There really aren’t any other networks quite like The CW. The result of a merger between the now defunct networks UPN and the WB, the CW was conceived of as a destination for young viewers. It exists in a strange no man’s land in television; it’s not quite a traditional network in the vein of NBC or CBS, but it’s a bit heftier than a cable channel. It occupies a bit of a middle ground creatively as well; we’re unlikely to get the next Mad Men or Breaking Bad from the network, but it’s also notably lacking in the police and medical procedurals that populate the more traditional networks.
In recent years, the CW has carved out an identity as a destination for genre series, most notably a stable of shows featuring DC’s superheroes. Before that, it primarily a network made up of teen dramas and soaps, and there was still remnants of that iteration on its schedule. Along the way there have also been some notable misfires; sometimes those have been creatively admirable failures, but just as often they’ve been stale attempts at the CW’s tried and true superheroes and soap operas. We’re taking a look at the highs and lows of television’s most unique network.
These are the 9 Best (And 9 Worst) CW Shows, Ranked.
18. WORST: The Messengers
Give The Messengers credit: it certainly didn’t lack ambition. The show begins with a mysterious object plummeting to Earth, creating a shockwave that kills five seemingly random people, who come back to life moments later. Those five people soon discover they have supernatural abilities and find themselves drawn together for reasons they can’t explain.
The five people turn out to be the biblical angels of the apocalypse who must work together to prevent the Rapture. This was a case of a show simply being too big for its britches. The muddled storytelling and uneven cast simply couldn’t live up to the epic scope of the show’s plot – though series lead Shantel VanSanten would later find a memorable role on The Flash as Patty Spivot.
17. BEST: Jane The Virgin
Jane the Virgin has become an unlikely cornerstone for the CW. The story of a religiously devout young woman who is accidentally artificially inseminated during a routine doctor visit, the show is a satire of telenovelas, often parodying the over the top, melodramatic plot twists of that genre. The show’s cast is anchored by Gina Rodriguez, who has become a bonafide star in the role of Jane, winning a Golden Globe for her performance in 2015.
Jane the Virgin is an impressive mashup of knowing satire and earnest romantic comedy with an occasional sprinkling of genuine drama, and is proof positive that the CW can do more than superheroes and teen drama when they put their minds to it. Jane the Virgin is also one of the few CW shows that routinely enters the same conversations as buzzy, prestige cable series.
16. WORST: Beauty & The Beast
Rather than a spin on the more traditional, Disney-friendly version of the popular fairytale, the CW’s Beauty & The Beast was based on the ’80s television series of the same name, which starred Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton in a modern day setting. The ’80s series wasn’t exactly high art, but it looks like The Sopranos next to the CW’s wretched reboot.
A fairly blatant attempt to cash in on Twilight’s popularity, Beauty & The Beast couldn’t even clear that franchise’s famously low bar. The series featured lousy lead performances from Kristin Kreuk and Jay Ryan, and showcased some of the very worst writing 21st century television has ever seen. The only magic the show could conjure was somehow surviving for four seasons despite the fact that barely anyone watched it.
15. BEST: Veronica Mars
Veronica Mars’ greatest crime was being ahead of its time. A clever mashup of gritty noir and soapy teen drama, the show followed an ostracized high school student – the titular Veronica, played with trademark wit and fire by Kristen Bell – who helps her father, disgraced former Sheriff Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), run his low profile detective agency. Veronica’s life was thrown into chaos when her best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried) was murdered, and her father seemingly pursued the wrong lead as Sheriff, destroying his career and Veronica’s family.
It was an inventive, bracingly smart show that was simply too complex and eclectic to thrive in its era. The show has already been revived once for a Kickstarter funded film, and Bell has hinted that it could return again. Even a decade after its unceremonious cancellation, Veronica Mars remains a high water mark for the CW.
14. WORST: Dynasty
Dynasty has committed the worst possible crime for a primetime soap opera – it’s boring. The original Dynasty was one of the trashiest guilty pleasures of the ’80s, featuring the boozy, sexy melodrama of an oil baron and the wealthy socialites he surrounded himself with. Created to compete with the powerhouse primetime soap Dallas, Dynasty had no reservations about going over the top in tasteless, but undeniably intoxicating, ways.
The CW reboot of Dynasty features a decidedly prettier cast with decidedly less charm and talent.
Spearheaded by the producers of Gossip Girl and The O.C., Dynasty lacks even those series’ charms – and certainly lacks their talented casts. Dynasty is simply another anonymous CW drama likely destined for the scrap heap after a few barely watched seasons.
13. BEST: Riverdale
Outside of superheroes, the characters of Archie Comics are likely the most well known of that medium. In stark contrast to the epic, life, and death tales of Superman and Wonder Woman, Archie Comics featured decidedly lower stakes, telling relatable stories about typical high school students and their problems, most notable their romantic foibles. Archie, Veronica, and Betty is perhaps the most iconic love triangle in all of fiction.
That said, few would have pegged Archie as the source material for a 21st century hit TV show. But that’s exactly what Riverdale is; leaning into the romantic drama of the comics, though with a decidedly darker edge, Riverdale has been the CW’s breakout series since debuting in 2017. Owing as much to Twin Peaks as it does to Dawson’s Creek, the show is an infectious mystery drama that is more fun than it has any business being.
12. WORST: Ringer
The CW probably thought they had a surefire hit on their hands with Ringer. A veritable stew of genres including thriller, mystery, a neo-noir, the show chronicled the story of Bridget Kelly – a woman who finds herself impersonating her twin sister after the latter kills herself.
The show promised sexy thrills and an intriguing mystery, but the real draw was its star.
Ringer was Sarah Michelle Gellar’s return to television nearly a decade after Buffy the Vampire Slayer wrapped up its iconic run.
But even Gellar’s considerable talents couldn’t save Ringer, which was a murky mess of a show that could never quite figure out what it wanted to be, and was unceremoniously canceled after one dismal season. The pilot episode still endures as one of the worst things the network has ever aired, which is saying something.
11. BEST: The Flash
The CW wasn’t always “the superhero network.” Even with the early success of Arrow, there was no indication that the network had cracked the code on how to make superpowered spectacle work convincingly on television. That all changed with The Flash.
The story of Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), a young crime lab scientist granted superspeed abilities, the show eschewed the grim, gritty thrills of Arrow for a refreshing brand of optimism and fun. Featuring a cavalcade of superpowers and colorful heroes and villains, it was the first time the DC universe felt fully realized in live-action TV, and would spawn the likes of Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow.
The series hasn’t always been perfect – the gloomy third season was a low point – but when it’s firing on all cylinders, The Flash is still the best superhero you’re going to find on the small screen.
10. WORST: 90210
The original Beverly Hills, 90210 was one of the most iconic shows of the ’90s. One of Fox’s most enduring series, the primetime teen soap opera spun melodramatic tales of the problems of rich young beautiful people and slightly less rich beautiful young people for ten seasons, making minor celebrities of series stars like Brian Austin Green and Tori Spelling.
The CW’s revival of the series was a decidedly lower profile affair. A continuation of the original series – though notably lacking appearances from the original’s most high profile stars, Jason Priestley and Luke Perry – 90210 felt like what it essentially was: a warmed over soap opera from a bygone era of television. The show limped through five seasons before being mercifully canceled. The Peach Pit diner deserved better than this.
9. BEST: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
There’s nothing on television quite like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The show tells the story of Rebecca Bunch (co-creator Rachel Bloom), a New York lawyer who moves to California on a whim after a brief encounter with her ex-boyfriend, Josh (Vincent Rodriquez III). Several times per episode, Rebecca will burst into elaborate musical numbers, a parody of musical theater where people abruptly break into song.
The show is also an important meditation on mental illness. Rebecca’s impulsive and obsessive behavior is treated soberly as symptomatic of her anxiety and depression disorders. Many of the supporting characters also struggle with mental illness, and the show makes earnest attempts to deal with the societal stigma around mental illness. How the show manages to pull off its more cartoonish musical aspect and its psychological commentary without seeming tonally chaotic is a minor miracle.
8. WORST: The Tomorrow People
Not every Greg Berlanti produced superhero series has been a winner for the CW. Before Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow, there was The Tomorrow People. A remake of a ’70s British series, the series followed a group of young people with telepathy, teleportation, and telekinesis powers who are credited as being the next step in human evolution.
Essentially a bargain bin version of the X-Men, the show was a charmless slog that lacked the humor and visceral thrills of Berlanti’s DC shows. The CW would more or less use The Tomorrow People’s cast and crew for spare parts on more successful shows. Cast members Robbie Amell and Peyton List would go on to have prominent roles on The Flash, and producer Phil Klemmer now works on Legends of Tomorrow.
7. BEST: Supergirl
Plenty of things could have gone wrong with Supergirl. Establishing her in a reality separate from the other live-action DC series – and one that notably featured Superman – was a risk, but it mostly paid off.
Supergirl began its life on CBS, where it struggled to meet the demands of arguably the most creatively stilted network. It simply didn’t fit with that network’s stable of crime and medical procedurals, and jumped to the CW for its season second like a spit-curled baby in a rocket escaping a doomed planet. That change in network proved what everyone already knew:
Supergirl was a perfect fit on the CW, where it was a natural sibling series to The Flash.
6. WORST: Cult
For one of the stranger shows to ever air on the CW, Cult had an appropriately convoluted birth. It was originally conceived of as a show for the WB network starring future White Collar and American Horror Story actor Matt Bomer, but the merger of the WB and UPN into the CW shelved that iteration of the series. The show would end up being produced seven years later for the CW, with Matthew Davis in the lead role.
The show chronicled Davis’ investigative journalist as he followed the fans of a popular crime TV series – also called Cult – and attempted to piece together whether or not they were recreating the crimes from the series. A veritable maze of meta winks and nods, the show was too cute for its own good, and was relegated to a Friday night death slot after airing only two episodes.
5. BEST: iZombie
There is perhaps no series that is as thoroughly a CW show as iZombie. An adaptation of a comic book series published by the DC imprint Vertigo, iZombie is the story of Liv Moore (Rose McIver), a young woman who, after surviving an attack at a party, finds herself craving human brains. Still cognitively human, Liv can’t bring herself to kill people, so she gets a job in a morgue, where she has easy access to brains. Liv finds she can access the memories of the brains she eats – and temporarily takes on some of the deceased’s personality traits as well – which she uses to solve their deaths.
The show is produced by Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas, and Liv’s snappy, snarky dialogue sometimes sounds lifted directly from that brilliant CW forerunner. Hopefully Liv finds more closure than Veronica ever did.
4. WORST: The Beautiful Life
The CW has gained something of a reputation as the network least likely to have an itchy cancellation finger, often letting even their most lackluster series trudge on for multiple seasons before pulling the plug. That reputation makes the complete and utter failure of The Beautiful Life all the more impressive.
Produced by noted creative visionary Ashton Kutcher, The Beautiful Life revolved around a group of models sharing a residence in New York City. Anchored by a barely conscious lead performance from Mischa Barton, the show was critically reviled and virtually unwatched, and was pulled from the CW’s schedule after airing only two episodes. Notably, had the show been allowed to finish out its first season, it would have featured one of the first major performances from future Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot. It seems unlikely that’s a missed opportunity she dwells on.
3. BEST: Supernatural
There’s something of a poetic irony to the fact that Supernatural seems as immune to death as its main characters. The story of Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) and Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki), Supernatural chronicles the brothers as they combat all manner of ghosts, monsters, and demons. The show is a savvy mix of horror frights and dark comedy, owing some of its tone to the like of Evil Dead II and An American Werewolf In Paris.
It’s almost hard to imagine the CW without Supernatural at this point.
Series creator Eric Kripke completed the story he intended to tell over the series’ first five seasons, but the show has endured well past that point. Currently in its thirteenth season, Supernatural is the longest running live-action fantasy show in American TV history, with no obvious end in sight.
2. WORST: Melrose Place
The original Melrose Place was the second entry in the 90210 Shared Universe – yes, that was a thing – and featured a decidedly more grown up take on the soapy thrills of its parent series. Featuring a cast full of righteous hams, Heather Locklear’s cutthroat Amanda Woodward was the clear standout, fueling much of the show’s over the top drama. The show was never a critical favorite, but that was beside the point – Melrose Place proudly lived in the gutter.
The 2010 revival of the series on the CW simply couldn’t muster any of the originals trashy magic. Featuring a low wattage-cast and stories that felt, at best, like half hearted retreads of the original series, the new Melrose Place never managed to be the sort of addictive train wreck TV that so defined the original.
1. BEST: Arrow
The notion of starting a DC television empire with Green Arrow would strike most comic book fans as ridiculous, but that’s exactly what producer Greg Berlanti has done with Arrow. The dark, street-level superhero series owes more than a little to Batman. Indeed, the first season was essentially a pastiche of Christopher Nolan’s version of the Dark Knight, before it found its creative voice in its second season.
Arrow has actually ended up enriching its comic book counterpart’s world. Supporting characters like John Diggle and Felicity Snoak have become a crucial part of Oliver’s story, and the show’s take on Deathstroke is arguably the best, most complex antagonist Green Arrow has ever had in any medium.
Not only has Arrow become a cornerstone of the CW’s superhero universe, it’s established bedrock characteristics of Oliver Queen that seem likely to endure well past the life of the series.
What’s your favorite show on The CW? Let us know in the comments!
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