The (Moderate) Rise and Drastic Fall of The CW, Part 2
Early Warning Signs and How Supernatural Became the Symbol of Everything The Network Would Do Right — And Wrong
Almost from the start of the CW’s existence, there were portents of impending doom. When the merger took place, one of the series that didn’t make the cut was the WB’s Everwood, a much beloved series featuring Treat Williams as a Colorado doctor. The series discontinuation came so quickly that the showrunner and cast had known it was coming.
In the spring of 2006, just prior to the merger Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, who had run Gilmore Girls since its 2000 premiere and had written the lion’s share of its scripts were inexplicably fired at the end of the sixth season. The seventh and last season of the series was considered a disaster by its fans, perhaps because Sherman-Palladino had told fans from the beginning that she knew how the series was going to end, and the last four words of dialogue. The final season did not allow for that. (It would be nearly a decade later on a limited series for Netflix that fans not only got closure, but Palladino got to use those four words.)
At the end of the 2006–2007 season, Veronica Mars, one of the few UPN series that had survived the transition was cancelled after three seasons despite being one of the most beloved series in television history. Even a desperate mail-in campaign by the fans was not enough to get the CW to change its mind. (Creator Rob Thomas and the cast, however, never surrendered. A few years later, the very Kickstarter campaign led to the financing of a Veronica Mars movie. Several tie-in books and a Hulu continuation of the series would eventually follow.)
This incredibly mishandling of so many treasured shows led to several fans of the CW to truly wonder if this would be a successful transition. Perhaps in reaction to this, the executives in charge of the network would dangerously overcorrect. The best illustration of this came in a series that debuted the season on the WB before the merger: Supernatural.
Created by Eric Kripke in the fall of 2005, Supernatural began its run dealing with the Winchester brothers, Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Paladecki). Both Ackles and Paladecki has credits with the network on other shows — Paladecki had played Dean on Gilmore Girls on and off for the first four seasons of the series; Ackles had been a regular on Smallville in the series’ fourth season. The series beginning was simple — the brothers would begin a season long hunt for their father (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and learn that their mother had been murdered by a demon when they were young and their father was hunting him. The first season was something of an X-Files like series, involving the Winchesters as they drove across the country in their convertible ‘Baby’ hunting demons and looking for their father.
Gradually the series became more complicated, becoming part of a struggle between demons and angels, with neither supernatural being incredibly interested in the fate of humanity. (As Kripke would say when they showed up: ‘Angels are dicks.”) But this was the plan of Kripke going forward: originally the series was supposed to run for five seasons, and the series was going to end with the younger brother Sam ending up being sacrificed to save humanity. It was an ideal plan and would have a fitting ending.
Except…in the spring of 2010, the CW renewed the series for a sixth season. This might not have been much of a shock: Supernatural was at that point the network’s most highly rated series. But Kripke and his fellow writers had to start scrambling to figure out how to write past the prescribed end of the series.
This still wasn’t unusual in itself: Chris Carter had planned to end The X-Files after five years and go into a series of movies, but the show’s massive success forced him to keep the series going beyond that. But anyone who’s been a fan of The X-Files knows just how badly this decision ended up messing up beyond repair the already deeply frayed mythology of the series. The show was successful for several more seasons, but almost immediately after Season 6 began, it began to decay in quality, hemorrhage viewers, and make sure the mythology would never make sense.
The consequences for Supernatural were even worse, as the show was renewed very early every year for the next decade. Once modest in scope, the series’ struggle between good and evil became more convoluted and absurd with each successive season. The brothers encountered the devil and killed him. God showed him and became a teenager. Trusted allies became enemies, became allies, then enemies again. And all of this still seemed maddeningly vague because the consequences rarely seemed to spill over into the real world, only that of the Hunters. Worse, beyond the characters of Sam and Dean, there were few other characters who would last more than a season as there were countless deaths, resurrections and being winked out of existence only to return when the writer’s couldn’t come up with an idea. When the series finally gasped out of existence in the spring of 2020 — a year which seemed to close to being a real apocalypse for viewers to care about a fictional one — almost no one cared any more.
The early renewals were not limited to the CW. Over the 2010s, as the other series that were linked to the WB and UPN came to their end, the CW would constantly give early renewals to what would amount to its entire lineup, usually before November. This was in itself, nothing radical different about how other networks were doing business at the time. As the decline of broadcast television accelerated at the beginning of the 2010s, more and more low rated series were given early renewals on almost every network. And considering that by this time, all the networks were beginning to expand their broadcast schedules into the summer, which until this point in TV history had essentially been a place for reality series and reruns, it wasn’t as if the CW didn’t have time or space for them.
The problem was that by doing so, the networks were not considering the plans of the writers and in several series cases, the actors. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this can be found with The Vampire Diaries. Based on a series of popular novels, and no doubt trying to cash in on the success of the Twilight films and True Blood series, The Vampire Diaries debuted on the CW in 2009. It dealt with the story of Elena Gibert, who moves to the town of Mystic Falls and becomes involved in a love triangle with the Salvatore brothers, Damon, and Stefan, both of whom are vampires and the supernatural circle they are a part of.
The series, adapted by old WB hand Kevin Williamson, was a success for the network and inspired two spinoffs for the network. But by the sixth season, Nina Dobrev, the actress playing Elena, did not want to renew her contract. There was a natural end for the series, of course, but the show was successful and had been renewed for a seventh season before Dobrev made her announcement. Considering that the relationship between Damon and Elena was central to the series, this was a mess that the writers couldn’t get out off. The show continued for two more seasons, and while the ending was highly regarded it was considered another disappointment.
We will never know for certain if the WB was more engaged in the idea of ending series when the showrunners believed it was time. While series like Felicity and Dawson’s Creek seemed to come to appropriate ends when they did, the former was always more of a critical success than a popular one, and by the spring of 2003, most of the cast of the latter was so popular that it was unlikely they could be held to the show for much beyond it.
Similarly given everything we have seen about Buffy and its spinoff Angel, it’s not clear that the WB had any understanding of how to end the show. When the WB cancelled Buffy in May of 2001, the last episode seemed like a series finale, but its never been clear if Whedon wanted it to be the end or if UPN’s purchase of it was a surprise to its cast. (Anthony Stewart Head, who’d played Giles, the adult figure on the series, may have wanted to leave anyway: he stopped being a series regular and was a recurring character for the last two seasons.) Similarly, when Buffy ended in 2003, Whedon intended for the character of Spike to be sacrificed on the series finale which put him in a very awkward position when the WB hired James Marsters for the cast of Angel without telling him. Even this may have made things awkward when, after the ratings for the fifth season of Angel were going up, the WB abruptly cancelled the show in February of 2004. So the fact that the endings for both the final seasons of Buffy and Angel seem appropriate for the nature of the series may be due more to chance than design.
But for all that, there’s something to be said for being to end a series on your own terms rather than having to keep come back to the well year after year after year. These were the circumstances not just for shows like Supernatural or The Vampire Diaries, but practically every series in the CW playbook for the entirety of the 2010s. I should be fair and say that at the time, I considered this more of an advantage than a flaw as it wasn’t just the more popular series that the network picked up, but quite a few other series that under any other circumstances on any other network would have been cancelled by at least the second season. (I’ll get to both of them in a future article.) But in hindsight, this was clearly a mistake that many of the showrunners for the CW had to work around as their series were extended often far beyond their natural lives.
Perhaps more importantly, during the 2010s the genres of the series that the CW was airing was beginning to change dramatically. Where as the WB had some supernatural series, it had spent much of its time equally promoting a fair amount of comedies as well as youth oriented programs. By the middle of the 2010s, most of the half-hour comedies the CW aired were extinct, and it was focusing almost entirely on hour-long YA genre shows. Many of these were adaptations of cult series themselves, such as Nikita a variation on USA’s 1990s series La Femme Nikita. Others were closer to variations on book series, such as The 100. And during the early stages they attempted new versions of Aaron Spelling type series, including 90210 and Melrose Place, both of whose new cast were supplemented by members of the original series. What all of these series tended to have in common was that they were generally more youth themed and the ones that tended stay around longer were ones with built-in audiences.
Then in 2012, Greg Berlanti the showrunner of Everwood and who had just come off the ABC soap opera Brothers and Sisters adapted another genre series based off a comic book. Despite the massive success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Series and the MCU in the film world, adaptations based in the comic book world had never been successful. Furthermore, Berlanti was using as his lead character an comic book so obscure that had it not been for another CW series, you could have been forgiven for never having heard of him or the characters in his orbit before.
The series was called Arrow, and it would change the CW forever.
In the next article in this series, I will go into detail on Greg Berlanti’s effect on the CW, how it made the network a force and then slowly but surely weakened it beyond repa