Saturday, December 17, 2016

‘DC Legends’ and Genre Overload

I was watching a recent episode of DC Legends of Tomorrow when I finally reached a state of genre overload.

DC Legends of Tomorrow is a weekly series on the CW. It’s a mashup of superheroes, and time travel, and science fiction.

The show mostly works, if you can suspend your disbelief and not expect too much. DC Legends, like its sister show, The Flash, is an unusual combination of likable, sympathetic characters saddled with a hokey premise, and plot lines that are more holes than substance. 

The result is that the secondary plots, the human relationships between the characters, are often far more interesting than the main action, which is so often over-the-top. 

A recent episode of DC Legends of Tomorrow transported the viewer to the Confederacy at the height of the American Civil War. (Remember: time travel). One of the lead DC Legends characters is African American, so the writers and producers of the show saw it as their duty, apparently, to say Something Significant About Racism and Slavery. 

Don’t get me wrong: Racism and the history of slavery in the antebellum South are serious and worthwhile topics. But because race and the history of racial injustice have so preoccupied us over the past 50 years, it is difficult to approach these topics from an original angle. A stupendous number of authors, filmmakers, and television producers have already beaten this subject matter to death. 

What the writers of DC Legends came up with was a series of scenes in which actor Franz Drameh fumed and monologued on the evils of slavery and racial inequality. None of what he said was untrue or unreasonable. But we’d already heard all of that, many times before.

In the context of a fantasy superhero adventure show, moreover, these scenes came across as what they were: obligatory, pro forma add-ons. The writers and producers merely wanted to cover their bases while handling Potentially Offensive Subject Matter. They were checking off boxes, in other words.

There was also a white southerner (a plantation owner, or one of his relatives) who fulfilled every cliche you’ve ever seen about white southerners with racist sentiments: He was brutish, dim-witted, and easily roused to anger by “uppity” black folks. 

Once again, nothing fundamentally unfair there, but you’ve seen that trope gazillions of times before, in film, on television, and in fiction. 

And then: zombies! It wasn't enough to have the DC Legends characters a.) be superheroes, and b.) zip around time fighting super-villains. There also had to be zombies, because—hey, zombies are everywhere nowadays!

When a group of fallen Confederate soldiers (the Confederates, to a man, were bad guys, of course) were transformed into flesh-eating zombies, the writers of DC Legends lost me—at least for that episode. 

I had experienced genre overload. A single hour of television shouldn't attempt to be superheroes, and time travel, and social justice narrative, and zombies. The writers should at least limit themselves to the best two out of three. Genres should be blended with caution, not mixed and jumbled together at random.