Now mayor of Star City, Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) decides he needs help with his side gig as the Green Arrow, especially now that Speedy is semi-retired and Black Canary is dead. He recruits a new lineup of vigilantes, and the requisite growing pains and betrayals ensue as they combat a threat from a new villainous archer named Prometheus.
“Arrow” remains the darkest and grittiest of CW’s DC shows. Season four is no exception. Oliver continues to be put through the ringer as he struggles to reconcile the consequences of his actions as the Green Arrow with the city’s need for a hero. Since he began his mission to save Star City, death and suffering have stalked him, taking loved ones at every turn. While all this makes for good drama week to week, Oliver’s brooding and hand wringing is nothing new. The show has fallen into a familiar cycle of Oliver stubbornly going it alone, learning he needs help, letting people in, getting those people killed, and deciding to go it alone again. After five seasons, it’s starting to feel somewhat stale. The fights are still fun and the cast still has good chemistry, but the show needs to do something to break out of its morose rut.
‘The Flash’ (Tuesday, 8 p.m., CW)
The CW’s first step in cross-show world building, “The Flash” is speeding right along in season three, after running in place for a good chunk of season two. This season, Barry Allen is forced to deal with the consequences of his trip back in time to save his mother’s life. Realizing his meddling with the timeline did more harm than good, he sets things straight, only to discover not everything is the way it used to be; some people are dead who shouldn’t be, others are alive, different people have superpowers, stuff like that. Barry messed up big time, and now must atone for his mistakes while also combating a literal speed demon who wants to take over and/or destroy the universe.
Easily the headiest of the CW shows, super-science, time-travel and alternate universes have become de rigueur. It’s a lot of fun even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense. “The Flash” continues to be the most consistently entertaining superhero show on TV. It has a knack for telling kooky and campy comic book stories without veering into goofiness or eye-roll-inducing absurdity. Part of this is thanks to the great cast chemistry, and smart moments of self-awareness and meta-commentary they provide.
‘Legends of Tomorrow’ (Thursday, 8 p.m., CW)
Admittedly, I’ve fallen behind on “Legends of Tomorrow.” Season one was mostly a chore to watch, with episodes that fell flat and an overarching story that never delivered, largely due to its miscast big bad Vandal Savage, played with unconvincing menace by Casper Crump. Add in a tiresome romantic storyline involving the doomed Hawkman and Hawkgirl, and there was little to like aside from Wentworth Miller’s delightful scenery-chewing Captain Cold.
The first couple episodes of season two seemed to be an effort to course correct. Having defeated Savage, the team now took up the new mission of preserving the timeline from existential threats. Some new recruits from the Silver Age Justice Society of America gave the series some fresh blood. Also, good riddance to the Hawk duo — they were the worst. The new season has also upgraded its villains, adding Reverse-Flash, Damien Darhk and Malcolm Merlyn into the mix. That triumvirate has a lot of potential, especially Darhk. Nonetheless, these improvements have not been enough bring me back to the show, save for November’s weeklong crossover.
‘Supergirl’ (Monday, 8 p.m., CW)
OK, I’m way behind on ‘Supergirl.” Season one was on CBS, whose exclusive streaming service makes it difficult to watch without a subscription (it’s now on Netflix). Since moving to the CW for season two, the show is more accessible. I just need to work it into my weekly rotation. However, the aforementioned crossover was a great introduction. Melissa Benoist is a terrific, exuberant Supergirl — equal parts competent badass and charming goofball. She also has excellent chemistry with Grant Gustin’s Flash, making the subsequent crossovers a blast to watch.
Into the future!
Looking ahead, there are many more of these shows in the pipeline. “Legion,” based on the obscure X-Men character and produced by Noah Hawley (“Fargo”!), will arrive on FX next month. On Netflix, Marvel’s “Iron Fist” comes to Netflix in March — followed by “The Defenders” and “Punisher” later this year. The “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” spinoff “Inhumans” is slated to premier on ABC in September, where there is also talk of “Damage Control,” a sitcom about the people who clean up after superhero battles.
On Freeform, Marvel teen duo Cloak and Dagger will be getting their own series in 2018. And speaking of teen drama, a “Runaways” series, based on the popular (and excellent) Brian K. Vaughn Marvel comic about the children of super villains who turn to a life of superheroics, is rumored to be in development at Hulu.