How to Save the “Arrowverse”

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All images by The CW.

On Monday, March 19, Deadline reported that Matt Ryan’s Constantine would be promoted to series regular for Legends of Tomorrow‘s fourth season. While a great move–Ryan steals every episode he is in–there is one problem… Legends of Tomorrow has not been renewed for a fourth season yet. In fact, none of the series in The CW’s “Arrowverse,” which includes Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, and Arrow, nor the not-in-the-“Arrowverse”-but-still-based-on-a-DC-property Black Lightning have been renewed for next season.

Typically, The CW has announced the “Arrowverse” series renewals at or around the time of the Television Critics Association winter press tour, held every January. For these four programs, excluding Black Lightning, which we will be doing from here on out, not to be renewed before or during January 2018 was alarming, though I doubt that anyone involved in the production of these shows was in full-on panic mode. However, when we consider the date on the calendar (we’re well into March now), mixed with the firing of Supergirl and The Flash Executive Producer Andrew Kreisberg over sexual misconduct claims earlier this season, then you throw in the recent announcement that The CW is adding another two hours of primetime programming to their broadcast schedule–meaning they have two extra hours to play with every week–and one might have a reasonable reason to be reaching for a brown paper bag to hyperventilate into.

Supervillains? Handled. Nazis from Earth-X? No sweat. The greatest threat to the “Arrowverse” isn’t a costumed bad guy on the screen, it’s corporate expectations.

While The Flash continues to outperform a dozen or more other network hour-long dramas, The CW’s top-rated program has experienced a modest decline this season over last. That’s the good news. The even better news, depending on how you spin it (and remember this because we will come back to it later), is that while Legends of Tomorrow has experienced a modest dip as well this season, it has jumped to The CW’s fourth-rated program, outperforming last season’s No Tomorrow when Legends was on Tuesday nights for the first half of the season and has picked up the slack for Supergirl since moving to Monday nights during Supergirl‘s hiatus. The bad news? Supergirl continues to hemorrhage viewers, while Arrow still loses viewers from the now 13-season-old Supernatural, which Arrow has followed on Thursday nights this season.

In a vacuum, that’s pretty rough. But, these shows do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in an entertainment landscape that feels like it has reached peak superhero saturation and, after years of networks and streaming services greenlighting every program that featured a hero in spandex/leather/a cape, is starting to course correct. Inhumans was a disaster for ABC, which cancelled Agent Carter after one good and one sub-par season and has likewise not renewed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for next season. CBS got out of the game when it passed on Supergirl season two, allowing the show to move to The CW. NBC cancelled Constantine after one season, allowing for Matt Ryan to reprise the role on The CW, and dumped the more light-hearted Powerless (another DC property) after a single season as well. Even Netflix, home of Marvel’s street-level heroes since 2015, has failed to get anywhere near the bar they set with the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

How, then, can the powers that be at The CW save the “Arrowverse”?

First, let’s talk ratings. What brings ’em in? Premieres, finales, cliff-hangers, and crossovers. Typically, a show has a season premiere, a crossover event, a mid-season finale, a mid-season premiere, and a season finale. Those are five episodes in a season where viewers are more likely to tune in. Five episodes is a good chunk of the season for Legends of Tomorrow, which has fewer than 20 episodes a season, but is a less significant percentage for the rest of the shows that feature 20-plus episodes a season.

Next, take a look at the source material. In today’s market, trade paperbacks dominate the comics landscape. Limited series and recurring series alike are planned for how they will be collected and bound. What that means is that writers tend to commit to a six-issue arc–sometimes more, sometimes fewer–that when collected will make a complete story in the trades. Even when comic writer plans a long-term storyline, the beats are formatted so each can stand alone as a trade paperback.

Finally, we have to look no further than the current schedules for Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. For whatever reason, Supergirl needed an extended hiatus after the mid-season premiere, and the debut of Black Lightning bumped Legends of Tomorrow from the latter’s timeslot. The answer? Rest Supergirl, drop Legends into that spot to finish out its season, then bring Supergirl back. This approach has brought some health back to The CW’s Monday night numbers while allowing Supergirl to handle whatever business needs to be handled. For viewers, it also means that instead of the “Arrowverse” wrapping by Memorial Day, Supergirl will run new episodes into June.

What would happen if you were to take the above three elements and attempt to form them into a plan to save the “Arrowverse”?

You might get the four shows sharing one (certainly no more than two) timeslots in a week, likely on Monday (and possibly Tuesday) evenings. That frees up The CW to continue to pursue other options to fill their limited 12 hours of programming a week and hedge their bets by condensing and combining shows that are not performing as well as they have in the past into fewer hours.

Within that condensed schedule, you might run shorter arcs of three to six episodes each. Rather than commit to a two-dozen episode arc that becomes a snoozer a third of the way into it, then the production team trying to salvage what they can for the season, it allows the various teams to have more focused, concentrated arcs. This would eliminate what I call “Jack’s Tattoo” episodes, in reference to a series of filler episodes from the third season of LOST. It would allow for the producers to change course if a storyline isn’t landing the way they wanted it to. All of those beats can come together in a larger, season-long storyline for the individual shows, and/or a crossover event that ties together all of the various arcs from across the different shows.

So, you’d get a few episodes of Supergirl, followed by a few weeks of The Flash, then a month of Legends of Tomorrow, capped by a few episodes of Arrow. Lather, rinse, and repeat. This allows for multiple premieres and multiple cliff-hanger finales throughout the season. With four shows and a single timeslot, The CW could potentially run new episodes year-round (13 episodes of each of the four shows gets you 52 new episodes a year, or one a week).

In order to keep forward momentum, the shows can reference what happened before and is happening in parallel on the other shows. We’ve seen this used sparingly in the past, but why not open it up even more? I love the episodes where Lyla pops up in Central City or whatever. With increasingly larger casts on these shows, let the secondary characters cross over into other shows, creating both continuity and viewer excitement. Maybe Ralph’s arc takes him across The Flash and Arrow. Maybe Arrow‘s junior varsity squad pops over to National City to lend the DEO a hand. Yes, the title characters will be the focus of their respective arcs, but there’s no reason others can’t move from show to show. If The Flash is carrying the ratings torch, then perhaps weaving some of those characters, stories, and situations into other show arcs can provide a lift there as well.

How might such a programming reset occur?

The precedent is already there in the comics and has been hinted at from the very first season of The Flash. A “red sky” event. A crisis on infinite earths. Pull the teams together. Have them operating between their respective cities and the Hall of Justice used in previous crossovers. Give the entire project a new name (might I suggest The Brave and the Bold?), signaling a shift in creative direction.

The largest barrier to implementing something like the above is likely to be contract status of the various series casts and crews. That said, perhaps shaking up the core characters would provide the perfect ground for creating a new program to replace the old, slipping system.

What do you think? How would you save the “Arrowverse”? Let us know in the comments below!

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