Most of the DCTV shows – all but Black Lightning to date – work off the same formula. Part of that formula involves the use of a team to support the hero, provide exposition and explanation, and justify the addition of other characters to the cast over time. But teams have not always been prevalent in superhero shows. How did they become such a staple in DCTV, and what has been gained – and lost – by their addition?
Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
Superhero shows have been something of a staple of television almost since the invention of the medium. However, in my eyes, Lois and Clark kick-started the current era of superheroes on the small screen. Airing on ABC, with ratings that many shows would kill for today, it helped make superheroes mainstream. Also, while it had its moments of ridiculousness and absurdity (frog eating clones, I’m looking at you), it was still darn good.
It was also, in its own way, a different kind of superhero show. As the name might suggest, the focus of the show was on both Lois Lane and Clark Kent. As far as the latter goes, the heart of the show remained very clearly with Clark Kent, rather than Superman. Of course, his life as a superhero remained important, but so was the man who wore it.
However, this shift in focus arguably made Lois and Clark one of the best shows at juggling both sides of the superhero persona. Whereas other shows might occasionally lose sight of the man beneath the mask, Clark Kent was never lost behind the Superman shield.
Lois and Clark also didn’t focus on the team in the traditional sense. Save for Lois, who held equal importance in the show, none of his friends learned of his secret before the end. There was no Team Superman. If anything, there was a Team Clark. As a reporter at the Daily Planet, he had help from partner Lois, photographer Jimmy Olsen, and editor Perry White. They came together to help him in his regular life, unaware of his extracurricular activities.
Perhaps because of this, there was never an issue with them stifling him as a hero, holding him back, or “dumbing him down” to justify their existence. They functioned as co-workers would and do in real life. More than that, the show focused more on the friendship between them than the support they gave to him. Unfortunately, that focus has too often been lost in team dynamics on later shows, as friendship comes secondary to team purpose.
For all that Lois and Clark got wrong – once again, frog eating clones, I’m looking at you – it got so much right.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I think for many, the concept of the modern team began with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This show didn’t mess around with whether or not to have a team – the initial self-proclaimed Scooby Gang was set from the start. The team also generally functioned well, contributing to the heroics without detracting from the main protagonist and heroine of the show.
So what made this team so successful? For one thing, Buffy’s age helped the team dynamic work. A teenager, it made sense for her to have a mentor in Giles. Heroes like Superman and the Flash are known to be incredibly intelligent, capable of solving their own problems and even inventing superior technology like Gideon. However, while smart, Buffy was never meant to be the smartest person in the room. Since the team was established from the beginning, the audience didn’t see her capable of solving her own problems for entire episodes or even seasons before suddenly being unable to cope without a team. Her need to rely on those with more book-smarts was established from the very beginning, so it never detracted from her character.
It also helped that, similar to Lois and Clark, the focus on Buffy’s team remained equally as friends, rather than simply as superhero support. Scenes of the group hanging out at The Bronze were just as important – if not more – than the scenes of them huddled around a library table, looking for answers. The most emotional moment of the series came from the loss of Buffy’s mother, Joyce. Not because she was a member of the team or even another superhero. She was neither. But because, as Buffy’s mother, she had formed relationships with the other characters. As Buffy’s friends.
While Buffy was a girl with a destiny, she was also just a kid trying to find her place in the world. Wanting a normal life. Wanting friends she could have fun with, rather than always having to band together to save the world. And it is because the show remembered that purpose that the focus always remained a bit more on Buffy and a bit less on The Slayer.
Of course, if one is being honest, a conversation about the current DCTV shows is not complete without first paying homage to Smallville. It is unarguably the reason that the DCTV universe exists. Running for ten years – longer than any superhero show before it and yet to be matched by any that have come after – it had its share of ups and downs. It also was a bridge between the shows above and the DCTV shows to follow.
When Smallville started, it was unequivocally about Clark the “kid.” (Welling was almost laughably nowhere near the 14 he was purported to be at the time). It was never meant to be a series about Superman the hero. “No tights, no flights” remained the mantra throughout the show, although he would eventually delve more into superheroics than originally planned.
For many years, Clark didn’t have what one would consider a team. Until the fourth season, nobody outside of his parents knew his secret. Or retained that knowledge. Or, rather, retained that knowledge and lived to talk about it. Smallville had a somewhat complicated relationship with murdering bad guys, particularly early on.
When Clark admitted to his parents that he’d found himself floating in his sleep, he was a confused child looking to his parents for help. He was not a superhero turning to a team. Similarly, when Jonathan had to find a way to teach Clark to control his…particularly triggered heat vision, he was very much a father well out of his depths.
The “team” didn’t come into play until after Alicia betrayed Clark’s secret to Chloe in season four. Gradually over time, more and more people learned Clark’s secret, were allowed to live, and ultimately joined the team.
Over time, the team grew. Though she wouldn’t be in on the secret for a while yet, Lois became more engrained on the show and in Clark’s life. As she did so, there arose in the fandom what may have been the first appearance of the “Original Team” battlecry. In Smallville, it was the Core Four. Cries to sideline – and even eliminate – Lois from the show to focus on the “Core Four” (Clark, Lex, Lana, and Chloe) became more pronounced.
I have never found calls to focus on the “Original Team” in this or subsequent shows to be anything but a transparent ploy. It is no coincidence that the result of each would specifically if not exclusively shove a woman – and threat to a rival ship – to the sidelines. Or that it would ultimately distance this romantic rival from the hero, both physically and emotionally.
Smallville’s team and the DCTV teams of today had a lot in common. Modern superhero shows tend to have a Hollywood hacker. (Let me be clear: I am not objecting to the characters themselves or the roles they play. However, I am frequently amused at how little the movie and television industries understand of what hackers do or how. In these fantasy worlds, three keyboard strokes is all it ever takes to accomplish anything – be it tracking down the purchase of a particular issue of a particular widely-released comic book or launching a space shuttle into orbit.) Often a doctor or someone with medical training. And, of course, as new heroes are introduced to the series, they also tend to become part of the team.
By the end of Smallville, the team was a big part of the show. While it certainly had its high points, there were also moments that the reliance on the team was a detriment to the development and characterization of the show’s hero. In one particularly glaring example, the show justified Clark’s reliance on the team to help solve the problem of the week by having him ask how to redial a phone.
Smallville is without question the reason that the DCTV shows exist today. It influenced modern superhero shows in numerous ways. It was also a rather interesting bridge between the ways teams were integrated into shows that came before it and how they have been handled since.
Which brings us to the modern era of superhero television. With the exception of Black Lightning (which is still quite new, so it is perhaps premature to predict how or if it will integrate a superhero team), teams are unquestionably a huge part of DCTV shows. Arrow has Diggle, Felicity, Thea, Roy, and a whole host of other superheroes. Flash has Iris, Cisco, Caitlin, Harry, Joe, and – for reasons I have yet to understand (let alone accept) – Ralph. Supergirl has Alex, Hank, James, Winn, and everyone else on the DEO.
Are teams in general – or these specifically – inherently bad? No, of course not. It may be true that most if not all these heroes are more self-reliant in the source material. However, that does not necessarily make the team concept inherently flawed or problematic.
However, if Lois and Clark focused on friendships over teamups, the pendulum has swung in the other direction in this post-Smallville world. Unlike their immediate predecessor, the DCTV shows never even flirted with the idea of foregoing the team. Arrow took the longest – it took three whole episodes for Diggle to discover Oliver’s secret. Felicity would join the team later in the first season. Over the next several seasons, the team would grow even more.
For both Flash and Supergirl, on the other hand, the team began to be established from the very first episode. Harrison Wells (nee Eobard Thawne), Cisco Ramon, Caitlin Snow, and Joe West all learned of Barry’s secret in the pilot episode. Iris West would also discover his secret and join the team before the end of the first season.
Supergirl took even less time to get the characters on the same page. Kara revealed her secret to Winn in the first episode. Hank Henshaw, James Olsen, and of course Alex Danvers were already aware of her dual identity. It would take some for friendship to form, but the team was established right away.
It is to the credit of the modern DCTV shows that they have put the endless repetition of Smallville’s Secrets and Lies behind them. Gone are the days when love interests suffer in the dark for years on end. By embracing honesty between the characters, the relationships that are formed can embrace all aspects of the hero’s character. Doing so can only be to the benefit of the show.
However, in establishing the teams so quickly, it also becomes easy for the team dynamic to overshadow the friendships that should be the foundation for it. While the audience will root for a hero to prevail and relish a well-choreographed fight scene, we are emotionally tied to the story through the interpersonal character interactions.
The DCTV shows have not necessarily always been adept at handling this balancing act. Flash fans have practically begged to be allowed to see the characters outside of the lab. Westallen fans have been desperate for more glimpses of the two at home or on the town – enjoying moments of peace and happiness amidst all the drama and danger.
I enjoy all of the friendships on Supergirl. However, I confess that one reason I have particularly enjoyed Kara’s dynamic with Lena is that the latter is not in on her secret. This isn’t to say that I don’t want her to ever learn the secret – or that she shouldn’t. I sincerely hope she does. But until that happens, the writers have had to focus on their friendship more than her potential as a teammate. Thus, when she does discover the secret, the emotional connection between the two will have already been well established. Hopefully, similar to Iris and Barry on Flash, this established relationship will mean that their dynamic will thus remain friends first and teammates second.
The question remains how – or if – Black Lightning will integrate a team. With Anissa and Jefferson learning about each other in this most recent episode, it is possible we will find out sooner rather than later. However, since they are first and foremost family, it is safe to say that, like Alex and Kara, their love for each other as family will never be overshadowed by the drama and toil of superhero life.
Ultimately, the introduction of a team to a superhero show can be an incredible benefit. Not just because there can be something so gratifying about seeing friendships deepen as they support each other and fight side by side. However, it is certainly not to their benefit when the need to justify the existence of the team leads to dumbing down the hero in order to require their aid. It also isn’t a benefit if the utilitarian use of the team overshadows the friendships that give us reason to care that it exists in the first place.