Longform 

Supergirl: Six Seasons and a Retrospective

By and | November 18th, 2021
Posted in Longform | % Comments

With the ending of Supergirl a week ago, only The Flash remains of the CW’s DC trinity. In honor of that ending, we wanted to do a look back at the show as a whole and look forward to its potential legacy. So, long-time reviewer Elias and guest reviewer Chris sat down to discuss the highs, the lows, and the CW-of-it-all.

Elias Rosner: Before we get going, I thought it would be important to note that we are not the target audience for Supergirl as it debuted. This was a show that meant, and means, a lot to many women as, really, the biggest female-led superhero show since Wonder Woman. As two cis men, that inherent importance is present but not necessarily felt in the same way. All this is to say, we wanted to talk about and digest the series as a whole, its impact, and its successes and failures, but felt it was important to be upfront about the optics of two men retrospectively dissecting this series.

With that out of the way, what did you think of the finale? I already word-vomited my thoughts before so I’ll keep mine to a minimum.

Christopher Chiu-Tabet: Fine I think, it was nice to see almost every cast member return for the finale (even if turning Helen Slater’s cameo into an in-joke was an added layer of cheese I could’ve done without.) By the end I was just marking time waiting for Lex Luthor and Nyxly to be defeated so Alex and Kelly could get married, and for Kara to decide her future. What I found most interesting about it is that it ended on what would’ve been the most interesting scenario for season 7, which is Kara operating publicly as both CatCo’s editor-in-chief and as Supergirl, a status quo very similar to Clark Kent’s current status in the comics.

ER: I wonder if the creative team would’ve had the confidence to make that choice if there was going to be a season seven. I think they would have shied away from ending on that note but who knows? It’s not like this season was suddenly the final. They knew from the outset and planned accordingly.

I totally forgot that Helen Slater played Supergirl and now I’m extra sad we didn’t get more Eliza Danvers in these seasons.

CCT: I think the most conspicuous absence for me was Floriana Lima’s Maggie Sawyer, which I think reflected how awfully that storyline played out in season 3, probably the lowest point in the show’s history — I’m guessing Alex’s whole first marriage never happened thanks to “Crisis on Infinite Earths”?

ER: I dunno. I think it still happened, from Alex’s comments to Kelly. Or maybe it’s a “One More Day” situation where it was retconned to being they were engaged but it all fell apart before they sealed the deal.

CCT: Either way that whole story casts a large shadow that even I, as a casual viewer of the show, couldn’t stop thinking about in its final moments.

ER: Certainly. I know I never forgot about how frustrated I was at how they handled Lima’s departure from the series. Ugh, now I’m mad all over again, haha.

OK. Let’s talk about that long shadow, actually. Supergirl went through a lot of changes over the course of its six seasons, as most shows would, and I’m curious to know your thoughts on that trajectory. What’s your overall thought on the series? Then we can dig into specific seasons, characters, etc.

CCT: It’s been so many years since season 1, but I was always impressed by how big it felt, and I guess being on CBS and having that budget and the shooting locations in California played a large role in that: our standards on what event TV looks like and feels like has changed so much (to wit, Game of Thrones’ Battle of the Bastards was the following year), but people were talking about it, so much so, that it certainly felt bigger than The Flash and Arrow.

I remember really loving the introduction of Tyler Hoechlin as Superman in season 2, as well as Alex’s coming out, but as its time on the CW went on, it started to feel less special and more generic, with more and more time spent on the same locations, over and over. I think season 4, even though I know you hated how it ended, managed to grab my attention again with the emphasis on political commentary, and the introduction of Nicole Maines as Dreamer, who must never be taken for granted as TV’s first trans superhero. Seasons 5 and 6 suffered a lot from the pandemic and subsequently abandoned storylines.

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ER: Totally. It’s funny. I came to Supergirl midway through season 2, in an effort to be entirely caught up on the DCWverse in time for the big crossover between Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl. At the time, I did not like season one. It was inconsistent, very preachy, and didn’t really know what to do with Kara since she wasn’t a reporter yet. It was an origin story season and I think it had trouble finding its footing.

I also thought the CGI effects were atrocious. Can you believe I said these words once: “The CW knows how to use its limited CGI budget far more than CBS’s expansive effects?” I still stand-by this with regards to handling Supergirl’s flying & everyone’s entrances but…yeah.

Looking back though, you’re totally right about season one feeling so much bigger than subsequent seasons. There’s a kind of set fatigue that I got during seasons 3, 4, 5 and to some extent 6, even as they tried to vary it up with things like Lena’s underground lab or Chateau Luthor. There’s a smallness to the show that really hurts that larger-than-life feeling we should have gotten from a Super show. National City never really felt like a city after season one. Didn’t help we lost Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant either. I don’t think Supergirl ever recovered from that loss.

Nor did it really ever find a place for Alex, though I think seasons 2 & 3 were where she fit the best. It sucks because I really loved her relationship with Kara and the ways she brought a street-level perspective to Kara’s sky-based heroism. Who were your favorite side-characters over the seasons?

CCT: Y’know, despite the poor handling of her separation, and that whole run where Alex lost her memory and considered Supergirl a public menace (which I also disliked,) I feel there’s an argument to be made that Alex was often the protagonist of the show: after all, Alex changes and develops over the course of the show, whereas Kara stagnated thanks to things like the show deciding not to give her a love interest after the backlash to Mon-El. I think that because there were so many supporting characters, Kara often felt like a guest star in her own series.

Apart from Dreamer, there’s naturally Brainy, whose arc from oddly colored humanoid computer, to a slightly more emotional and romantic Mr. Spock, proved to be one of the show’s biggest surprises. Then you had Martian Manhunter, who similarly proved to be one of season 1’s best twists (so much so the Justice League director’s cut wound up borrowing it): can you imagine if David Harewood had remained playing Hank Henshaw? And I still have a soft spot for Winn and the show’s version of Jimmy Olsen: I love how Winn evolved as a person, and while I know people complained Mehcad Brooks was too handsome and charismatic to play Jimmy, I think it said a lot about how this iteration had grown thanks to his friendship with Superman.

Now, you’re probably wondering about Lena, and the honest truth is that I never warmed up to her, or got why people shipped her and Kara so much: a huge issue is that Katie McGrath (who will always, to me at least, be Morgana from Merlin) just exudes Big Villain Energy — even her American accent is indicative of someone hiding something, because all I can hear is an Irish woman putting it on. I think the writers were also torn between giving her a compelling turn to the dark side, and a heartwarming reminder that you aren’t who your blood family determines you are (which they actually kinda mucked up by revealing she’s descended from witches.)

ER: Oh man, you don’t want to get me started on Lena. The second they dragged Lex in (and Jon Cryer, again, was amazing,) she became defined in relation to him and was thrust back into the Luthor mold, though I get they were trying to make it a tragic fall. What even was up with that witch thing anyway? It was fun at times but was really incongruous. Season 6 was not the best.

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I think your idea that Alex is the main character is one I wish they had ran with more. I would have loved to see a show ala “Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen” or “Superman’s Gal Lois Lane” (not the real title but it’s more fun.) Sure, it would have been an entirely different show, and so I’m not saying the writers failed by not having it be the case, but it is a glaring flaw that Alex was a more compelling protagonist than Kara owing to the fact that, well, Kara stops developing very early on.

I could sit here and grouse about that all day but I’m gonna stick to my positives here. Brainy was by far and away my favorite side character. His growth was such a treat to watch and his and Nia’s relationship woes were dramatic in engaging and thoughtful ways (usually.) I wish Nia had gotten a more active role across seasons 5 and 6 so I could hold her in the same esteem. She just didn’t get the same amount of meaty plots.

So glad they went with green later on

I disagree with your assertion that the show had too many side characters; I just think they had no idea how to correctly use them. The initial circle was your traditional small group with branches – James, Winn, Kara, Alex, Hank/J’onn, and to a lesser extent Cat. Then, they added Mon-El and Maggie and Lena and lost Cat. Then Mon-El and Maggie left, adding Brainy and Nia before losing Winn and then James, and adding Kelly and Rojas and…OK, there were a lot of characters cycling in and out, not counting the side-side characters or villains, but that’s to be expected over 6 seasons.

But, like, how many people have gone through Legends of Tomorrow over the season? Yet it all works well because the writers knew how to balance the personalities and not over-stuff episodes. When Supergirl was shining its brightest, it knew how to ensure every character was getting something to do, if not every episode, but every couple of episodes, and that none were crowding out the others for meaningless screen time.

CCT: That’s a great point (man, as if I didn’t already want Nia and Brainy to join Legends, assuming the show comes back for season 8.) Regarding Lex: I definitely think the show became too reliant on him, and as good as Cryer is, the issue will always be that he’s Clark Kent’s nemesis, not Kara’s, and it feels like they’re using him because they can (now that Jesse Eisenberg is unlikely to reprise the role in the DCEU), not because they should. I feel in retrospect we should’ve seen his addition as a sign that the show would be canceled once it became clear another Superman movie wasn’t happening, and that Superman & Lois is the show the CW wanted to make all along.

I can understand another reason the show avoided making Lena into a full blown villain, to avoid the impression Supergirl is just a genderswapped Superman, with a female Luthor, but between the reluctance to have her become a villain, or to have Brainy become Brainiac, or even have Zor-El go mad trying to fix climate change, there wasn’t much room for truly compelling or memorable villains in the last two seasons. Peta Sergeant did her best as Nyxly, but the Phantom Zone wraiths got pretty old quickly, while Leviathan were the biggest, and dullest non-entities.

ER: Oh my god how did I forget about Leviathan?! I was trying to figure out who the big bads were in each season and they didn’t even come to mind. What an absolute waste, and I’ve said that a lot about Supergirl. It squandered so many good ideas, interesting characters, and compelling villains in order to fit a palatable form that refused to push the kind of boundaries this should have been pushing.

Kara & Supergirl stood for hope in a brighter tomorrow, empowerment for women in a world that often dismisses and demeans them, and celebrating love in all its many forms. Yet she wasn’t given enough opportunities to dig into what it means to do that and I think much of that is because they failed to build a compelling rogue’s gallery. That and they didn’t balance the heightened reality of a superhero show with the social commentary of quote-unquote “real world issues” correctly.

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I come back to the episode “Livewire” a lot because it’s one of my favorites of the whole show and one of the few times that I actually wanted to see an antagonist recur because she was compelling and felt like an excellent foil to Kara in the way Catwoman is to Batman. Not a Lex or a Doomsday, but a run-of the mill recurring antagonist who could make the world feel lived in and large.

Side note: they recast Morgan Edge when he made his way over to Superman & Lois, which made me drop down a rabbit hole of past characters and how could I forget my fav DEO agent, Agent Vasquez?! I wanted her to stay and would have much more happily preferred her to be Alex’s wife.

I’m also sure by now you’ve noticed I’m having trouble keeping my thoughts in order but that’s because there’s so much to dig into with this show! It’s hard for me not to try to talk about it all and, you know what? That’s better than shows that have absolutely nothing going on.

CCT: Do you think it’s possible you may be saying that because you’re familiar with the source material though? I mean, there are so many great Superman comics and cartoons, yet it’s been over four decades since we had a genuinely great (no caveats) Man of Steel movie.

I think the limits of network TV, and particularly the number of episodes that had to be produced each season, was always going to hold back the show: and come to think of it, I’m genuinely not sure most people watch the shows they like because they’re genuinely great TV, but because they’re familiar comfort food. I know I kept up with Supergirl because I liked the cast — Melissa, David, Chyler, Nicole etc. etc. — and I’ve effectively developed a parasocial relationship with them.

ER: Hmmm, I never really thought of it that way. I’m certainly far more invested in Supergirl because I reviewed it for the site, but I also think it was trying to do more and stand out from the rest of the CW pack by forging a specific identity as the socially conscious but inspirational Super show. I’m sure having an in from the comics was a boon for the show. Recognizability will always allow things to jump in one’s esteem but, at the end of the day, I still think they captured something that allowed this show to last six seasons when an arguably better constructed show – Black Lightning – only got four.

You are right that the number of episodes demanded by network TV was going to leave things uneven across each season, even for a show that could be argued as comfort food. I still think they could’ve pulled it off to be truly great, and that potential is palpable and alluring in every episode even when it’s squandered, but what’s done is done.

I’m not sure what you meant by the lack of a great Superman movie though.

CCT: As in it’s been over forty years since Superman II, the last Superman film most people like.

ER: Ahhh. Yeah. I guess that’s true. Supergirl landed on screens with a major splash but didn’t leave the same impact as that film did. How do you think people will remember this show? I can’t imagine it being derided like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace but I also can’t see it being celebrated with the same fondness of Superman II or even Smallville.

CCT: I think if there’s a finished CW superhero show that’ll be celebrated as much as Smallville, it’ll be Arrow for kickstarting the shared universe — people will lump in Supergirl, for better or worse, with it and The Flash.

ER: You don’t think it will be remembered on its own? Instead being remembered as part of the “trinity” of the birth of the CWverse?

Not an ideal illustration but close enough

CCT: I would not be surprised if you’ll see Melissa Benoist’s performance being cited regularly by Supergirl actresses, writers and artists as a major influence on them in 20-30 years; for a young generation, she may well be their Lynda Carter. Likewise, I would hope Dreamer, Alex Danvers, or Kelly Olsen find a strong afterlife in the comics and other adaptations, but whether that means people will look back fondly on this show the way they do Batman: The Animated Series (which introduced Harley Quinn and other characters in the comics), the jury’s out. (Certainly won’t be as celebrated as that show, that’s something I feel I can say confidently.)

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ER: Melissa Benoist is my Supergirl for sure. She has left an indelible mark on the character and I hope she gets the chance to pop over onto Superman and Lois every so often. I agree that I think the characters from the show will be remembered far more fondly than the show itself. It’s, and I know this is a fraught comparison, kind of like how I think about Gotham.

That show was an absolute train wreck on all fronts, memorable in its badness, but many of the performances did a lot for the characters they portrayed. Sean Pertwee as Alfred, Donald Logue as Harvey Bullock, Victoria Luz Cartagena as Renee Montoya, etc. all left a mark that will remain when others pick up the mantle. Heck, Cartagena IS picking up the mantle in Batwoman now, like how Matt Ryan IS Constantine.

My thoughts on the show’s legacy is complicated because I do actually think people will look back at parts of it with true fondness, seasons 1 and 4 in particular. I guess I’m hedging a lot because I don’t think we really will know the full extent of this show’s impact simply by virtue of its existence for a long time to come. What writers, actors, costume designers, videographers, and the like saw Dreamer or Supergirl or Sentinel or Guardian (both of them) and were inspired?

That said, I think, when it is talked about as a whole, it will be talked about far more in relation to the other CW shows than as a show on its own, for better or for worse.

CCT: What’s interesting is The Flash movie is introducing a distinct take on Supergirl played by Sasha Calle, who could star in her own film and begin to eclipse Benoist in the minds of a lot of young viewers. It might not happen, but it could, and while distinct takes can co-exist eg. The Dark Knight and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, DC fans tend to be very tribal about which versions of characters they prefer. I do wish Calle the best of luck, even if she’ll never be the comics’ Supergirl in my eyes.

ER: Movie portrayals often overshadow their TV counterparts, it seems, but I don’t think that will ever be the case for a character as big as Supergirl or, say, The Flash. I suspect that Sasha Calle’s portrayal will be thought of in the same way as Adam West and Michael Keaton, two very different Batmen but both undeniably the character.

I say this but I also think Grant Gustin is the only Flash of this generation by virtue of his costume alone so take that with a grain of salt.

CCT: The reception to the Flash film is going to be very interesting (for all we know, it could lead to Zack Snyder directing Justice League 2.)

ER: Who knows what the whims of Hollywood have in store for us?

CCT: Money talks.

ER: Hopefully it talks them into giving Miller a new suit.

CCT: I hope all of the cast members get to reprise their roles in future, though in Melissa’s case, I imagine it’ll be a while, since she recently became a mother, and I think she deserves a break, and when she’s performing regularly again it’ll be in more non-superhero fare. I mean, she was in Whiplash! Obviously being Supergirl means the world to many, but there could’ve been a healthy balance.

ER: 100%. But that’s also the nature of TV. It often precludes you from doing more than that one role at a time. I’m sure the actors are going to miss their roles, and some like Nicole Maines are going to be sticking with them through different mediums, but I’m also sure they’re happy to be able to take on new ones as well.

Before we give our closing thoughts, what’s one scene, funny, serious, whatever, that lives rent free in your head?

CCT: Aside from the bad ones we’ve gone over? Strangely, just a feeling of familiarity, settings like Kara’s apartment, the offices of CatCo, the DEO headquarters, or the Super Friends’ hideout, that offer a sense of comfort and safety. When you say Supergirl, it all blurs together, 2015-21, a series of colorful, sentimental memories.

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ER: For me, it’s a mix of the backstory episode for Agent Liberty – which happened right after the Tree of Life shooting, so that may be why – and Brainy’s fear of balloons from season 6. And, of course, Livewire doing Livewire stuff. There are other moments but it’s like you said, a lot of the show blurs together into a general feeling that conjures images. The Super Friends sitting around a table for game night, Kara trying to talk people down from their schemes, Lena laughing, Nia buying pizza, Cat Grant calling Kara “Kira” — it’s a series of snapshots that recur and make one feel reconnected to the show.

Actually, scratch all that. The scene that lives rent free in my head is Kara coming back to life after absorbing the solar energy from a bunch of flowers because why not. GOD that was a stupid scene.

CCT: It’s so interesting you loathe that, given how celebrated the book that inspired that scene (“The Dark Knight Returns”) is.

ER: I think it was just missing the maudlin narration of that book haha.

CCT: I think the finale of season 3 was very interesting, how it emulates the ending of the original movie, with Kara making a conscious decision to save everyone — good, bad — via time travel. Nothing’s impossible for her, or her cousin. (Hello Henry Cavill’s Superman.)

Cue the Williams Superman theme

ER: It stays true to the core of the character and who they wanted her to be. She fights for everyone because everyone deserves the chance to live and live well. And that’s a good core to have for a hero like Supergirl. Any closing thoughts?

CCT: Supergirl is not great TV, nor was it ever going to be, but we mustn’t take female-led superhero shows for granted, and I think anyone willing to put with the inherent flaws of network superhero TV will find much to treasure; I just wish it could’ve been the strong example of lesbian, trans, and overall inclusive representation it was when it was more visibly on CBS.

ER: I wholeheartedly agree. I’m in a weird place with Supergirl because I’ve lived with it far more closely than almost any other show these last four years. I find myself wanting to at once decry its many, many flaws and defend it due to the swings it took, the consistency it did have, and the historical importance of many of its moments.

Supergirl struggled from day one to overcome inbuilt stigmas about “girl” shows and I know I haven’t been immune to that. Often flaws that go unremarked on in male-led shows like The Flash are picked over with a microscope and held up as reasons for why the show is an abject failure, which Supergirl is not. It is an OK show. Aimless at times, woefully overwritten in others, yet suffused with moments of greatness. It wanted to be more, do more, than what the other shows were doing with its social commentary and inclusiveness, and while it may not have succeeded as strongly as it should have, it can be hard to lay that entirely at the feet of the show itself.

The actors brought their roles to life – no matter how little they were given – and I am glad to have watched this show, strange as that may seem if you read my thoughts week by week. Maybe I’m letting a rosy picture form in my head but if any of DCW show deserves it, it would be the one that opened the multiverse and wedged open the door of the boys club.

CCT: Couldn’t have put it better myself. One more thing: why do you think they never added Power Girl?

ER: I suspect they didn’t want to have to wade into having another character that was similar to Supergirl. It’s probably one of the reasons they wrote out Mon-El too. Would it have been great to have some slice of life super-heroics with them? Yes, yes it would’ve. But it was not meant to be. Logistical nightmare too, if they didn’t cast a Benoist look-alike. Plus, I wouldn’t want Benoist, or the costume department, to deal with the logistics of Power Girl’s *ahem* iconic outfit.


//TAGS | Supergirl

Elias Rosner

Elias is a lover of stories who, when he isn't writing reviews for Mulitversity, is hiding in the stacks of his library. Co-host of Make Mine Multiversity, a Marvel podcast, after wining the no-prize from the former hosts, co-editor of The Webcomics Weekly, and writer of the Worthy column, he can be found on Twitter (for mostly comics stuff) here and really needs to update his profile photo again.

EMAIL | ARTICLES

Christopher Chiu-Tabet

Chris is the news manager of Multiversity Comics. A writer from London on the autistic spectrum, he enjoys tweeting and blogging on Medium about his favourite films, TV shows, books, music, and games, plus history and religion. He is Lebanese/Chinese, although he can't speak Cantonese or Arabic.

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