Next January, the CW will launch “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” a spinoff series taking place in the same narrative universe as the channel’s other popular superhero shows, “Arrow” and “The Flash.” The show will feature an Avengers-style team-up with Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh, “Chuck”) and Sara Lance (Caity Lotz, “Mad Men”), two major supporting characters in earlier seasons of “Arrow.” There will also be characters from “The Flash,” including Martin Stein (Victor Garber, “Godspell”), Captain Cold and Heat Wave (Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell, “Prison Break”). The problem is this: at the start of each existing show’s current airing seasons, none of these characters were in a position where the new show’s premise would make sense. As a result, the past few episodes have slowly been moving the pieces around to set up “Legends of Tomorrow.”
Setting up future stories has increasingly become a part of superhero narratives. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” began integrating mythology about the “Inhumans” last season, and this will eventually plant the seed for a future “Inhumans” movie (possibly in 2019, if a new writer is found). The movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, too, have included little threads to set up future installments, like Thor’s disjointed subplot in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” In fact, some viewers criticize the M.C.U.’s overreliance on serialization in general, devoting most of its films to tracking Infinity Stones that won’t really pay off until the third and fourth films are released.
The CW’s franchise-building has gained some criticism, too, and though their cultural reach is admittedly smaller than that of “The Avengers,” “The Flash” and “Arrow” can be helpful tools in understanding when expositional setup works and when it feels like nothing more than table-setting.
Using the A.V. Club’s episodic grades and corresponding comments as a rough indicator of critical quality, “The Flash” reached its nadir last week with “The Fury of Firestorm.” The episode’s main plot is devoted exclusively to replacing the departed Ronnie Raymond with a new character to take up the Firestorm mantle. Part of this feels like a waste of time because the cast was announced for “Legends of Tomorrow” months ago, so viewers already know Franz Drameh (“Some Girls”) will appear as Jefferson Jackson, the new character who will team up with Martin Stein and turn into a Human Torch-esque hero.
The greater problem, though, is the balance of plots. By devoting a main plot entirely to finding Jefferson Jackson, it’s much more obvious that this is meant to set up something down the road. Meanwhile, the far more interesting stories are relegated to the background, like Iris West’s (Candice Patton, “The Game”) confrontation with the mother she had always thought was dead. Most notably, though, this episode almost completely ignores the momentous return of Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh, “Ed”), last season’s amazing villain. At the end of last week, a Wells from a parallel universe appeared in S.T.A.R. Labs, but this week’s episode delays his inevitable confrontation with Barry Allen (Grant Gustin, “Glee”) until the very last moment. Essentially, the problem with the procedural isn’t necessarily that the case-of-the-week is wholly uninteresting; the problem is that the case-of-the-week is foregrounded instead of the thrilling new plot developments.
“Arrow,” meanwhile, has done a much stronger job setting up the return of Ray Palmer and Sara Lance, both of whom were supposedly dead at the end of last season. In the past few episodes’ subplots, Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards, “Brooklyn”) has been receiving strange coded messages. Ray Palmer, the only one who has the ability to send these messages, has seemingly been communicating from beyond the grave. By confining this table-setting to small chunks of time, it feels like a slow-burning add-on — not a superfluous bit of setup.
Meanwhile, each episode’s B-plot has been dedicated to Sara’s resurrection. There are a few reasons this story doesn’t feel rote. To begin with, the desire to bring Sara back to life is grounded in character motivations; Laurel (Katie Cassidy, “Supernatural”) understandably wishes her sister was still alive, so when she finds out that there’s a “Lazarus pit” that can bring her back, she pursues the possibility. “Arrow” also makes the smart choice to destroy the Lazarus pit once Sara is back, so that’s one avenue that can no longer be used for cheap resurrection on the part of the writers.
Lastly, Sara’s symptoms upon resurrection — she’s an incoherent, animalistic beast, no longer really herself — prevent her return from feeling contrived. Really bringing Sara back to life isn’t as easy as it sounds, and “Arrow” continues to wring thrills and emotional tension from her situation.
Table-setting doesn’t have to feel so mechanical, though “The Flash” has occasionally descended into that territory. This season, though, “Arrow” has shown that smart writing and a tight focus on characterization can make any plot movement feel true to the story, not just lame setup for the next new franchise. Making sure each episode succeeds on its own is key to introducing new stories in an organic way.