Don’t Touch That Dial: Midseason Superheroes

Welcome back to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a seasonal series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. I already told you what’s new this spring, so now we’re diving a little deeper. In this very special episode we’re covering a kickass secret agent (Agent Carter), a dead hero (Arrow), an adorable speedster (The Flash), and a Batman show for people who don’t like Batman (Gotham).

Agent Carter

The Road So Far: Last seen in a short film on the Iron Man 3 Blu-Ray, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) finally arrives to the small screen in a new miniseries. Set shortly after the end of World War II and Captain America’s death, Agent Carter sees Peggy struggling to find a place in the smothering, patronizing, condescending patriarchy of the Strategic Scientific Reserve. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) roars back into her life after he’s accused of treason when a bunch of his “bad babies”—inventions designed to wreak havoc and death—are stolen. Stark goes AWOL, and the SSR will bring him to justice by any means. Stark begs Peggy to clear his name and find his toys, and teams her up with Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), butler extraordinaire. Peggy foils the plans of her SSR cohorts (including Enver Gjokaj!) and untangles the machinations of the mysterious entity known as “Leviathan” all while trying to live a normal life with her new bestie Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca). ABC, Tue 9p

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: There are many reasons to love Agent Carter. Hayley Atwell is a peach, and the rest of the cast is just as wonderful. The storylines are crisp and action-y without being pulpy treacle. Peggy Carter is a strong female character without being a Strong Female CharacterTM. Moreover, the underlying theme of women trying to carve a place of their own in the ever oppressive patriarchy is one that is rarely explored in media. When a woman is the star, she is invariably foisted into a romance or love triangle, saddled with an abusive male to whom she feels obligated to support, and/or basically becomes a male character with a great rack—she’s not a girly girl, she’s just one of the guys! Peggy Carter doesn’t have time for any of that nonsense. If she is going to have a romance, it’ll be on her terms with a man she respects and who respects her equally. Douchecanoes need not apply. Even the flashbacks to her chaste relationship with Capsicle is framed from her perspective as an event that affects her life rather than just a teaser for Captain America 3. She’s more than happy to be feminine and powerful, to punch a guy out while wearing killer heels, and to stand toe-to-toe with men twice her size. She’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a female character.

Kick his ass!So it’s a good thing the script lives up to Peggy’s awesomeness. Though we’ll only be blessed with eight episodes (unless ABC decides to renew), the first three were hella fun. Showrunners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas have balanced the campier aspects of 1940s comics with the seriousness of a solid drama and the thrilling bits of action and adventure. The writers know exactly how to play to Atwell and D’Arcy’s strengths as grudging partners, and how to use the other SSR agents (Kyle Bornheimer, Chad Michael Murray, and Shea Whigham) to bolster Peggy’s arc rather than as white knights there to rescue her. Where Agents of SHIELD tries too hard to be Avengers filler, Agent Carter stands on its own. Where Gotham thinks Easter eggs should be shoved into every nook and cranny, Agent Carter figures if you get it, you get it, if you don’t, eh whatever. If you haven’t seen any Avengers movies, you can still dig into Peggy’s adventures without losing anything crucial. Honestly, I’m enjoying the show far more than I did any of the movies (yes, even Winter Soldier). It’s what SHIELD should have been. Maybe if ABC opts not to renew (ratings haven’t been great) Netflix will add it to its growing roster…

TL;DR: I know the timeline is a little off, but if there’s anyway they can work it so Peggy teams up with Helen Cobb, that would be SO COOL.

 

Arrow

The Road So Far: It seems like aeons have passed since Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) stopped being the millionaire playboy and sunk fully into the role of brooding badass. In the first season, Oliver was a weapon of mass destruction, but his humanity and sense of honor got the best of him. In season 2 he refrained from killing, only to watch his past catch up with him and drag his mother to the grave. Now with the unexpected and tragic murder of Canary (Caity Lotz), Thea (Willa Holland) siding with her father Malcolm Merlyn (all hail John Barrowman), Diggle (John Ramsey) becoming a daddy, Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards) making the jump from friend to lover, Laurel and Quentin Lance (Katie Cassidy, Paul Blackthorne) continuing to be plotsucks, and the arrival of the unintentional romantic rift-maker Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh), a lot has changed for the denizens of Starling, ahem, Star City. Oh, and Roy Harper (Colton Haynes) becomes Arsenal or something. CW, Wed 8p

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Back when it premiered, I summed up my opinions on Arrow as “Too early to tell if it this is a show that will grow suckier as time progresses, manage to maintain its current level of decent-ness, or improve with age and experience—though I think it’ll end up the latter.” Turns out I was totally right about it growing into much better show. Season 3 Arrow is solid entertainment, a balanced mix of family drama, steamy romance, and heart-pounding action. The show still hasn’t figured out what to do with Roy or Laurel—killing off Caity Lotz instead of Katie Cassidy was a huge mistake, and both are frustratingly superfluous—but Thea’s finally grown into a moderately useful character, albeit one wildly miscast as a fighter. The flashbacks this season aren’t as effective as those that came before, and I’m not sure I care about Maseo as one of Ra’s al Ghul’s goons, but overall the plots are moving forward. I trust the writers enough now to hold on while they sort themselves out, and adore Oliver, Felicity, and Diggle enough to stick with them til the bitter end.

Okay, this looks bad.I need a moment to talk about the only romance in my life I care about: Olicity. The world’s cutest couple is currently on hiatus—partly because Oliver is too afraid to commit, partly because Ray is just so darn charming, and mostly because Oliver is presently dead—but that doesn’t mean it’s kaput for the lovers. If you’re even the least bit familiar with Ra’s al Ghul, you can guess how the show will get around the sticky business of Oliver’s violent death in the midseason finale. Ray may make for a decent temporary Oliver replacement, but come on. I mean, really. Not nothing, not no one can sink the good ship Olicity. What makes their relationship/friendship work so well is that Felicity is never relegated to the clutzy secretary. She assists from her desk, but is a vital component to the Arrow team. She will never be able to fight like Canary, but she’s good at what she does and is highly respected for it by her friends. She’s another real character, one who feels like an actual person rather than a trope. If Felicity Smoak and Peggy Carter teamed up, they’d rule the world in days. (Someone write that fic!)

TL;DR: Until Agent Carter arrived, I’d have said this was the best superhero show on TV, if for no other reason than the supreme joy that is Olicity.

 

The Flash

The Road So Far: Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), loveable doof, forensics specialist, and all-around nice dude was struck by lightning when the Star Labs particle accelerator blew up (possibly intentionally) during a backdoor pilot in Arrow last season. Barry came out of his coma with superspeed and healing powers he keeps mostly secret from his adoptive father Det. Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), coworker Eddie Thawne (Rick Cosnett), and unrequited love interest Iris West (Candice Patton). Now Barry protects Central City from metahumans gone bad and tries to locate Reverse Flash, the guy who murdered his mother and framed his father a decade ago. He hones his skills with the help of some disgraced Star Labs scientists, Dr. Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker), Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes), and Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) and, in several fantastic crossovers, Oliver Queen and Felicity Smoak. Besides the malevolent Man in Yellow, Barry must contend with his new nemesis Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller) and Ronnie Raymond (Robbie Amell), Caitlin’s dead-fiancé-turned-Firestorm. CW, Tue 8p

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Flash is the yin to Arrow’s yang. It goes for lightness and comedy where Arrow opts for darkness and tragedy. Oliver is plagued by guilt while Barry is tormented by love. Both worlds are mired in lies and secrets, but where in Arrow they’re used to manipulate and punish, in The Flash they’re used to protect, even if the lies end up causing more damage than the truth. There are certainly more laughs on The Flash than on Arrow, but despite their differences, Barry Allen has proven he’s able to stand outside his mentor’s shadow. True, the individual episodes aren’t as strong as they could be, but they’re sturdy enough as a foundation for later seasons. Taken as a whole, the season continues to improve with every step. The chemistry between cast members is sparkling, and it’s great having a set of characters who embrace the sillier stuff out of the comics. I can’t imagine Oliver and Diggle discussing Weather Wizard or Clock King with a straight face, but somehow it works with Cisco and Barry.

Barry spends an inordinate amount of time recieving medical treatment.The Flash’s biggest problem is the same one Arrow and Gotham suffer from: having a female lead no one knows what to do with. On Arrow it’s Laurel Lance, on Gotham it’s Barbara Kean, and on The Flash it’s Iris West. All three women exist as plot devices for the male leads. They are far too flimsy to support their own independent storylines, and none of the actors are strong enough to overcome the weak material. Outside of giving Barry someone to pine over, Joe someone to smother with overprotection, and Eddie to form a love triangle with to piss of Barry, Iris doesn’t do much of anything. Her personality, interests, and actions all center around Barry to the point where if you remove him there’s nothing left of her. Yes, they’re giving her some agency and a stronger connection with the main arc by turning her into a journalist (a career move that is about as realistic as Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist, but hey, at least she gets to hang out with Todd Manning from One Life to Live), but the writers need to make her relevant. It took three seasons for the Arrow writers to finally give some weight to Laurel—too little, too late, if you ask me—but I’m not sure there’s enough of Iris to begin with to last that long. Good thing the rest of the characters are (well, save Eddie) are appealing enough to override the Iris misstep.

TL;DR: There’s a helluva lot to love about The Flash. Very promising. Also! Supergirl might be in the same universe as The Flash and Arrow! So exciting!

 

Gotham

The Road So Far: Before Commissioner James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) had his bat-signal, he was just a rookie detective in a corrupt metropolis. His attempts to become the hero his city deserves are thwarted by his lazy partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), a mob war fronted by Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Carmine Falcone (John Doman), and Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), and his zeal to protect young master Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), kid cat burglar Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), and bisexual plot point Barbara Kean (Erica Richards). Random bat-characters turn up to make puns on their future secret identities as Jim tries desperately to pretend he’s back on Southland. In the midseason finale, Jim was kicked down the ladder to security guard at Arkham Asylum after his gun was used to kill someone named Lovecraft whose relevance to the story I’ve already forgotten. Not that it mattered anyway, since that plot lasted a grand total of two eps. Now he’s back in GCPD and pissing everyone off all over again. Shenanigans ensue. Fox, Mon 8p

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The thing about Gotham is that it doesn’t know what kind of show it wants to be. It’s a crime show, a procedural, an origin story, a superhero show. It’s overstuffed at best, scattered and disorganized at worst. Every scene with a different set of characters becomes an entirely different show than what immediately preceded it. Some of those pieces aren’t bad, per se. The characters are getting better as the writers figure out what to do with them, but the stories are stuck in stagnation. Surprise twists are telegraphed so loudly it’s a wonder each episode doesn’t end after 15 minutes, and what’s left of the plot varies from uninteresting to downright boring. Agents of SHIELD made the mistake of thinking people would tune in to get their Avengers fix and forgot to spend time developing intriguing characters and story arcs. Gotham isn’t much better. By offering a Batman-less Batman show, they’ve cut out the heart of the story without building up any of the support characters. Only Gotham could turn a mob war into a snooze fest.

They're as excited to be on this show as I am watching it.Baby Bruce and Kitten Selina were annoying at first, but after spending some quality time learning from each other, scenes with the two kids are actually rather enjoyable now. Alfred is basically Liam Neeson in the Taken movies, which works for me even if it seems a little out of place. Barbara is easily the worst part of the show. How bad is she? Selina and Ivy crashed Jim’s apartment in the last ep, and when Barbara called to talk to him she couldn’t recognize what was clearly a child’s voice on the other line and screamed in a jealous rage. Christ, she’s so bad she’s even dragging down Montoya, a character I’ve loved since Batman: The Animated Series but is becoming increasingly insufferable with this ridiculously unnecessary love triangle. Why couldn’t they take inspiration from Batgirl and make her, oh, I dunno, useful? I take it back. She’s not like Iris West or Laurel Lance. She’s Katrina from Sleepy Hollow. Everything she does is awful and counterproductive. What a waste.

TL;DR: The shows in this post were arranged alphabetically, but you could also think of it as ranked by quality, and Gotham is easily the least effective, meaningful, or necessary of the four.


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 and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

19 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.