Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Small-Screen Superhero Boom

Just as we have been deluged by Marvel and DC superheroes at theaters, so have we been on network TV. This past season the CW, an obvious candidate admittedly, had not just Arrow, but The Flash and DC's Legends of Tomorrow--altogether, a substantial fraction of its prime-time line-up. FOX has Gotham. ABC has Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (which was followed by Agent Carter). CBS, stereotyped as stodgier, produced Supergirl (canceled here, though it has since found a new home on CW).

Unsurprisingly the list gets a lot longer if one looks beyond the bigger-named superheroes to more obscure or original figures, and the options afforded by cable and streaming. Alongside Gotham, FOX has the Sandman spin-off Lucifer. NBC gave Heroes another shot with Heroes Reborn (even if it hasn't worked out). Syfy Channel has Wynonna Earp. Netflix is serving up Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the Playstation Network, Powers.

And of course, more children and family-oriented programming can seem to offer nothing but superheroes. Nickelodeon has The Thundermans and Henry Danger, while Disney XD has had Lab Rats and Mighty Med and now a merger of the two in Lab Rats: Elite Force, and its animated offerings have included a barrage of Marvel-based cartoons.

Today a fairly avid TV watcher, assuming their taste (and their range of cable and streaming options) is broad enough, can fill their viewing hours with nothing but first-run superhero shows.

The reasons for the success of superheroes in this medium seems a bit less obvious than on the big screen. TV's smaller screens and smaller budgets mean that the big, flashy action that is the films' stock in trade at theaters is less of a draw. Still, the sheer popularity enjoyed by the concept would seem to have had some spillover effects, above and beyond the not unimportant direct spin-offs and tie-ins (like Agents of SHIELD). And small screen superheroes do share an advantage with the big screen variety that pays an even bigger dividend here--the format's easy accessibility in comparison with other kinds of science fiction, which are in fact less evident than they used to be (much-touted "peak TV" not having brought about some new boom in space opera, for example).

At the same time, it is worth noting the limits of the genre's success in this medium--a far cry from the consistently box office-topping performance it has had. (Not one superhero show made the Nielsen's top ten this season, after all, or even came close to it.) In short, science fiction and fantasy television remains in its relatively subordinate place in the market, far behind reality TV (Dancing With the Stars) and procedurals (NCIS, Blue Bloods) and nighttime soaps (Empire)--with the superheroes notably not counted among those rare exceptions that buck the trend to become mainstream hits (The Walking Dead).

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