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The CW’s Smart Superhero Crossovers Reveal A Fatal Flaw in Netflix Binge Watching

Thanks to the systems that enabled binge-ing, fun events like the recent "Crisis on Earth-X" won't be nearly as fun down the line.

Crisis on Earth-X

The CW

Netflix was supposed to make watching TV easier than ever. But occasionally it turns the experience into a scavenger hunt, and a tedious one at that.

The most recent example comes from a fun yearly tradition between the four series that constitute The CW’s “Arrow”-verse: a mega-crossover event that blends the Greg Berlanti-produced quartet of DC Comics dramas for an epic, effects-laden adventure.

This year’s big crossover, dubbed “Crisis on Earth-X,” featured a wedding, alternate Earths, Nazis, the introduction of a new superhero, some unexpected team-ups, and plenty of kick-punching — all the stuff fans of these series enjoy.

But while fans watching this week were able to enjoy a seamless viewing experience, on par with catching a three-hour movie, future audiences won’t have that option. Instead, figuring out how to piece together “Crisis on Earth-X” will be a far more complicated endeavor.

That’s because each of the four parts of “Crisis” is technically an episode of “Supergirl,” “Arrow,” “The Flash,” or “Legends of Tomorrow,” shows that become available on Netflix in the U.S. eight days after they wrap for the season (per a massive streaming deal between the streamer and The CW). Thus, the four parts will be awkwardly split up amongst their respective series.

The Flash Crisis on Earth-X

For now, The CW has avoided that complication on its official CW TV site and app (ad-supported, but does not require a cable subscription to watch) by packaging “Crisis on Earth-X” as a four-part viewing experience. But this is a temporary situation, as only the five most recent episodes of each show are available for viewing before expiring. Eventually, they’ll only be viewable on Netflix.

To understand just what a pain in the ass this will make future viewing, consider last year’s crossover event, “Invasion!” (There were aliens.) The three-part story (following a brief tease in “Supergirl”) took place across episodes of “The Flash,” “Arrow” and “Legends.” When watching on Netflix, there is a title card that comes up at the end of the “Flash’s” “Invasion!” episode, announcing that the story is “to be continued on ‘Arrow.'”

That at least gives viewers a general sense of what they need to do next: go back to browse on Netflix, search for “Arrow,” and try to guess or remember which season the next episode in the crossover happens. (Netflix will provide no hints as to where exactly to find it, beyond the fact that the “Arrow” episode is also entitled “Invasion!”)

And that’s presuming you’ve already disabled Netflix’s auto-play, which will otherwise catapult you beyond the end of the “Invasion” storyline and back into the standalone “Flash” series. That’s also presuming you knew to watch “The Flash” first, since the episode names don’t indicate which episode is Part 1 vs. Part 2. And you have to repeat the whole process all over again to watch the third part of the storyline, which appears as “Legends of Tomorrow” Season 2 Episode 7.

Legends of Tomorrow Crisis on Earth-X

The existence of “Previously On…” sequences become massively important in this situation — but they’re more of a band-aid than a real solution, given that they’re usually created to remind regular viewers of previous episodes that they’ve already seen, not fully recap an entire episode (or more). One minute and 15 seconds (the length of the “Previously On” opener of Part 3 of “Invasion!”) is not enough to fully encompass everything that happened in the previous two installments, let alone any other pre-existing storylines from these shows.

This isn’t a problem exclusive to just this one franchise: Plenty of special TV crossovers from classic series bring this sort of confusion to new fans discovering them today. For example, when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon launched the spinoff series “Angel,” the two shows were initially on the same network, and during the fourth and fifth season (especially the fourth season) of “Buffy,” there were a number of episodes that crossed over from one series to the next.

While it was exciting television at the time for viewers, who would watch live as the two episodes of the two different shows aired back-to-back on the same network, it’s now much harder for people rediscovering either show to get a complete sense of the narrative as it was originally told.

"Buffy The Vampire Slayer"

“Buffy The Vampire Slayer”

Fox Television/REX/Shutterstock

“Buffy” and “Angel” were happening, though, during a time when even the concept of television on DVD was a nascent thing. Now, Berlanti and the “Arrow”-verse team are creating television with the full awareness that when each season ends, The CW’s Netflix deal makes it available for streaming in the United States.

There’s a completely legitimate argument to be made that there may be fans of one “Arrow”-verse series who don’t care about any of the others, and so trying to force the connection between all four shows upon those viewers would be unwelcome. There’s also another completely legitimate argument to make about the fact that the CW aims to incentivize watching these special events the week of their airing, as opposed to waiting for Netflix, thus boosting their ratings and digital ad buys.

And on the Netflix side, whatever would be required to make a crossover bingeing experience possible would be an engineering challenge that would require reinventing how these services enable binge-viewing. When you’re binge-viewing on Netflix or Hulu, the services don’t have a contingency plan for switching speedily between interconnected TV shows — they just assume that you’re going straight through a season. Netflix would essentially have to embrace the concept of viewer choice across multiple series, which is impossible to imagine taking place, even if they’re on the same network.

It’s noteworthy that Netflix’s own sprawling universe of Marvel superhero series is better built for the binge-viewing model. Chronologically, each season of each show is a relatively self-contained thing, with no overlaps in terms of timeline that would require you to bounce between series in order to get the full story. And when it did unite the four core heroes of that universe, it did so as a self-contained series.

Marvel's The Defenders

“Marvel’s The Defenders”

Sarah Shatz/Netflix

And yet, there’s still something baffling about the fact that the “Arrow”-verse team has no plan in place for handling crossovers like this beyond their original premiere. When IndieWire asked about this during a press Q&A connected to “Invasion!” last year, then-executive producer Andrew Kreisberg (who has since been fired following accusations of sexual harassment) noted that the DVDs for each show do include the other parts of the crossovers.

But he also didn’t think it was that big an issue, due to the dedication of the “Arrow”-verse fanbase. “I think people are getting pretty savvy when it comes to how they’re watching television,” he added. “The technology is changing so rapidly, but this is one instance where people are keeping up with it. We’re blessed in the sense that I don’t think these shows have a lot in the way of casual viewers. I think people who watch these shows genuinely love them.”

It’s an attitude that speaks to thinking of television as something that exists in the present tense. But television no longer lives only in the present. Thanks to services like Netflix and Hulu, great TV shows have become time travelers, and the more that showrunners and producers adjust their thinking accordingly, the better off both the fans of today and the fans of tomorrow will be.

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