Why Awards Need to Start Taking Superhero TV Shows Seriously
A great TV show starring a goofy superhero outpaces a lot of other TV. Why isn't it recognized?
Following last week’s announcement of the 2016 Emmy nominations, the web paraded out its normal list of snubbed favorites — often worthy little shows that aren’t deemed important. These snubs, as agreed upon by the internet hive-mind include Penny Dreadful, Netflix’s crime thriller Narcos and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a whip-smart comedy/musical on the CW. And yet, no one said a peep about The Flash, one of the finest action shows on TV and the best example of the superhero genre – which has moved the industry forward in ways it never has before.
Not only was The Flash not nominated for an Emmy, it didn’t even get mentioned in the conversation. Neither did any other show in the superhero genre. And at this point, we just can’t figure out why that’s the case.
The ubiquity of superheroes in modern pop culture means critical eyes tend to glaze over them. Any superhero movie or TV show that people like has to have caveats attached to its praise; The Dark Knight was good, but only because it wasn’t like other superhero movies. Jessica Jones on Netflix was good, but hey, Jessica Jones wasn’t really a superhero. Guardians of the Galaxy was good, but only through “dazzle and dumb luck,” according to Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers.
Earning the sort of praise afforded to this year’s best series nominees, like Better Call Saul and Game of Thrones, only comes when the superhero show gives up the hallmarks that make it unique in the first place.
Maybe it goes back to the genre’s roots in pulpy comics published in the early-to-mid 20th century, where the magazines were filled with disposable narratives. Or maybe it’s that early superhero TV — like 1966’s Batman or even 1990’s The Flash — looked cheesy as hell. But those shows were relics, and superheroes today are in better shape on TV than they’ve ever been. The aforementioned Jessica Jones is downright revolutionary, while Marvel’s Daredevil and the CW’s Arrow — imperfect as they are — have ported blockbuster action filmmaking to the small screen. So it’s bizarre that the genre’s best is still not good enough for an Emmy nod, let alone a spot on an internet listicle.
It’s not like good TV is allergic to weird stuff like you would find in a comic book. Game of Thrones, the lavish HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels, is a “tits and dragons” festival that racked up a whopping 23 Emmy nominations. Clearly, the Academy digs escapist fantasies filled with swords and magic, but somehow, comic book adaptations are just way too childish to even consider.
The Flash is often great great. Based on the DC Comics superhero, the Arrow spin-off stars Grant Gustin as Barry Allen, a forensic scientist driven by the death of his mother by a yellow “ghost.” A freak accident at S.T.A.R. Labs gives Barry superhuman speed, which he uses to protect Central City from the rising population of “meta-humans,” individuals also affected by S.T.A.R. Labs’s ambitious experiments.
Critics have praised The Flash for all the reasons for which any good show should be praised: It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s charming, it’s exciting. But the show should also be recognized single-handedly expanding DC’s TV programming into a whole universe that can rival Marvel. The show’s sci-fi premise features time-traveling and alternate dimensions, which allowed DC TV to grow further with Legends of Tomorrow and a direct cross-over with Supergirl. This scale in narrative TV has never, ever existed before, not until The Flash.
But crossovers aside, The Flash is exciting on its own. Grounded and modern, it doesn’t shy from the kitschy hallmarks of a Silver Age comic. It will even break your heart if you let yourself get invested enough. Gustin excels as Barry, whose journey from awkward try-hard haunted by trauma into a daring superhero is easily the most satisfying journey witnessed in all of comic book TV.
Gustin is buoyed by wonderful supporting characters, including Iris (Candace Patton), Cisco (Carlos Valdes), and Joe West (Jesse L. Martin). Mentor-figure Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) equally excels as a genius who clearly has skeletons buried in his closet. Last season’s mystery surrounding the super-villain Zoom inspired a sheer number of fan theories not seen since True Detective and Lost. And yeah, the action is pretty solid.
The Flash isn’t immune to narrative problems and awkward filmmaking. Its SFX runs the gamut from impressive to 1998 PlayStation game. But the show is altogether ambitious, fun, and a true celebration of the unique comic book heritage that the critically-approved superhero works like The Dark Knight have long been ashamed of. The shows that the Television Academy are celebrating this year, prestige heavy-hitters, like Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, and The Americans, are all deserving of awards gold. The Flash, though, can race alongside any of them.