Supergirl is a perfectly good show. The cast is perfectly pleasant, a mixture of veterans and youngsters, most of whom you’ll remember from other shows ... Melissa Benoist, who plays the title character, was on Glee, Mehcad Brooks, who plays “James” Olson, was on so many shows you’re sure to say “hey, it’s that guy!” (for me, it was his role as “Eggs” on True Blood), then there’s David Harewood (Homeland) and Calista Flockhart, and Peter Facinelli (Nurse Jackie) and, in stunt casting, Helen Shaver (Supergirl in the movie of that name) and Dean Cain (Superman on Lois and Clark). It has a perfectly good overarching theme about family and belonging, and perfectly good action scenes whenever Supergirl is needed. Perhaps most importantly, I’m still watching after 13 episodes.
But Supergirl is spoiled by a couple of other shows that couldn’t be more different. Angie Tribeca is a hit-and-miss comedy that brings back the Police Squad/Naked Gun approach to television. Some of us have missed that kind of humor, and Angie Tribeca is OK ... the nice thing about a show like that is if one joke falls flat, another four jokes will follow immediately.
Is Angie Tribeca a “better” show than Supergirl? I don’t know. I prefer watching it, but it’s mostly a toss-up. But Angie Tribeca, like its spiritual father Police Squad, is so relentless is its destruction of clichés that it’s hard to watch an ordinary show after seeing an episode of Angie. Things that aren’t supposed to be funny on Supergirl remind you of something similar on Angie Tribeca that was supposed to be funny, and you end up laughing inappropriately.
Which is unfair to Supergirl, because that show isn’t trying to be funny, or to remind us of Angie Tribeca. But the latter makes it harder to sit through the former.
Coming from the other direction is The 100. This is a show that spoils you for other shows that are perfectly good, because The 100 sets a higher standard. A show like Supergirl offers interesting extensions of the usual, but with the emphasis on “usual”. The title character is marginally different from other superheroes, Jimmy Olson is a grown-up black guy named “James”, Calista Flockhart is a catty Perry White. Over time we get to care about the characters, at least the primary ones. The occasional death of one of those characters can hit us emotionally. But ultimately, Supergirl is comfort food, with just enough changes from what came before to keep our attention.
There is nothing comfortable about The 100. In almost every episode, one or more characters must make life-or-death decisions that can affect hundreds, and the writers make sure that we understand all aspects of what brings the character to the moment of decision. Maureen Ryan, who has written smart pieces on The 100 (and in fact is the one who convinced me to give the series a try), writes:
When a person on “The 100” is given an array of bad options, a viewer will understand why a character picked a certain path, even if the viewer doesn’t necessarily agree with that choice. Hand-waving away concerns about set-up and follow-through doesn’t work with this show, because half the appeal of “The 100” centers on our ability to empathize with people who often do terrible things. We need to know why they do those things, and we need to care even if they make choices that ends up working out very badly for them and for others.
Consequences ... that word pops up constantly when thinking about the actions of the characters on The 100. Thus far, at least, there are no happy endings ... we’re a few episodes into Season 3, and there has been maybe one brief scene in all that time that conveyed a sense of joy. (When one character, Indra, smiled on a recent episode, Twitter went wild ... who could have believed she had it in her?) The 100 takes place a hundred years in the future, on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where everyone must make daily choices the likes of which most of us could never imagine. Yet the characters on The 100 are recognizably human, with all the depth and complexity that suggests. There are no superheroes on The 100, just people doing their best.
After that, Supergirl comes up a bit short.