Nearly from its start, the CW, previously known as the WB, has specialized in television about teenagers, or, if you go in for accuracy, shows about preternaturally good-looking twentysomethings pretending to be teenagers. In 1997 the WB began airing Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and never looked back. Teen-centric series Dawson’s Creek, 7th Heaven, Felicity, Gilmore Girls, Roswell, Everwood and others soon followed, to be joined by Veronica Mars, One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl, Smallville, The Vampire Diaries, and more when the WB merged with UPN in 2006 to form the CW as we now know it. Since Buffy, teenagers with very special powers have been part of network’s gestalt, but this season super-teens have completely taken over. They are not coming to the network’s rescue.
Picking on the CW—which, to be clear, I am about to do—is undoubtedly to kick a network when it is down. The CW has spent nearly two decades as the perpetual scrub on the radically diminished network varsity squad, one that now regularly gets destroyed by the JV cable team. (Cable’s players are allowed to take their clothes off to win over the crowd, while the network teams can only attempt set shots.) But the CW is not stuck on the bench and in the ratings basement just because of hard-luck timing—the fact that these days it’s worse to be a wannabe network than a fledgling cable channel. It is stuck on the bench because it believes in superheroes, not characters—in people who have magical abilities instead of personalities.
The CW used to air shows about normal teenagers in normal situations. Dawson and Felicity and Rory Gilmore may have been verbally precocious, but they could not fly, see the future, or suck anyone’s blood. Even Buffy used the extraordinary as an allegory for the everyday: Being the slayer—being forced to accept responsibilities one doesn’t want or know how to deal with—was not all that different from the experience of the average adolescent, just a little more Hellmouthy. But the descendants of these shows are hard to find on the CW of today, where the most normal teen on the network is a young Carrie Bradshaw, who appears on the very charming Sex and the City prequel The Carrie Diaries. Instead, the CW now behaves like a movie studio in crisis, obsessed with archetypes who could anchor a blockbuster franchise, or with “pre-sold” ideas—concepts and characters audiences are already familiar with, like Beverly Hills, 90210 or the aforementioned Carrie.
The Tomorrow People, which premieres tonight, stars Robbie Amell as a troubled high-schooler named Stephen who discovers he has special powers that all start with “tele”—teleportation, telekinesis, and telepathy—as if his genes could read, but only got to one page of the dictionary. The pilot is a pretty shameless rip-off of The Matrix, but without the intriguing virtual reality component that made The Matrix the movie that launched a thousand doctoral theses. Stephen may, basically, be the One. As in The Matrix, his allies hang out in abandoned train stations, and when Stephen lives up to his prophesied potential, he does so by stopping bullets using the same “do not walk” hand gesture as Neo. Should future episodes fall off as steeply from the pilot as The Matrix sequels did from The Matrix, you may actually have to be the One to watch what comes next.
Reign, about Mary Queen of Scots’ teenage years, begins next Thursday. It’s a promising premise—at the very least, Showtime could wring something with the enjoyable boudoir realism of The Tudors or The Borgias out of it— but here it’s Sofia Coppola lite, Marie Antoinette by way of Gossip Girl and an Anthropologie catalog, with a group of wide-eyed girls lolling around to Mumford & Sons in modern-cut frocks with Haim hair contending with social hierarchy and cute boys. (Girls is also an influence: Reign borrows the scene from early in Season 1 when Marnie has an emergency masturbation session, but on Reign, the lady-in-waiting emergency-masturbating in a castle stairwell gets discovered by the King of France, who then has sex with her.) And just in case being a world historical figure did not make Mary Stuart special enough, Reign gives her either a special spectral friend or the second sight. Spoiler warning, but if she ever really had either, Mary Stuart probably would not have spent the last 18 years of her life locked up in castles waiting to be executed.
Also new to the CW this year: The Originals, which premiered last week and is a spin-off of its hit The Vampire Diaries, starring a vampire-werewolf hybrid who returns to New Orleans to deal with vampires and witches. Come midseason, there will be Star-Crossed, about discriminated-against aliens with special healing powers who desegregate a local public school. (Even more remarkable than their powers is the aliens’ race: They are all white. This makes Star-Crossed a direct allegory for Little Rock, but with only Caucasians.) Also premiering midseason is The 100, a show about 100 ordinary juvenile delinquents who … are the only people exploring a post-apocalyptic Earth.
In short, if you are looking for normal teenagers, go watch ABC Family, which now specializes in making exactly the sort of shows that used to be the CW’s métier. Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters, Switched at Birth, Twisted, not to mention the wonderful and cancelled Bunheads and Huge, feature characters with no super-powers—just identifiable, charming, complicated, addictive, relatively normal teenage problems. ABC Family’s regular kids may not be as flashy as the CW’s stable of superheroes, but they have higher ratings: The CW’s highest-ranked show, Vampire Diaries, had 2.6 million viewers for its season premiere, while Pretty Little Liars had 3.3 million for its August finale. More importantly, they make for better television. Adolescence is dramatic enough even without fangs.