DC's Legends of Tomorrow is one hell of a show. With strong character dynamics, high-flying, cheer-inducing spectacle, and an infectious sense of humor and fun, the first two episodes were a total joy to watch. Given how much fun I had watching it, though, I couldn't help but think about just how hard the show is going so early. On one hand, it makes sense for the premiere episodes of a high-profile show to be big, bold, and a real showcase of what the show can do, but is Legends of Tomorrow showing all its cards too early?
For the uninitiated, the premise of the show is that the dictator of all dictators, the immortal Vandal Savage, rises to the height of his power and takes over the world in the year 2166. A Time Lord--er... Time Master played by Arthur Darvill (who knew a Time Lord, forgive me) sets out on a rogue mission to stop Savage, in addition to avenging the deaths of his wife and child. He travels back in time 150 years to gather a team of people he's determined are capable of defeating Savage and saving the future - a team that could become, wait for it, legends of tomorrow.
I grew up on serialized television, TV shows with weekly episodes featuring a different plot each time, but moving along under the shadow of an overall arc -one big mystery or "Big Bad" (thanks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) that would be addressed periodically, or even encountered in meaningful ways at points in the season, before usually coming to a head in time for the season finale. This was the formula for network television (the kind of channel Legends of Tomorrow is on), where TV shows ostensibly go on indefinitely until they're cancelled. The show has to go on, so the premise has to be, to put it crudely, recyclable.
A decade ago, a villain like Vandal Savage might have been introduced this early on in the season, but he certainly wouldn't have gone head to head with the show's heroes in the second episode. No, that confrontation would have been teased out and strung along with mystery upon mystery until the show's schedule allowed for a high-stakes showdown.
What happens then, for the stakes of the rest of LoT's season? Keep in mind that, based on the show's premise, Vandal Savage isn't a big bad--he's the big bad. He is the reason, in a sense, the show exists.
That's the problem with shows that feature such a narrow premise: when the major arc is so specific (Stop Vandal Savage), how long can that be feasibly sustained before the show becomes fatigued, drawn out, uninteresting? Marvel's Jessica Jones couldn't sidestep this problem, falling into a pattern of capturing its Big Bad, losing its Big Bad, then repeating that until the final confrontation was robbed of all stakes. And that was only the over the course of 13 episodes. Can Legends of Tomorrow avoid that pitfall for what is a season of at least 16 episodes?
For a more successful execution, you don't have to look much further than to Marvel's other Netflix show, Daredevil. That show's first season established Wilson Fisk as its Big Bad and teased him out. The heroes didn't even know who he was for half the season, and even then he proved slippery and difficult to defeat for the second half. The show's premise isn't "Matt Murdock must stop Wilson Fisk", but "Matt Murdock fights crime in New York City." Wilson Fisk is just that season's version of crime - the season's Big Bad, not the show's.
The advent of cable television and more truncated, focused storytelling gave rise to more shortsighted TV pilots. Networks saw the success of shows with shorter seasons like The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad and missed the point entirely. Audiences responded to the quality of a show that wasn't forced to extend its length, but networks saw potential success in shows that are fundamentally short. What you got instead were shows with premises really only good for one season, as opposed to open-ended premises that could go on and on. Shows like Prison Break, Revenge, The Following, and more, all begin with great ideas, but the focus is so narrow that, eventually, the main question of the show has to be answered before problems begin to arise. The most successful of these shows find a way to pivot away from their original premise, continuing with the status quo reestablished somehow, while the least successful become mired in repetition. Even those "successful" ones, however, just succeed by becoming a different show entirely.
Ultimately what I'm reacting to is shortsightedness. It says to me, "Let's just get on the air then worry about longevity if and when we get there." What that does for someone watching the show is plant the question in the back of the mind, "What happens once this, the question of the first season, is answered? What then?" It makes you doubt whether you want to keep watching the show or not. We all have TV shows that we began loving, only to become frustrated with the ways in which they dragged out, perpetuated their status quo, or changed things entirely. Remember when audience faith in Alias plummeted so much that the show resolved its premise in the beginning of season two, only to spin-off in some wacky directions for the rest of its five-season run?
The Wire is often named the best TV show of all time. Whether you agree with that or not is irrelevant, but you can see why some might believe that. The show had a very specific story in mind for each season, and each hour was necessary to its telling. It never meandered, never dragged, and ended when it needed to end. Though it was five seasons, each season was different but also the same. The premise was an examination of law and order in Maryland (specifically Baltimore), and each season dealt with an aspect of that, introducing a different challenge each season. The show was as long as it needed to be, even though its premise could have allowed for many more seasons. A lot of modern television shows are the opposite: a shortsighted premise with intentions of a long run. Could Legends of Tomorrow be one of them? I hope not.
The successes of Legends of Tomorrow far outweigh its flaws (the dialogue can be too cheesy, the ensemble's talent is uneven, and the end of the last episode doesn't bode well for its storytelling logic), and the show could be a thrill every week... but I worry it's going to run out of steam. How are they going to justify continuing to travel through time? How are they going to justify letting Vandal Savage slip out of their grasp again and again? How long can they not defeat him before the stakes bottom out and the show just feels like a waste of time?
There are so many TV shows available to watch right now, that no TV show can afford to meander. If you lose someone's focus even for a single episode, what's to say they'll comeback? What's to say you won't be relegated to a binge-watch session on Netflix because the show isn't compelling enough to watch week-to-week? Making a big and bold splash is one thing, but you've gotta be able to back it up. Considering the same people behind Legends of Tomorrow have turned Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl into shows with real legs, I'm hoping it can buck the trend.