It’s been said before, but the Golden Age of Television is upon us – partially because there is so much content being produced. And with so many channels or streaming services to choose from, there are two unavoidable truths: even the most avid TV watchers will miss out on at least one great show, and some channels are bound to be ignored. Now, even in this Golden Age of Television, it’s hard to deny that the basic cable networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) have dropped the ball. Sure, each network has a standout show or two, but the airwaves are, primarily, filled with interchangeable crime shows or unoriginal sitcoms. Except for… and try to stick with me on this… The CW.
Yes, in an age where basic cable hasn’t quite caught embraced this Golden Age we’re in, The CW is the network where you can find the best original content, without subscribing to a more expensive cable package or streaming service. Initially a home of teen soap operas (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), The CW has recently transformed into a breeding ground for unique content that’s seemingly happy to appeal to a niche audience… but should be recognized by the masses that celebrate HBO, Netflix and FX as the purveyors of quality television.
They may, in fact, house the best comedy on television right now, with the staggeringly original Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The story of Rebecca Bunch, a New York lawyer who suffers a nervous breakdown and impulsively follows her first love to California with the hopes of winning him back, is both a hilarious spoof of romantic comedy tropes and a compassionate call for mental health advocacy. As played by series creator Rachel Bloom, Rebecca is a funny character to spend an hour with each week, but the show never sugar coats (or exploits) the fact that she has mental health issues that require treatment. In fact, the show explores how so many relationships are built on outdated ideas that could tax on someone’s mental well being, and offers advice and inspiration for those who may be trying to get help in real life.
Oh… and did I mention it’s a musical? Yes, each week audiences are treated to a handful of Broadway style showstoppers unlike anything on TV right now or, perhaps, ever. Some, like “The Math of Love Triangles” lampoon classic Hollywood musicals while further developing Rebecca’s character. Others, like “We Tapped That Ass” infuse old-fashioned music with modern, edgy lyrics. And then there are numbers like “Put Yourself First”, which spoof modern pop songs while also side-eying sexist tropes promoted by society. Yes, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a true original that has struggled to find an audience, despite a rallying cry from critics. Luckily, it has found a loyal home at The CW for two seasons, and will live on for a third.
Jane the Virgin, meanwhile, continues to be an oasis of optimism in a world where many TV shows are dark, depressing and filled with unlikable characters. While picking up a telenovela spoof seemed like an unorthodox choice for The CW, especially with similar projects failing on networks like NBC, Jane the Virgin has become both a critical darling & a ratings success. Jane’s premise, about a virgin that is artificially inseminated with the child of the millionaire hotel manager, has proven to be one of television’s most fast-paced, consistently likable shows. Three seasons in, it juggles storylines about mistaken identities, long lost fathers, a mysterious drug dealer and evil twins while still, at its heart, being a beautiful love story.
The show has even been quietly political at moments: Jane’s grandma was nearly deported and struggled to obtain her green card, while Jane’s mom recently had an abortion in a beautifully written episode. But, even when it explores these heavy issues, Jane the Virgin remains almost intensely likable. Additionally, this series produced one of the most compelling love triangles in recent TV memory, because both of Jane’s suitors – detective Michael and Rafael, the father of her baby – are decent guys with their perks and flaws (but, really, #TeamMichael for life). It’s unlike anything else on American television, and truly has something for everyone to enjoy.
But even when they remain on brand, The CW is still selecting high quality content that subverts genre norms. The Flash, while not perfect, stands as a comic book property that is just unrelenting in its optimism and positivity – there is no brooding to be found here. While not exactly high art, The Flash is an hour of fun escapism each week, led by a likable cast and anchored by surprisingly compelling action scenes. At its best moments, it calls to mind the zippiness of early Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Similarly, the latest CW joint, Riverdale, plays with the teen soap opera tropes that the network was founded on, while changing the face of a well known property: Archie Comics. While only one episode has aired thus far (critics have seen more, and love it), the pilot stands as one of the most original twists on a teen series since Veronica Mars.
While all the Archie staples are here – malt shops, cutesy catchphrases and, yes, the iconic Betty/Veronica love triangle – the series explores the façade behind the perfect suburban utopia put forth in the comics, with a Twin Peaks-esque murder mystery being used to pull out characters’ secrets. It’s not the next Mad Men, but it doesn’t have to be – a well made show deserves credit, regardless of what genre it belongs in, and especially if it’s trying to do something new. And, while it’s still early, Riverdale looks like it’s trying to break new ground in the realm of teen soaps.
You won’t find high art of thought provoking dramas on The CW, but you will find that on dozens of other TV channels, as well as one or two streaming services. There is so much to watch right now, and The CW presents itself as a welcome source of sheer entertainment. It has a handful of genuinely compelling, fun series that deserve to be recognized during any conversation about the best shows on TV. Don’t let them fly under the radar as you prioritize your (likely hectic) viewing schedule. And, if you’re already booked throughout the week, don’t worry – the CW’s entire catalog is available on Netflix to stream.