The (Moderate) Rise and Fall of The CW, Part 5

The Crossover Appeal and the Only Two Diamonds to Come Out of The CW

I know! Straight out of the CW, right? ew.com

Not long after Berlanti began to expand the world of the Arrow-verse, it became clear how limited the appeal of it was beyond the CW. In the fall of 2015, Supergirl premiered on CBS. The first season was intriguing, if not nearly as strong as the first season of Arrow or Flash, but it became clear fairly early that the viewership for a comic book based series wasn’t going to fly on a network powered by Survivor and Blue Bloods. CBS canceled the series after one season, and naturally the CW picked up a week later.

Around the same time Supergirl was ending its run, Berlanti was expanding his world to a fourth comic book based series, Legends of Tomorrow. I’m not sure whether there is a comic book with this particular world (believe me, I wasn’t inclined to look too hard) but it included several of the more intriguing recurring characters that had appeared on Arrow and The Flash to that point. Sara Lance (Cathy Lutz), then known as White Canary, Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh, who had once been Superman), Victor Garber as Professor Stein, who was part of a metahuman known as Firestorm (the original composite was played by Robbie Amell, Stephen’s brother) and two of the most beloved ‘villains’ in the world of The Flash: Leonard Snart (Wentworth Miller) aka Captain Cold and Mick Rory (Dominic Purcell), aka Heat Wave. Ostensibly criminals they had been fan favorites since their first appearance in Season 1, known for their devious minds and beautiful senses of sarcasm. Combined with futuristic time traveler Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill, who has spent three seasons as one of Doctor Who’s companions), the makeup of this series should have been a genuine winner, and indeed it has a very loyal fan and critical base.

But from beginning of the series, the show never gelled for me. Perhaps it was the presence of Damian Dahrk, who made a cameo in the second episode just a few days after I’d seen him killed off on Season 4 of Arrow. Maybe it was the messiness of the entire time travel plot, which fundamentally seemed like the wrong parts of Doctor Who and Quantum Leap, two series I’d had my share of problems with despite their success. Whatever the reason, I could never find reason to watch more than the first two episodes. And that was before Snart ended up dying, more or less for good, at the end of the first season. For me and my colleagues, this was the beginning of a fundamental break with Berlanti and the Arrow-verse.

I almost certainly stuck with it at least a couple of seasons longer than I should have for a very simple reason. Ever since I’d begun watching television, I was in love with the crossover. From Homicide and Law and Order’s yearly jaunts in the late 1990s to David E. Kelley decisions to expand his world of Boston beyond genre, network and in one case in 2001, a series that had nothing to do with it at all (The Practice crossed over with Gideon’s Crossing, an Andre Braugher medical drama that no doubt failed because it was about medicine instead of sex) everything about the process enthralled me. I grew numbed of it during so many of the CSI crossovers in the 2000s and had little patience for the exercises that Shondaland would do between Grey’s Anatomy and its spinoffs. (Though I will confess the one between Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder was interesting; if only because of the presence of three of the greatest African-American actresses in history: Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, and the late Cecily Tyson.)

So to have a series which acknowledged both the shared universe but was willing to play with it actually made me stick with the series for longer than I should have. And say what you will about Berlanti’s flaws: he had the capability to merge more than two series together in a way that Kelley, Rhimes and Dick Wolf could not match. Perhaps its because Kelley’s and Rhimes were just awkward, while Berlanti’s never stopped having fun at the absurdity of the pretense. Furthermore, Berlanti was not afraid to play hardball: in Crisis on Earth-X’, he used the occasion to kill off Stein’s character in what was one of the most wrenching character deaths I’ve seen on TV. I had no real love for Legends but I still felt it in my gut.

But even by that time, I had begun to increasingly turn away from the Berlanti-verse. Which did not mean I had yet abandoned the CW. Far from it. By the time of Crisis in the fall of 2017, I was deeply enmeshed with not only the two greatest series the CW produced, but among the very best series of the 2010s.

In January of 2015, when I was at a low point emotionally I heard high praise from critics I respected about a CW series called Jane The Virgin. Considered an affectionate parody of a telenovela, it dealt with the story Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez) a hotel employee saving herself for marriage for her fiancé, policeman Michael. One day, while visiting her OB-GYN, she is accidentally artificially inseminated by the sperm of the owner of the hotel, the dashing Rafael. (The OB-GYN is his sister, and she is distracted by the lesbian affair she’s having with her stepmother, Rose.) Rafael has a troubled marriage with his wife Petra (Yael Gregorias) and this was their last chance for a baby. Rafael and Petra offer to pay for Jane’s upkeep if she has their child as a surrogate. Naturally, Jane and Rafael start having feelings for each other, even though Rafael is married and Jane and Michael truly love each other. Yes, this is complicated and that’s before you get started with the mother-in-law with an eyepatch, the evil kingpin ‘Sin Nostro’ and the fact that Jane has just learned that her father is the leading star of telenovelas.

This could have been any number of plots for Desperate Housewives. The difference is, while Housewives started out as a satire of soap operas but essentially became one, Jane the Virgin made it very clear from the start, it was a telenovela and never stopped reminded us of. Both shows also did have a narrator with a secret, but unlike Housewives, this wonderful narrator (whose true identity the show didn’t reveal until the series finale) made it very clear that none of us was to be taken seriously. Neither did the surtitles that were always showing up every few seconds to remind us of the plot, should we have problems remembering, nor the celebrity cameos that this very small show somehow managed to get on a regular basis. (Brooke Shields actually showed up for much of the third and fourth seasons playing a former 80s teen idol named River Fields.) Every opening narration would invariably include the line: “I know! Straight out of a telenovela, right?”

Jane the Virgin was one of the funniest series during the 2010s. It was also one of the most heartfelt and heartbreaking. For much of the first two seasons, just like Jane, you honestly didn’t know whether she would end up with Michael or Raf. Both men clearly loved her, both men had a claim on different parts of her heart and they were equally flawed and virtuous. Perhaps one of the best elements of Jane was that the series decided that, in a way, both men were her soulmate. Jane did end up marrying Michael, only for him to get shot in the season two finale. He did recover (he is the one she lost her virginity too, and the show kept making fun of ‘Virgin’ still being in the title from that point on) hut in the one of the most heartbreaking twists in TV history, Michael died from his injuries halfway through Season 3. The series then flashed forward three years to show things had changed, and eventually halfway through Season 4, Raf and Jane did get together. Then their happiness was thwarted when an even bigger twist came at the end of that season: Michael was actually still alive — and he had no memory of his past with Jane. I give credit to the writers for spending so much time making us care for Michael over two seasons and then spend much of the final season turning him into not just an obstacle but something of a jerk.

Jane was also very much a family show. Jane lived her life with her mother ‘Xo’, who had her daughter as a teenager, and who Jane and her grandmother had to spend much of her life being adults. Rogelio (Jaime Cahill, who before coming to America was a real life telenovela star) showed up early in Season 1, and while shown as much of the series humor because of his acting ambitions, he truly loved both Jane and Xo. The series spent as much time devoted to the parents falling in love as the younger generation. Similarly, the series showed heart for other characters. Petra spent much of Season 1 being set up as the villain, the bitch we were supposed to hate. But we eventually learned that part of the reason was due to the abuse her mother put her through and the way she was used as a pawn by so many people, including her own twin sister (also Gregorias, though you would have been forgiven for not knowing it) The series spent much of the final two seasons showing that she was worthy not only of redemption and love, but the friendship of Jane. Few shows would have gone that far with the heavy.

The next year a series that was even more imaginative debuted, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The brain child of Rachel Bloom, who created, starred, and wrote all of the songs (oh, you want to hear this), the series dealt with Rebecca, a New York attorney who ends up impulsively to West Covina to follow a childhood crush from camp Josh, all the while denying that’s why she was there. (That straight fact was actually in the first season opening theme song.)

It was clear from the beginning that Rebecca was unbalanced in some way. You could tell this is in every interaction she would have, whether it was with Josh, her eventually best friend Paula, Valencia, Josh’s fiancée (who she tried to make it out with on their first meeting) and Greg (Santino Fontana for two seasons, then…I’m actually going to get to that) Josh’s best friend who Rebecca could have had a relationship with, but whom she kept sabotaging herself as she did with everybody.

Oh, by the way, the series was a musical. A really weird musical where Bloom did everything in her power to simultaneously humiliate herself musically and pay tribute to other songs. Here are just some of the titles of the songs that she wrote for herself over the series: “I’m a Good Person,” “Sexy French Depression’, ‘Heavy Boobs’ (there was a dance number involved) and almost a hundred more for the entire cast.

A lot of these songs had a way of parodying every possible aspect of television and I’m astonished Bloom, an accomplished songwriter and performer before the series, was able to turn them out at the rate needed to produce four or five a week. And her cast was more than willing to humiliate themselves too: Fontana famously sang a black and white dance number: “Settle for Me.” Tovah Feldshuh, who played her mother, was introduced to herself with “Where’s the Bathroom?” Greg Whitefeather, who was Rebecca’s boss for a while, actually sang many humiliating songs including one about Daddy Daughter Love. Paula (Donna Champlin) sang a song with chorus “My First Penis’. Nobody got away without humiliation. A fringe character who was introduced just to learn he didn’t understand what his wife was using her electric toothbrush for, sang a Les Mis type ballad ‘The Buzzing from the Bathroom’. Hell, at one point we saw two puppet pretzels singing a Simon and Garfunkel parody and doing it quite well.

But as hysterically funny and incredible to watch as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was, there was an undertone that the series spent its entire run dealing with. Rebecca had severe mental issues, involving depression, behavior disorder and anxiety. She’d actually been suspended from college for stalking an ex-professor. Indeed, before she flew to West Covina, she intentionally didn’t pack her medication.

For the length of the series, Rebecca spend a lot of time checking in with a therapist. For the first two years, this was done mainly as comic relief as Rebecca constantly ignored the therapist’s all too-logical advice and the therapist often kept meditating that she was financing her house. But at a critical point in Season 3, Rebecca’s spiraling finally reach a point she could no longer deny. In a show that took virtually nothing seriously, we saw Rebecca come dangerously close to killing herself on an airplane with her anti-depressants before calling her therapist. For the rest of the series, Rebecca took her therapy session more seriously and actually seemed to be focused on her well-being. That’s not to say it wasn’t occasionally played for laughs (the therapists once led a number called: “Anti-Depressant’s What We Have In Common”) but it made it clear that she needed to do the work, and she began approaching her life seriously.

Both of these shows were recognized as the gems they were at the time by critics and awards shows. In 2015 Gina Rodriguez would win both the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical and Best Actress in a Comedy for the Critics’ Choice Awards. In 2016, Rachel Bloom would duplicate the feat. Both Rodriguez and Bloom would receive multiple awards for their series runs, but neither they nor the show’s they starred in were ever nominated for the Emmys.

If I find the omission of all WB series by the Emmys inexplicable, the decision to ignore Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was incomprehensible. By 2015, not only was cable dominating the TV awards show circuits, but Netflix and Amazon were beginning to make their inroads into the field as well. You no longer had to make a show that could be screen on television in the traditional sense to receive an Emmy nomination — Jeffrey Tambor won two consecutive Emmys for Transparent both years that Rodriguez and Bloom won the Golden Globe — but apparently being on a fringe network still didn’t count. The fact that Rodriguez and Bloom weren’t nominated and Julia Louis-Dreyfus continued her winning streak for Veep even though by that point the series was well past its prime is one of the biggest blunders in Emmy history.

(To be fair, however, Bloom did receive nominations for Original Song every year Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was on the air and did win on the last year of eligibility. It still doesn’t make up for it in my eyes.)

While I admonished the blanket renewal policy the CW did for all its series during the 2010s, I can’t fault the fact that they were willing to do so for Jane and Crazy. Even by the standards of the CW, both series ratings were microscopic at best. I can’t imagine their surviving more than a season on any other network or streaming service during the 2010s. The fact that the CW was willing to have faith in those properties is something I will be grateful for if nothing else because it allowed both series to reach their natural ends.

Both series ended in 2019. Crazy’s end was considered flawed by many, as rather than resolve the story of who Rebecca would end up with — Josh, Greg, and her boss Nathaniel — the series spent its final episode focusing on the best possible future for Rebecca and her own well-being. That may have been a disappointment, but at least the series realized that the larger message — that Rebecca needed to fix her mental self — was more important than who she ended up with. People were no doubt more upset that we just got one song for the series finale, but we did get a concert at the end. And it’s not like Bloom has gone away.

Jane the Virgin’s ending, by contrast, was perfect. The series wrapped up all of the soap opera traits that had dogged it in the penultimate episode and focused the series finale on Jane and Raf’s wedding. The series managed to come up with a happy ending for everybody on the show, everybody connected with it got what they deserved, and Jane not only found fulfillment with the man she loved and as a mother but realized her dream to become a writer. After the series last scene, I did something I had never done before at the end of any TV show and practically never done since: I applauded. Other series have had perfect endings in the past (The Americans had managed to wrap up sublimely in my opinion the previous year) but rarely had any of them decided that a happy ending should be allowed to be part of the perfect. By this point in the era of Peak TV, happy endings were limited to comedy’s and even then they usually came after the show was exhausted creatively. Jane the Virgin could be considered a comedy, but it was so much more than that and the fact it managed to land all those notes in its ending is an achievement is a series few shows in any era have managed.

There was talk in a spinoff when the series ended — a world taking place in the fictional book that Jane had been writing throughout the series. But that decision was nixed in the summer of 2019. Instead, another Berlanti series was among those greenlit for the fall of 2019: Batwoman. This was hardly surprising by this point in the CW’s existence, because by the time both Jane and Crazy were done, the CW had an identity — but it wasn’t one it should have wanted.

In what I hope will be the final piece in this series, I will wrap up the story of what I think may have been the show which led to the toppling of the network and why it probably went over the top.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.