In Monday night’s inaugural episode of CBS’s Supergirl, Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) faced a bad guy named Vartox, an evil alien with an atomic axe. The first time the two meet, in an empty construction site, Vartox tosses Kara around like a rag doll, throwing her into pyramids of piping [Crunch!] and nearly strangling her to death [Gasp!]. The second time they meet, on a dark, empty highway, Kara stands in front of a mac truck [Crash!] and allows herself to get beat up [Sock! Pow!] so she can get close enough to Vartox to blow up his ax with the heat beams she can shoot out of her eyes. [Sizzle!]
Despite the presence of superheroes, aliens, and nuclear medieval weaponry, the aforementioned fight scenes are a TV commonplace. You can watch some iteration of them on shows like Blindspot, Castle, The Player, Blacklist, Sleepy Hollow, Quantico, Minority Report, Grimm, Arrow, The Flash, Agent Carter, and Agents of SHIELD, among others. These are a very specific kind of fight scene. Monster punches are thrown, but are only ever filmed from behind the person being hit, so the punches never have to land. Furniture is broken and guns are brandished but dropped. The protagonist either wins (if the fight takes place at the end of the episode), or loses in some inconsequential way (if it takes place in the middle). The outcome is never in doubt. You can fast-forward, go the bathroom, text or read the Internet while these fights are taking place and miss nothing. I know because that’s what I do every single time one comes on.
I understand that human beings, generally speaking, enjoy watching violence. And the fight scenes described above are tailored for enjoyment, a bit of adrenaline spiking razzle-dazzle in which you never have to fear for the hero. But, oh god, they are so boring. They make smashed tables, roundhouse kicks, and gun scuffles pedestrian: the protagonist could get thrown into a table, roundhouse kicked, and shot by a gun and, yet, by the next scene, be just fine (and that does not only apply to the superheroes). Contemporary TV crimefighters are surrounded by all sorts of high-tech gadgets, but their fights have been teleported in from an ancient B-movie.
(The B-movie aesthetic has its appeal. I always appreciated how Buffy the Vampire Slayer almost fetishized the low-budget jankiness of its fight scenes, and its villains, as a way of embracing the show’s cartoonish aspects, instead of denying them.)
This is not a call for fights to get hyper-graphic. And it’s not a call for fight scenes to get as detailed and expansive as they are in the action and superhero movies. (TV can’t compete with movies on scope. Trying to go big, when TV’s bigness will almost always be on a smaller budget, is what has led to so many bland sequences. And besides, most fight scenes from superhero movies are boring too—they just cost $20 million more and took up 30 more minutes of your life.) But it is a call for fight scenes to come with some consequences, a smidge of doubt.
TV’s best fight scenes, in shows that regularly stage them, have both. The one-take hallway fight in Netflix’s Daredevil was logistically ambitious for television, but it also took a physical toll on Daredevil, who by the end was bleeding and lurching around, barely able to stand. The Americans has had some rousing fight scenes because the show is not afraid to let Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings get wounded. Speaking to my colleague June Thomas, Americans co-showrunner Joel Fields explained “We’ve gone from having them be perfect martial artists to people who can get hit and who can be hurt.” If the heroes always win and never get hurt, a fight scene is just a bunch of sound effects.