The superhero show is the new police procedural

Sprinting toward mediocrity.
Sprinting toward mediocrity.
Image: The CW
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The medical drama. The courtroom thriller. The detective series. Because there are apparently no other interesting human professions, the newest overplayed trope in broadcast television is to go superhuman.

The Flash premieres tonight on The CW, making it the network’s third superhero show after Smallville and Arrow. To Smallville‘s credit, there wasn’t yet an abundance of superhero shows on network TV when it debuted in 2001. On the contrary, superheroes were a virtually unexplored television genre, and Smallville actually felt like something fresh and innovative amidst a sea of Law & Orders and 24s. If the same show were to debut today, it would feel like a banal attempt to cash in on Man of Steel hype.

Sadly, though, that’s pretty much what most superhero shows are. In 2012, The Avengers grossed $1.5 billion on big screens and a year later, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. came to ABC (which, like Marvel, is owned by Disney). Last month, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment launched Gotham on FOX, a show that wouldn’t exist if not for the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Gotham isn’t merely a television show, it’s also a marketing tactic. These franchises have huge built-in fan bases, and they’re being used to quickly and comfortably get a TV show off the ground in the same way a network will greenlight essentially any and all series involving crime scene investigations.

Network executives have long commissioned new shows based on what’s worked for them before. There’s a reason why there are countless series set in hospitals—audiences keep tuning in. And yes, they’re easy to develop too. “The superhero show” now fits into that boring mold. Donal Logue, who plays Harvey Bullock in Gotham, told TheWrap that “comic books are already storyboards.” Alas, he’s right. Who needs original storytelling when you have the entire Batman universe to draw from, and a multi-billion dollar movie franchise to play off of?

More superhero shows are coming. CBS is developing a Supergirl series, ABC is making Agent Carter, a spin-off of S.H.I.E.L.D, and FOX is apparently considering a live-action X-Men show. While this is mostly a broadcast phenomenon, cable and internet TV have joined the fray too. An adaptation of Teen Titans is coming to TNT, and Netflix is developing a Daredevil series, which, luckily, can’t be any worse than the 2003 movie with Ben Affleck.