Something magical is going on at The CW. Over the last few years, they’ve quietly become the one of the best channels for genre television, and, more specifically, SFF. In some ways, it’s not entirely surprising. When the scrappy little channel was birthed from the flames in the wake of the 2006 collapse-slash-merging of UPN (half cheesy teen melodramas and half network version of BET) and The WB (half cheesy teen melodramas and half Joss Whedon), few people gave The CW any thought. Home to Gossip Girl, America’s Next Top Model, and One Tree Hill, the channel became a laughingstock to the network powerhouses lower down the dial. Everyone joked that the only people watching The CW were hormonal teenage girls.
The CW dabbled in genre fare, offering up Veronica Mars (which it canceled a year after the merger), Smallville (which, by that point, was largely a (boring) young adult melodrama), and Supernatural (which has never managed to secure the larger audience it deserves). But speculative fiction was only a drop in their programming bucket and never seemed to be much of an interest to the Powers That Be.
In the last few years, the tide has turned. Today, the Big Four networks are tentpoled by a few long-in-the-tooth reality competition shows and struggling in everything else. ABC, NBC, and FOX are barely holding on, and only CBS is thriving—it rules the olds with run-of-the-mill procedurals and the golden ticket 18-49 target demo with overhyped middling sitcoms.
Yet all the while The CW quietly gains more and more traction in the ratings by focusing its aim on a very specific kind of show. That being said, what constitutes great ratings for The CW is peanuts to everyone else: October 15 brought the channel’s highest ratings in 4 years at 2.59 million for The Originals and Supernatural, while CBS scored 10.7m on their Thursday night lineup; neither are even in the same galaxy as The Walking Dead with its 20.2m.
Out of the 10 dramas the channel currently airs, 8 are speculative fiction (9 if you count The Carrie Diaries as historical). And good spec-fic to boot. As much as I hate to say it, part of The CW’s success is spillover from the popularity of Twilight and other kids/YA SFF. If I have to thank Stephanie Meyer for the privilege of watching Daniel Gillies brood, so be it.
Another, bigger part of the show’s genre success lies with its new network president, Mark Pedowitz. He took over in 2011 and one of the first things on his docket was to shift the target demographic from women 18-34 to adults 18-34. “Adults” is a politically correct way of saying “we need more dude-based eyeballs.” That’s the big difference between a channel that airs a Melrose Place remake and one that airs Arrow. Outmoded sexist stereotypes notwithstanding, it also means the difference between bigger budgets, bigger risks, and more genre diversity in television. (It also means more white cis-het male leads, which makes me sad for actual diversity.) The CW is glad that a lot of women watch Arrow, but they’re especially glad that women and men watch it. I look at it like The CW has finally given up trying to get women to like pretty pink princesses and is willing to let us have some adventure for once. And if that adventure dresses up in a superhero costume or slays demons or can teleport, all the better.
Things look just as enticing on the development front. Coming down the spec-fic pike we’ve got a show about a midwestern starlet who gets tangled up in the 1930s LA mob scene (Players), a Chicago-set Supernatural spin-off, and a possible The Flash remake if the backdoor pilot via Arrow comes to fruition. There’s also that recently announced biopunk genderbent adaptation of The Avenger. They’ve been trying for years to get a decent superhero collection going, what with their failed attempts at rebooting Wonder Woman, Raven, and Deadman, but so far only Arrow has made it onto the small screen.
Now, I know I keep using the terms “spec-fic” and “SFF” when it’s clear I’m really only talking about fantasy, comics, and historical dramas. As sci-fi fans are all too aware, the science part of SFF has taken a real hit on the television landscape in recent years. Everything science-y has been supplanted by fantasy, and no, Sharknado doesn’t count. Almost Human hasn’t aired yet, which means that as of right now, the only “true” science fiction show on network television is The CW’s The Tomorrow People. Luckily, it’s actually a pretty decent show, one that doesn’t play too heavy a hand on the teen drama and utilizes it’s limited SFX budget very well. And don’t forget to mark your calendar for The 100 and Star-Crossed in the midseason premieres.
A CW show is exciting, melodramatic, hyperbolic, and frenetic. There is no heady philosophizing. Family-friendly sitcoms are left to other stations, procedurals exist only inasmuch as they overlap with the Monster of the Week format, and anguished dramas about the tragedy of human existence are done with about as much subtlety as a sledgehammer to the face. But just because they aren’t cut from the same fabric as Breaking Bad doesn’t make them crap (except Beauty and the Beast, that show sucks). When The CW does SFF it goes for broke. The shows tend to be solid B’s—not stellar but enjoyable. The showrunners know their craft, their audience, and how to play to their actors’ strengths and weaknesses, and the studio gives them each enough leeway and support for all kinds of fun shenanigans.
If you’re a genre geek, The CW has you covered on virtually all fronts. Vampires, werewolves, wendigos, demons, angels, shapeshifters, time travel, genetically modified superhumans, caped crusaders, super spies, period dramas, Stephen Amell doing salmon ladder pull-ups, and Jensen Ackles in tight jeans all are present and accounted for. There are other SFF options elsewhere, of course, but few are as gutsy and edgy as those on The CW (excepting Teen Wolf *le sigh*). Few also commit to their premise as much (also excepting Sleepy Hollow). Other shows back away from absurdity for fear of alienating their older viewers (looking at you, Once Upon a Time) or insist on being treated as a highbrow drama (*cough* The Walking Dead *cough*). No one will ever accuse The Vampire Diaries off being too serious, and that’s a pretty great thing in my book.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.