In this New Golden Age of Television, it can be incredibly stressful to flip on the TV.
As has been well documented over the past 15 years or so, what used to be known as the “boob tube” is now flooded with auteur level fiction. Filmmakers and screenwriters who used to disdain TV now flock to it. At the same time, appointment television has become exhausting to watch.
HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” one of the most critically acclaimed and awarded shows, features a level of sexualized violence that was once reserved for the sleaziest grindhouse cinema.
A few seasons ago on Showtime’s “Homeland,” the main character watched another main character foam at the mouth and fall into convulsions after being exposed to sarin. He lived for two more grim seasons, his life sort of falling apart, and he eventually died in a hail of bullets.
And it's not limited to premium cable. NBC's “This Is Us” must rank as one of the most emotionally manipulative shows in human history — rarely have I heard multiple people break up with a program for the same reason: “These people are just too much.”
This is the critically acclaimed stuff. This is the stuff that wins lots of awards. This may be TV’s New Golden Age, but it’s tiring sometimes. Call it “Draining TV.”
You know what is unlikely to win awards but is easier on the brain than any of this?
“The Flash” on the CW.
Yes, the TV show about the DC superhero who fights crime by running really fast is, in fact, incredibly relaxing.
All of the CW’s DC comic book TV shows are: “The Flash” (which returns Oct. 9, as does “Black Lightning”), “Supergirl” (which returns Oct. 14) and the completely ridiculous “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” (which returns Oct. 22). The only folks I know who still watch “Arrow,” aka “Batman the TV show,” are people who have to recap it, but I am sure other folks are, in fact, watching it, seeing as how season seven starts Oct. 15.
These shows use words like “superhero” and “supervillain” with a pleasingly straight face. You can watch them with your kids and simply enjoy being entertained.
The irony here is that the DC comic book movies have a well-earned reputation for being relentlessly dark. The TV shows, on the other hand, are dramatic but never nihilistic, and they are comic booky in ways movies might find impossible to replicate, not to mention the fact that TV's episodic nature matches comic books’ month-to-month regularity.
Even when they are doing seasonlong arcs, even if you have no idea who any of these people are, these programs are the perfect TV shows to watch but not feel too much about when you are in the mood to not feel too much.
Before “The Sopranos” era, television didn’t require so much of the viewer — formula was the watchword. With rare exceptions, one knew the status would be reset at the end of the hour, be it a sitcom or adventure show, “The Dukes of Hazzard” or “Dallas.”
Now, episodes of the DC Comics shows aren’t as self-contained as, say, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” but audiences are far more used to long-term plots than they were 20 years ago.
And all of them have good seasons and bad seasons — this last season of “Supergirl” was especially mixed. But even when they are rocky and silly and struggling now and then, they are a perfect antidote to Draining TV.
On the season finale of “The Flash,” the titular character used the power of love and friendship to beat a guy calling himself the Thinker who wanted to make everyone in Central City mindless zombies. It involved wandering around the Thinker’s memories, rescuing a dude whose power it is to stretch a la Plastic Man or Mister Fantastic.
The Thinker is defeated, a baby is born to a supporting character and, oh yeah, the Flash’s daughter from the future shows up as a teenage speedster. Woo hoo!
And traditionally, “The Flash” has been one of the CW’s darker shows! At the end of several seasons, it has looked like all hope is lost. But hope is never lost. You know everything will be fine.
Over on the somewhat messy season finale of “Supergirl,” our heroine, her mother, the hilariously overpowered Martian Manhunter and a team of heroes from a thousand years hence called the Legion who are hanging around for a bit (much to the delight of serious DC dorks everywhere) defeat a genocidal Kryptonian villain.
Also, it turns out James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), here a TV news executive, is a vigilante called the Guardian and decides to tell the world his secret identity because he realized his helmet is too scary. You know how wonderful it is in this historical moment to see a black man portrayed on television as reassuring?
To be fair, the CW shows feel savvier about race than those on a lot of networks. Interracial couples abound, and “Black Lightning” has been repeatedly praised for possessing one of the most positive-without-being-corny and realistic-without-being-grim TV depictions of an African-American family.
As for “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” about a crew of time-traveling DC Comics B-listers, well, that one is full of bananas plotting and goofy scenarios and toes the line between melodrama and camp so well it’s like watching some sort of weird acting ballet. There really should be an award for those sorts of performances.
But then, there should be awards for shows that don’t make you want to weep openly. That’s not going to happen any time soon, so we who don’t feel like being gut-punched every time we turn on the tube should be grateful these shows are out there at all.