Just before we get going, let me say that Kickstarter feels, emphasis on feels, better by far. Feels more creatively honest, more genuine, more authentic. All of those descriptors begin with capitals. But this is for later, we’re not at this point in the story yet. For right now, we’re at “Spinoff, or Crossover?”
It’s been a good week, last week, ending as it did with New York ComicCon in full swing. And starting even more strongly with two “spinoff” shows, the first, last Tuesday gone, CW’s The Flash, a spinoff from the hit show, Arrow. And the second, which caught me completely by surprise, the spinoff of Serial from the much-loved This American Life (much-loved, because, well, I love the show, and if you’re reading this, you probably do as well). But even just saying that, and the idea of “spinoff” somehow runs out of steam. Spinoff’s a TV-land word. It’s something that you’d use to describe Joanie loves Chachi or Laverne & Shirley or Mork & Mindy in relation to Happy Days. (For the quiz, after, remember that all shows ever are spun off from Happy Days.) But even though The Flash comes directly out of the previous season of Arrow (wherein we saw The Flash lead Grant Gustin prefigure his role as Barry Allen in an early episode entitled “The Scientist”), and even though Ira Glass, inimitable host of This American Life, actually uses the exact word “spinoff” to describe Serial, we’re into slightly more ambiguous territory here.
Why? Pretty much because of two things. The first, in The Flash, a key scene where Barry Allen, already gifted with his powers of super-speed but before he’s actually conceived of the identity of “the Flash,” runs 600-something miles from his home in Central City to Starling City to have a dark-night-of-the-soul-chat with his bud, Oliver Queen, the vigilante Green Arrow. And the second, Serial’s “heist” of This American Life’s air, for the entire hour of this week’s show. And Serial’s restructuring of This American Life to momentarily do away with the latter’s more regularized act structure of storytelling. (To be fair, there have been moments when This American Life did entire shows in just one act, and Glass’s dulcet tones didn’t interrupt at regular intervals to say things like “Act Two: This Party Sucks,” or “Stay with us…,” but also to be fair, there’s more of a point here about the show using acts, than not.)
Despite feeling like the most coerced or maybe even the most formulaic part of the episode, the “confrontation” scene between Barry and the Arrow is actually one of the most powerful scenes. It comes after a phase of the narrative that screenwriting guru Blake Snyder (who we lost too soon, despite Slate’s Nixonian-esque rant), would have termed “The Bad Guys Close In;” a point when after the apparent success of the midpoint, we discover that that success is really a house built on sand. Barry’s just been through using his powers for the first time, using them to foil the getaway of bank robber Clyde Martin. But he botched the capture, and not only allowed Martin to escape, but to cause the death of an innocent in the process. And what’s worse, Barry’s two mentor figures, Harrison Wells and Detective Joe West have just chewed him out. Respectively for not actually being a hero but just being a guy who “got hit by a bolt of lightning.” And for not living in the real world and confabulating a conspiracy by a super-powered blur to have killed his mother, when it’s clear his father committed the murder. Given the scifi scope of The Flash, you can guess which theory is actually true.
Barry’s standing on the edge of a downward spiral into depression when he speaks to Oliver. And it’s Oliver’s words that actually alter that trajectory. “You can be something more than a vigilante, you can inspire your city. And you can be a guardian angel rescuing people, in a flash.” This is also the moment where The Flash’s series premiere, “City of Heroes,” begins to feel like something more than a spinoff, but maybe not quite a crossover. Crossover here is a comicbook word. It’s not what Leonard Chess would have meant by “crossover” when he spoke about Etta James. It’s the idea that Green Arrow can appear in an issue of Batman, and the two can team up to solve a case, but only part the way, because its a case that can only be concluded in the next issue of Green Arrow.
The crossover element plays out at the end of the crucial “confrontation” scene. After inspiring Barry to adopt a secret identity and do good works and take no credit, Green Arrow batmans his way out of the conversation by stealthily exiting without Barry noticing only to have Barry go “where’d he go?!” But Green Arrow isn’t Batman. Rather than simply sneak away, he shoots a zip-line to a ledge on a nearby building and swings clear, leaving Barry on the rooftop with nothing to do by murmur “Cool,” in a hush of reverence.
It’s what happens next that complicates the simplicity of the spinoff model. Green Arrow turns around while dangling from the side of that building, and sees Barry outrace the effects of gravity and run down that building’s vertical face to street level and speed off down Starling’s main drag in the blink of an eye. And what does he do? What can he do? In a tone of hushed reverence he beholds this, and Green Arrow whispers “Cool.”
There’s an equivalence at play here. The Flash isn’t the junior executive in the corporation, isn’t a show that will somehow always be beholden to an illustrious forebear in Arrow. The Flash is it’s own show, with it’s own internal emotional mechanisms, but there is an opportunity for partnership with the two leads, just like the is the chance of a crossover for the two shows. And all of this is conveyed in a moment where the show’s two protagonists treat each other’s abilities with an equal wonder.
The power of Serial lies in its wholehearted embrace of the digital production/digital distribution model of podcasting. How great is podcasting? Any time you like you can just log on to a website and download an episode directly. It’s the opposite of what Apple CEO Tim Cook accused television of in his Charlie Rose interview in mid-September of this year—that TV feels like its stuck in the ‘70s, that you have to have to gather around a fixed space, or else, remember to record the shows you want.
Podcasting as a distribution model, versus television as a distribution model, feels like freedom from Cook’s justified critique—that you can go where you want, do what you want, and yet still somehow have access to the media you demand. Then add into this, that Sarah Koenig and her team have put together a show that completely focuses on longform storytelling journalism, where over the course of 12 episodes, only one case will be covered, but in greater and greater depth. Suddenly you feel like the full promise of podcasting has just been unleashed. That longform narrative nonfiction is really the way to best leverage the potential of podcasting as a distribution model.
And just as The Flash isn’t beholden to Arrow but can cooperate as an equal, so too is Serial its own thing, free and clear of This American Life. But you also get the sense, that with Serial’s wholehearted embrace of podcasting, and with its longform narrative nonfiction that focuses on a single story, that the door for future “cooperation” with This American Life is wide open. That, in the case of both The Flash and Serial, both have become something a little more than spinoff, even if they’re not quite crossover.
The Flash is no less arresting in its iconography. When Barry Allen wakes up and discovers its nine months gone and he’s been imbued with strange new superpowers, we see a dark and broken world that showrunners Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and Geoff Johns have ushered us into. S.T.A.R. Labs at the heart of downtown Central City has become a ruined cathedral of science. The promise of that particle accelerator, a promise so bright just nine months ago now, was that Central City would become a beacon of endless clean energy, of miracle cures for devastating plagues, of genetic and technological advancement that would make Central City look like magic in comparison with the rest of the world.
But we don’t get that. Instead we get ruined science and ruined lives. We get a science visionary who, for his sins, is confined to a wheelchair. We get a promising young scientist rendered unemployable by her boss’s hubris and his ensuing failure. We get a hipster kid scientist who’s too immersed in a sense of how cool science is to even realize the consequences of what happened. And we get an army of supervillains weaponized by their exposure to said scientist’s failure (when the particle accelerator inexplicably exploded), and a police department that’s entirely unprepared for this threat. And at this point, even unaware of this threat. And amid all this, we have Barry Allen, gifted with these superpowers, crawling back from human fallibility, showing how science is not something to be frightened of, even if sometimes the results of its missteps are disastrous.
What’s so convincing about this vision of the Flash and the world of Central City, is what it isn’t. This isn’t the stand-back-I’ll-use-science Flash that took center stage when the character first appeared at the dawn of the Silver Age after being created by writers Robert Kanigher and John Broome. Nor is this the Gerry Conway-era Flash who appeared in the pages of Justice League of America in the late ‘70s through the late ‘80s, the Flash who’d use his speed as a kind of long range weapon. Nor was this the Flash of Geoff Johns, Johns writing the character just after its return to continuity in the wake of a 23-year absence. This is a unique vision of the character, having slightly more in common with Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol (from the landmark Doom Patrol: Crawling from the Wreckage onwards), where the main character has to reestablish the brand identity of something failed (for Gustin’s Flash, a wide-scale faith in science rather than superstition, why do you think Weather Wizard kept on ranting about how he’d become God?). Something failed, that the characters themselves didn’t cause to fail, but must somehow restore faith in. Powerful, powerful stuff.
And this is the real power of The Flash we’ll be seeing on CW’s air each week—the idea that somehow this is “just another version” of the Flash. It’s powerful, it’s psychologically vivid, and it’s as much true to the original ideation of the character, as it introduces unique twists of its own. This has always been the secret power of comicbook storytelling—that different creative teams always make their own unique imprint on the characters and their worlds. That within the scope of just three months, Grant Morrison can completely refocus the Flash, crafting a different kind of storytelling, not in spite of, but because not too long ago, Mark Waid was telling an equally powerful, equally psychologically vivid tale with the same character. But of course a tale on a completely different vector.
So the power of this Flash lies in it being one creative vision of the character and his setting, among many others. And that this idea of what a superhero can look like on the big screen, is radically different from the kind of superhero grand narrative we’ve been corralled into since 2004’s Batman Begins and been reeducated in time and again with such blockbusters as Iron Man, The Dark Knight, The Avengers and even as recently as this year with movies like Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. What these movies taught us, over and again, was that superhero story, realized in live action, is only cool if you can construct a definitive version of the character. A single creative vision that deletes all other visions, or maybe just renders them meaningless.
CW’s The Flash shows us the opposite—a vision of infinite storytelling. A world where, the story of the character and their world is so powerful, that time and again humans return to this character to tell different kinds of stories, retell different versions. It’s the deep-rooted and very human yearning for mythmaking that writer Grant Morrison signed with the line, “There will always be a Batman and Robin!” The idea that certain stories succeed time and again, even if they change through the ages. The primal human need for some things, that simply deserve to last forever.
And it’s here that The Flash crosses over with Serial once again. And here where both cross into the territory of business model. Who pays for Serial and for The Flash? And who “brings it to market,” as it were? There’s a usual 20th century logic that emerges when we think about this, but even this traditional way of thinking about this aspect of modern living is problematized by the era of digital production and digital distribution we’re living in.
The usual way of thinking about this problem is framing it as propinquity. Corporations are friendly towards the public, so this tract of cultural logic goes, because of corporations’ vested interest in selling us things. So with corporations, if you’re living in the early mid-20th century, be wary, see through their machinations.
The one form of corporate-product that can be trusted, more or less, (to continue this 20th century mode of thinking) is the news. Why? Pretty much because journalism has built-in safeguards against promoting vested interests. The rest of corporate production needs governmental regulation, to balance out corporate with public interests (or so the cultural logic goes). So a clear distinction begins to emerge between products made with vested corporate interests, versus public goods that come to the broader public free of ulterior motives.
Easy enough. And into this marketplace of ideas, in jostles something like Kickstarter. And Kickstarter just feels more honest. Because it’s a mirror of our political system; it allows end-user input long before projects are determined. You think the county needs a new bridge, contact your representative; you think a certain project deserves to be read, kickstart it with some of your hard-earned Dollars.
But, it’s never really that simple.
For one thing, a major star like Zach Braff has used Kickstarter ostensibly to buck the Hollywood studio system and exert greater creative control over his project. For another, cult classic TV show, Veronica Mars has been resuscitated as a movie through Kickstarter. Both projects, which enjoy a kind of access to traditional filmmaking production not enjoyed by the broader public, have radically shifted perceptions of Kickstarter. When the crowdfunding site began, it seemed to embrace that us-versus-big-business indie feel to the production of art and entertainment. Projects like Veronica Mars and Braff’s have negotiated that perception. As a result, the traditional sense of public-versus-big-business that was fostered by Glass-Steagall (U.S. Banking Act of 1933) has been thrown into disarray.
Serial and The Flash embrace two very different funding models. The latter relies on big business structures of advertising and the television production system. The former presents a group of skilled media production veterans who are assertively creative control of their content.
Serial may not be “in the public interest” in the traditional big-scale sense of industrialized productivity (like when Ford needs to put out a mass recall of products, say), but it is interesting on a smaller, more personal scale. And it does honor the precepts of journalism, by broadcasting what’s in the public interest, in that its in-depth (really in-depth) investigation into this first season’s case raises our awareness around critical inefficiencies in the justice system.
The Flash for its part, offers a unique way of telling a superhero story. Rather than having “the perfect creative vision” that obliterates all other visions, The Flash offers “just another version” of this powerful, almost mythic struggle by a likable character. If the question around Serial is “Will we pay for digital content” (another way of saying “will the money last”, and a question already posed of Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish by Serial and This American Life sister show, Planet Money), then the question around The Flash must be, will it be able to continue asserting itself creatively as it does now?
There aren’t any answers to those questions yet, so “stay tuned,” as they say in TV-land. One takeaway worth mentioning though. Both The Flash and Serial are in a battle against tomorrow, negotiating economic and cultural expectations of the recent past with the promise evolving technological advancement. So as Ira Glass would say, “Stay, with us…”