Television Is A Flat Circle
What happens if I just watch Crisis on Infinite Earths without watching all of the related shows in their entirety? Is that allowed?
We stopped watching the various DC superhero shows back in whatever year Legends of Tomorrow debuted.
It wasn't a super deliberate choice. Arrow had begun to feel like a bit of chore, though I really appreciated them giving Constantine a second lease on life. I was still pretty excited about Flash and Supergirl, though, and I loved Legends. I liked the Berlanti Multiverse better than anything in the offing for the DC movies at the time. It wasn't anything about Legends that led to us dropping the Arrowverse shows, except that it was one more show and it was happening at a busy time, and so one day we decided to catch up and realized that we'd fallen so far behind that the next episodes to watch had fallen off Hulu.
I'd always meant to catch back up with them when they inevitably appeared on Netflix, but meanwhile... other shows and movies and content were coming out, and binging whole seasons of multiple shows just seemed like a lot... especially as I felt like I would be lost, coming back to them cold in the middle of the season, if I could even figure out where I had left off.
But I'd meant to come back, because I could tell the whole enterprise would be going strong in 2020, when the first season of Flash had teased the Crisis on Infinite Earths would be coming. At the time it had seemed like a fun Easter egg, a throwaway reference that might bear fruit in a distant series finale or something. But the establishment of multiple connected universes and the growing tradition of an ever-bigger annual crossover event made it clear it was going to be more than that.
Then as 2019 wound on and the actual plans came out and it turned out that Crisis was going to be bigger than I could have imagined. A genuine love letter to the DC universe and the history of DC in television and even film. Bring back Brandon Routh for another turn in the tights? Well, obviously they can't do that, he's already played another major hero in... oh, no, they're doing it anyway. Kevin Conroy, the man who brought to life the best version of Batman, playing him in live action? Be still my beating child heart.
And of course, now it's here... and I woke up today to the news that Tom Ellis had appeared on screen as Lucifer, alongside Matt Ryan's Constantine, and my immediate thought was, "Dang, I wish I had followed through and caught up so I could watch this."
And following on the heels of that thought was another:
Why can't I?
The last time I picked up a TV show mid-stream was when I started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer in season 4. I had pointedly ignored it when it debuted. As someone who saw and enjoyed the Kristy Swanson-led comedy movie, I had rolled my eyes at the newsaper articles abou the more serious teen drama approach of the TV show, with its monster-of-the-week format and the hokey "Hellmouth" concept that the showrunners were touting as a magical plot device that would let them basically get away with everything from demons to weird occult superpowers to killer robots.
It seemed like a cynical cash-grab, and a perversion of the original concept.
Now, of course, today I know that I had things not just wrong but exactly and completely wrong. The person making the Buffy show was the original creator and this was a return to his original concept along with other things he loved. Back in the days before the internet as we know it, when I didn't know anything except what I read in the papers, it was an easy mistake to make.
I started watching Buffy the same way I stopped watching Arrow et al: accidentally. I had been watching syndicated reruns of something and I didn't get up to turn the TV off before it came on.
The very first episode I saw was the episode in Season 4 where Spike, newly escaped from the Initiative, discovers the compliance chip in his brain. Because I had been watching The WB all afternoon, I had seen promos for it, and rolled my eyes at the tawdry melodrama of it all. The hype machine for that episode played up Spike's vendetta against Buffy and showed the "before" moment of his aborted attack on Willow with a line like "But somebody close to Buffy will pay the price."
If you've seen that episode, you know what happens: he vamps out and goes to kill her, cut to commercial, come back and they're sitting on opposite ends of the bed, talking about "I'm sure it happens to lots of vampires" and "do you want to wait ten minutes and try again?" Yes, it was a dick joke. An impotence joke. "Failure to perform."
It... didn't impress me, exactly, but it was so completely different from what the promos had led me to believe that it piqued my curiosity and kept me watching, that episode and beyond.
I know Season 4 is not many people's favorite season, but it was a good one for me to start with because the season that features supersoldiers and energy weapons and cyberdemons and Willow just beginning to function as a force of (super)nature was the best one for me to see that Buffy was something I had been searching for my whole life: a superhero show, with all the Everything But The Kitchen Sink glory that comes from a messy connected universe of decades of storytelling in which people are dipping into multiple genres, so you've got magic rings alongside high tech gadgets and alien artifacts and who knows what else.
At this point, there were no streaming on demand video services with entire runs of earlier seasons. There weren't DVD compilations. It wasn't a sure thing a complete series would be released on VHS, and it would run you hundreds of dollars and yards of shelf space if it did. There weren't wikis, just fan sites that contained whatever information people who already knew and loved the shows wanted to discuss about them. You might find recaps if you knew where to look, maybe.
So I started watching Buffy without three seasons of lore that I had pointedly ignored... and I did okay. I followed it fine. I picked up on things as I went. I eventually bought some VHS collections for the seasons I missed that had six somewhat random episodes, two to a tape, and that along with random reruns was my only real window to the past.
All of this was a very normal way to watch television, once upon a time, and it's the way some people still watch it, I'm sure. Just as some people tuned into the MCU for big events like Captain America: Civil War or the Avengers movies or just the Infinity War/Endgame duology... heck, some people came out for Endgame who hadn't seen Infinity War. Did they miss out on little gems like "On your left."? Sure. But they didn't miss them. They didn't feel a little pang or get a notice that they hadn't achieved 100% completion.
All of which is to say... I'm going to do it. I'm going to watch the Crisis. I know the characters, most of them. I know the comic books. I'm sure they're writing these things with the idea that a big television event will ideally bring in some new fans anyway.
And from there, I might keep up with some of the shows as they come out. I might go back and fill in some of the gaps. I'm just not going to hold myself to Completely Correct Binging Order.
As a grown-up geek who wished the shows of her childhood would have had more weight of continuity to them and that there would be more things that spoke of a larger universe of connected stories, I love the current trends in storytelling and story consumption. But they definitely come with a cost. Before it fell off our watch list, keeping up with Arrow in particular did kind of feel like a job, which made keeping up with its sibling shows more onerous, too. I might have fallen away from them anyway. Or I might have kept watching one or two if I hadn't approached it as a package deal. Who knows?
As I noted in my last newsletter, my brain runs in speculative circles, and they're not always helpful.
But sometimes they are.
What if I just... watched Crisis? What if it's not all or nothing? What if I tried watching a TV event... well, not the way I would have done it back in the day, because I'm still watching it through a streaming service instead of tuning in or setting a VCR. But just dropping in on it now because it's happening now, and trusting that between the show and myself I'll be able to keep up?
I know the shows aren't even carried on Hulu anymore, but I've got a live TV subscription because I need to be able to watch the news in my office and we have an older house where the cable hookups are... suboptimal. So I can do this. It's an option.
I think I'm going to go for it.
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I never really enjoyed Arrow (made it two seasons and that felt like a chore) but I loved Flash for a while and had fun with Supergirl. Until I fell out of it because life was too much at the time. But i fully intend to watch Crisis- because of everything you talked about. Hoping its fun, and we'll see where it goes from there.
I caved and started watching Buffy the same season as you! Spike was the hook for me. I have also had similar experiences with the Arrowverse - I enjoyed the first two or so seasons of both but got bored as time went on and too many other distractions cropped up. Couldn't bring myself to care about Supergirl at all. But I've seen most of the crossovers and I can report -- it works to just dive in for them!