Black Lightning recently ended its four season run on The CW. I watched faithfully from the very first episode (which makes it pleasantly shocking that it lasted four seasons). This has gotten me a bit reflective, about the show itself, but also about storytelling and things like that. Please excuse a little self-indulgence, but I felt like sharing some of these reflections. I’ll try to keep it spoiler free in case anyone is interested in watching for themselves, but a couple may creep in, especially in the second half.
I’ll start with the show itself. There was a lot to like. It started great. The beginnings of TV shows are often shaky. There’s just a lot of work to be done, establishing the characters and setting, setting up relationships, introducing plot elements. All of this set up usually means that the story is less than gripping at the beginning. Most shows need at least a few episodes to settle in. Some need more than a full season. Black Lightning hit the ground running. I was instantly invested. It didn’t always maintain that high a level, but it was never less than good.
There were some other things I liked. The cast was great. It helps that I didn’t recognize most of them from other roles, but I saw them as their characters rather than people playing characters. It was a very good looking show. And I don’t just mean the cast (although they’re pretty easy on the eyes). It had a dramatic stylization. There was a lot of color contrast and they frequently played with light and dark. The show didn’t shy away from politics. There were plots taken from the crack epidemic/war on drugs to Trayvon Martin to government experiments on black communities. And, relatedly, the show was unapologetically black. I’m probably not the best judge of this, but I never felt like they were trying to make blackness palatable for a white audience. I felt like Black Lightning was just telling its own stories. I also enjoyed the way they used music throughout the series.
Before getting to the more general observations, I want to say that I don’t pay any attention to behind the scenes stuff in Hollywood. So, some of what I’m going to say is speculative. I don’t know the real causes for what I talk about. I think my points will still hold, though.
There are two lessons we can all learn from Black Lightning. The first is that it is a mistake to always raise the stakes. [Minor spoilers] Black Lightning started with very high stakes, Jefferson and Lynn’s daughters getting kidnapped, and it just amped up from there. Eventually foreign nations were invading Freeland and Tobias was heading up an international cabal. [It’s safe again] The problem with constantly raising the stakes is that the show got less personal as it went on. Black Lightning isn’t unique, by any means. To jump into a different comics world, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. suffered from the same problem. I think if season two had pulled back and done a bunch of “villains of the week” episodes, the show would have had more room to breathe and grow naturally. Look at Deep Space Nine as a series that got this balance perfectly.
The second lesson is probably a lot harder to fix. It seems like a lot of outside factors kept changing the story instead of story logic dictating the story. I say this is hard to fix because I’m sure COVID was one of those factors. It halted production of most things and probably forced the stories to get told in fewer episodes than they otherwise would have been. [Minor spoilers] It seemed like an actor’s decision to leave the show completely changed Jennifer’s story arc. The whole JJ thing was a clever way to recast, but it never really made sense. And introducing the bodiless creatures that live in the ionosphere in the series finale was just bizarre. I’d love to know what the original plans were. [It’s safe again] Even the end of the series felt like it was a network decision rather than a story decision. Everything felt rushed in the last season. The last couple of episodes almost felt like checklists. “What threads are still loose? Ok, let’s tie them off,” check, check, check, check. Like I said, these things feel like they were out of the producers’ and writers’ control. Black Lightning isn’t the first show to suffer these kinds of problems (cough, Enterprise, cough). I just wish the business side of things would cede control to the creatives.
The bottom line is I’m glad to have had Black Lightning in my life for four seasons. If you didn’t watch it, try streaming it. If you did watch it, I’m curious what you think about the ending and the show in general. I’ve been comparing it to Watchmen, and I think Black Lightning pulled it off better. Am I crazy?