The (Modest) Decline and Fall of The CW: A Series on A Failed Experiment
Part 1: Origin Story, Or The Parents Were Much Better Than Their Offspring
When the CW was purchased by Nexstar earlier this year, they made relatively clear that there was going to be a fundamental change in their approach to programming, mainly they would be more interesting in keeping costs down which meant more ‘reality’ series and fewer original ones.
It has not taken long for the effects to be felt. Nancy Drew and Stargirl, two of the series more successful series, have been cancelled this month. Original series premiering this season such as Walker: Independence and The Winchesters will not be receiving the traditional 22 episode seasons. There have been other signs leading up to the purchase that this era of programming on the CW would be different: there have been cancellations of several series that have been modest successes, such as In the Dark and Roswell, N.M. before they could come to a proper conclusion. And with The Flash ending in 2023, we may well be seeing the conclusion of the most successful collaboration between a network and a showrunner in recent years. (This relation will be dealt with in detail in another article in this series.)
I wish I could feel more dismay at what truly seems to be the end of an era and what is clearly yet another sign in the decline of network TV as a whole. But in truth, over the last several years I have found it increasingly hard to give a damn about the programming on the CW and dismay at what it has ended up becoming over nearly two decades.
To truly explain why the CW, even at its peak, must truly be considered a failed experiment, we must consider several things: how it got started, where it went wrong and how its greatest successes were the building blocks for its inevitable decline.
For those of you who may have forgotten by now, in 1994 two networks launched to challenge the Big Four dominance: UPN and the WB. Almost from the start, the WB was the more successful network, though it didn’t exact get out the gates gun-blazing.
Both networks at their inception would lean heavily into African-American led programming. Overall, UPN would be slightly better at it, considering that some of its shows like Moesha are now considered part of the landscape. That didn’t mean their mistakes, when they came, weren’t horrible: series like Homeboys from Outer Space and The Secret Life of Desmond Pfeiffer rank among the worst series ever created. But generally UPN would have slightly better luck with those series. This is mildly ironic considering how many of the actors who ended up with series on the CW are among the most iconic African-American superstars of our era. But I find it difficult to believe that Shawn and Marlon Wayans, Steve Harvey and Jamie Foxx look back on this particular era as anything other than marking time until they managed to find their places in the sun.
Up until 1997, the most successful series on the WB was 7th Heaven. A quasi-religious drama about a minister (Stephen Collins’ casting now looks horrible in hindsight) and his children, the series managed success thanks to the young cast, led by future stars Barry Watson and Jessica Biel. Then in the spring of 1997, the networks reluctantly greenlit the television remake of a box office flop in 1992 that had been adapted by the screenwriter for television.
The show was called Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Considering the horrible controversies that now surround Joss Whedon, who was idolized by millions (myself included) for more than two decades and the backstories that we know were going on behind the scenes all this times, the series has fallen under a dark cloud. But I’ve had occasion to rewatch many of the episodes in the last few months, and despite everything I now know about Whedon the fact remains its still one of the best series I’ve ever watched and still deserves to be consider an essential part of the Golden Age of Television. Incredibly written and superbly acted by one of the best young casts in the history of television to that point, it was a mix of genres that many shows have tried to mimic but none have succeeded in doing. It managed the perfect balance of monster of the week and mythology that The X-Files never could, and had a level of continuity in its backstory (which would continue in the spin-off Angel) that almost no show in history has ever been able to match. It was a wondrous joyous event, and was the official beginning of what must be considering an unmatched gathering of talent.
For the remainder of its existence — which as we shall see lasted until roughly 2006 — the WB may have been the single greatest gathering of talent behind and in-front of the screen, perhaps even rivaling the talents that their contemporaries at HBO were starting to turn out at around this same period. Several of the most gifted talents in television history would cut their teeth at the WB. Kevin Williamson, who not that much earlier had revolutionized the horror genre with Scream, created Dawson’s Creek in the spring of 1998. A relatively unknown writer named J.J. Abrams created Felicity, a series whose critical acclaim would win some of the few awards the WB would ever win. Amy Sherman-Palladino would become the creative force behind Gilmore Girls, one of the most beloved shows of the 21st century. And a young Ryan Murphy would lend his tilt on the teen drama when he created the twisted Popular. At its peak the WB was known for creating a genre that was openly satirized as ‘Pretty White Kids With Problems’ by Mad TV. At one point the network itself satirized what it had created in the superb one-season satire Grosse Pointe which fundamentally laid bare all of the pretensions that so many of its series took seriously and had guest stars from the WB’s shows have cameos as themselves.
The network would also begin to try and strike lightning with supernatural themed young adult series and had a fair amount of success with them. Charmed which deputed a few months after Buffy ran for eight years. Smallville, the first series to try an origin story of a young superhero (something that was novel when it debuted) premiered in 2001 and ran for a decade. Even some of their less successful shows were part of the zeitgeist: Roswell, which debuted in 1999, was considered a fan favorite even after its mythology began to collapse in its first season.
And if the talent behind the scenes was impressive, the talent in front of it was incredible. Not since the days of the studio system in the 1930s had so many future celebrities who would dominate the landscape for decades to come assembled in a single place. Here are just a handful of the stars who cut their teeth on the CW:
From Buffy: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Allyson Hannigan, Seth Green, James Marsters, Amber Benson. From Dawson’s Creek: Katie Holmes, Michelle Williams, James Van Der Beek, Joshua Jackson. From Felicity: Keri Russell, Scott Foley, Scott Speedman, and in a recurring role, Jennifer Garner. From Gilmore Girls: Lauren Graham, Alexis Bleidel, Jared Paladecki, Milo Ventimgilia, Liza Weill, Matt Czuchry. From Everwood: Emily Van Der Kamp and a very young Chris Pratt. And from Smallville:, playing Oliver Queen: Justin Hartley.
And those are just the ones who were listed in the opening credits. A lot of the actors who worked their managed to take their lessons and put them into use elsewhere. Danny Strong had recurring roles on both Buffy and Gilmore Girls. Eventually he changed his focus to writing and has written some of the most stunning work for television in the past decade, most recently in the Hulu limited series Dopesick.
There has been rarely been so much talent at one place and one time — and just as rarely has their been so little regard for it by the Emmys. Not one of the series or actors ever received a single nomination for Best Drama or any of the acting awards which is, collectively, the biggest travesty in the history of the Emmys. To ignore an actor or series is one thing; to ignore an entire network is offensive and insulting, particularly considering that around this same period cable was beginning to start its long period of dominating the awards circuits. The fact that dramas like ER and Law and Order received nominations even though they were well past their prime and series like Buffy and Gilmore Girls never did when they were at their peaks can only be viewed as the fact the Emmys were run by geriatric snobs. (The Golden Globes would show more enlightenment, nominating four actors and actresses, giving Felicity a Best Drama nod and giving a Golden Globe for Keri Russell. Another reason I can never fully dismiss them as an awards show despite their manifest flaws.)
If I have left out the UPN as a similar provider of great series, well, I think even the most devoted fan of the network would have reasons to understand why. For much of its run, the UPN was best known for being the provider of two of the least regarded spinoffs in the Star Trek franchise: Voyager and Enterprise. There were the occasional successes like 7 Days and intriguing cult series like Nowhere Man, but the UPN was almost always regarded as the poorer cousin of the WB. This seemed true even when series would switch networks: Buffy and Roswell would go there in the fall of 2001, and the quality of both series would drastically drop. Roswell got cancelled in the spring of 2002, and though Buffy lasted until 2003, the last two seasons are considered by even the most devoted fans as the bottom of the creative barrel.
By 2004, it looked like UPN might be turning itself around. It managed to launch the critically acclaimed comedy retelling of Chris Rock’s childhood Everybody Hates Chris, a highly regarded Taye Diggs drama Kevin Hill and perhaps the first series that could have ever gone toe to toe with any WB show and beaten it on its own merits, Veronica Mars a show which launched, among others, Kirsten Bell to superstardom and is probably one of the most beloved series of all time. Unfortunately, for both the WB and UPN, time was about to run out.
Neither network had achieved its goal of being as successful as either of the four competitors. The WB was more successful, with shows like Buffy and Smallville averaging between six and seven million viewers an episode. Ironically, while these days networks would kill for shows with ratings this high, in the 2000s they were still not considered enough for financial success.
So in order to stave off what seemed inevitable for both, the two networks merged, officially becoming in September of 2006 the CW. Much of the first season of the new network was made up of series that were part of both networks. In the transfer of power, the WB ‘won’, with the majority of its shows making up the six night schedule. (Veronica Mars and Everybody Hates Chris were among the few series from the UPN to make the transition to the CW.) Many of the series from both networks would make up the bulk of the CW for the next few years. But there was one smaller series that had debuted in the last full year of the WB that became one of the flagships of the network, symbolizing all that was good about it — and its biggest failures.
In the next article in this series, I will discuss the fate of several of the series that survived the transfer and deal with Supernatural, the greatest success story — and its greatest failure.