This Review Will Piss Some People Off, I Wrote Conservatively
What You think of The CW’s Tom Swift May Depends on Your Views of…Well, Everything
Author’s Note: This Review is not traditional. I’m going to be taking a very long, hard look at how far too many people view anything related to popular culture these days. Some of you may want to read something else rather than this. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
When you look at a lot of criticism these days, done by professionals or on the Internet, the overwhelmingly number of them fall into two camps. Some of their views do overlap, but none of them for the same reason.
On one side are many of the older viewers and critics who work for major organizations, such as the New York Times or The New Yorker. I’ve written about their snobbery in the past and how they may bear a large responsibility for being regarded as ‘costal elites.’ They believe at their core that any project that comes out of Hollywood made with a budget of more than a few million dollars, is not based on a play or a book (and they can be very limited on that remark) is made in English, or the biggest of sins is based on a comic book is unworthy of Hollywood. The fact that millions of people are drawn to these movies is a symbol of the decline of America as an intellectual state. “How dare they like a movie that you can find in a theater?” is at the core of so many of their arguments.
On the other side are those who think these are the only kind of movies Hollywood should be making and that they’re still making them badly. Of course, for many of these reviewers, their reasons are ideologically different. They don’t know art, but they know what they don’t like. Most of the time, they come down to the fact that the lead of their franchise, comic book, science fiction or anything that was a popular culture, is being played by someone other than a straight, white male. They will worship any of the blind spots any film in the MCU, and then find plot holes in Black Panther or start whispering campaigns for Captain Marvel. They will accept that Doctor Who can transform into much younger versions of him, but are insulted when that shape-shifting Time Lord becomes a woman. An all-female Ghostbusters they will reject before the trailer comes out; Ghostbusters: Afterlife is what the fans want. In short, anyone who is not a straight white male in a franchise should have their own franchise. The fact that they will automatically reject when those kinds of series made as being ‘woke’ and ‘catering’ doesn’t even occur to them as a contradiction.
The one area where these two vastly different critics overlap is that movies and TV were better ‘before’. They disagree vastly on the reasons. The critics argue that films prior to Star Wars were superior because they had well-written screenplays, actual plots and were not afraid to be something other than cookie-cutters. The people in the second group think they were better because — let’s face it — there was no profanity or sex (either before marriage or during it) women were love interests, minorities were barely present and LGBTQ+ people didn’t exist. The fact that so many filmmakers of that era railed against a Production Code that thwarted any effort to put these things in their films or TV, the fact that their were many filmmakers and television writers who tried to put these things in their work but were forced out of the industry as being ‘difficult’, hell, the fact that America was nothing like what it was in those movies or television — is irrelevant.
You get the feeling that many of them have taken the lyrics that Edith and Archie sang at the start of the revolutionary All in the Family the wrong way. “Everybody knew their place,” “And you always knew who you were then.” “Girls were girls and men were men.” “Guys like us we had it made.” Change the name of the president and you have a pretty good idea as to how so many of these viewers see how the entertainment world should be.
And they’ve become the prevalent viewpoint on everything just for existing. When it was announced that ABC was rebooting The Wonder Years with an African-American middle class family, the backlash was instant before a single episode was aired. Considering that The Wonder Years was never a hit series no longer matters. It was part of ‘our culture’. The fact that the reboot is a truly exceptional comedy series that is in its own way infinitely superior to the original won’t matter to millions. They’ll say it’s because Hollywood has no original ideas, but the truth is they don’t want to look at anything differently. I suspect that millions will probably reject the CW’s new series Tom Swift out of hand even though they probably don’t even know what the source material was in the first place.
Tom Swift, as I’m guessing almost nobody in the series projected age range knew before, was the hero of a series of books in the first half of the twentieth century. He was a boy genius who was capable of scientific marvels and was always rescuing adults from radical situations. If he was remembered at all in the 21st Century, it was for the form of wordplay he created (the Tom Swiftie is a play on words involving an adjective at the end based on how the fictional Swift tended to end his sentence) and for the fact that one of his toys was used as the inspiration for the TASER (something I’m certain young Tom Swift would be mortified by). He never had a series of movies or a television series made for him at any time in American history, so he is overdue. But I’m certain that the CW version of Tom that debuted last Tuesday outraged millions in advance, even those who had never heard of the character before.
We actually met Tom last year in the CW’s new version of Nancy Drew, a series I had issues with when it premiered but have come to admire over time. Tom Swift was, like Nancy, an adult. But in the traditional sense of so many of the series in the CW universe, Tom (Kevin Trujillo) was radically difference: he was African-American, a braggart, and openly gay. I’m not sure which of these the traditional viewer would consider the biggest sin, but considering that imdb.com has it rated at 2.6 even though the average rating for the episodes is 6.5 pretty much tells you that, just like with The Wonder Years, the ‘silent majority’ of viewers has already passed judgment. They don’t have to see to know that they already hate it.
I’ve actually seen the first two episodes and I can’t bring myself to express the same loathing. I was understand if those same viewers hated the series for being derivative as it is very close to so many formula of the Berlanti-themed comic book series: there’s a vital trauma that damages the lead character (his father is killed when a trip to Saturn that was fueled by Swift’s engine explodes, which is as least a little more novel than, say, The Flash) the character’s obsession with getting information leads him to realize that there is a hidden truth (his father isn’t dead and there’s a conspiracy surrounding that may have led why the attempt was made), the lead character is involved on a quest to try and find out what happened to him (in this case, it is to recover the pieces of his father’s rocket and put together a message), the lead character has a group of loyal cohorts (his bodyguard and his adopted sister, played by Ashleigh Murray, who seems to becoming a CW stalwart) and there are conspiracies all around from supposed friends and allies, one trying to take over Tom’s company, the other more international.
So yes, it is formulaic, but then a lot of fans like formulaic series. I suspect the reason there is an instant loathing of Tom Swift is how the series tries to be different. Tom’s complexes are based on the fact that he thinks his family never approved him for being gay, and we constantly see him preening and showboating his conquests (one of whom is with the conspiracy). Almost the entire cast is African-American, all of whom are dealing with the issues of being black and rich in this predominantly white world. Zinzie, the adopted daughter came from rich parents who lost everything in the crash of 2008, and has never been feeling happy about her place in the Swift family. Most of the secrets that the Swifts keep are based on landmarks in black history; the combination to Mr. Swift’s safe (which plays a vital role in the second episode) is based on the day the first African-American went into space. The Swifts are rivals with a family called the Darby’s and the rivalry between the sons is based on the fact that their parents have constantly set them against each other to be the best because there is no place for more than one rich African-American family in corporate America. How dare any series, least of all ones based on a children’s book, try to raise these issues?
Sad to say, this kind of mindset had plagued so many CW series that have dared to alter a variation on a single aspect of traditional franchise. Jimmy Olsen being African-American on Supergirl? Unfaithful. Batwoman being a lesbian? Pandering. Nancy Drew being anything but a cock-eyed optimist? Demeaning to the franchise. More and more often these fans will deride a series for daring to even try to color outside the lines. I wish I could say this only started recently, but many of these people have never liked any of the changes that DC or Marvel have tried to have superheroes that aren’t white, straight males. The fact that these same fans no doubt dismissed Black Lightning — which was based on an earlier comic that had never been developed — as that same kind of pandering probably will never occur to them.
For the record, like so many of these CW series over the last decade, I am least willing to give Tom Swift a chance to fall flat on its face before I outright dismiss it. Could it become just another formulaic series like Arrow ended up being and The Flash is? It’s very possible. But if nothing else, Tom Swift has a reason for existence that none of those series had when it began. It is willing to swing for the fences on straight out the gate. It is willing to confront issues that, frankly, most cable and streaming series are still unwilling to give latitude towards. (We’re in the third spin-off of Power and I don’t think there are any characters like the ones I see on Tom Swift.) And it’s willing to confront with a boldness and energy that, frankly, I didn’t see a lot of it series like Supergirl or Nancy Drew at the beginning of. In other words, its fun and it confronts these issues in an entertaining way. Those should be reasons to watch a series. They used to be enough.
This has not been the traditional review and I really don’t expect to have changed a lot of minds one way or the other with it. I expect to be lambasted the same way that so many other people who dare to argue for this kind of variation in their entertainment are. And you know what? I don’t care. I’ve never been a member of either of the groups I listed above, because neither of them would watch a series like Tom Swift. Neither group has the imagination to dare think they might like if they did. I’ve always belonged to the group that thinks there can be as much greatness in a series like The Americans as there is in Smallville. My mind has always been open to recognizing great entertainment wherever it is. It’s those people I’m writing too, and to those people I recommend at least watching Tom Swift before you make up your mind.
My score: 4 stars.