The CW knows superheroes and teen dramas, but with its two midseason shows, Black Lightning and Life Sentence, the network hopes to present a refreshingly different side of their go-to genres.
When Jefferson Pierce (Hart of Dixie’s Cress Williams) dons his suit as Black Lightning when the series premieres Tuesday, January 16 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, it will be a big moment. The show—created by Salim and Mara Brock Akil of UPN’s Girlfriends and spin-off The Game —not only features a superhero of color as the lead, but promises a superhero family of color kicking ass within a world full of it.
Despite his electrical superpowers, Black Lightning strives for realism in a way that The CW’s other superheroes don’t.
“The character of Jefferson [Pierce] is already a community-based superhero. He’s already a principal, already a father. It gave me an opportunity to talk about things that are personal to me,” said co-creator Salim Akil. “I grew up in a community like Freeland, in Chicago and Oakland and Watts. It came naturally. It wasn’t a choice made out of, ‘Hey this is what we want to say.’ This is what I know, what we know, and let’s do what’s real.”
“As artists we want to entertain, obviously, but when you see what’s going on in the world, the job is to speak to it and be impactful,” said Williams. “Once I leave this planet, I want to know that something I did made a difference. This is an amazing opportunity to entertain but also to speak to life and I think that’s our job as artists.”
With an all-black cast and a predominantly African-American writer’s room, Black Lightning aims for authenticity in front of and behind the camera.
“The throughline in all of our projects is that we do black on purpose. It’s important to put our humanity out there,” said Mara Brock Akil. “The authentic nature of how we communicate and use humor to survive and get through to the next moment. Otherwise, we’d be crying.”
“We have people who have lived this life or know someone who has,” said Salim Akil. “Our cast also knows what language feels like in their own communities.”
“It’s a testament to Salim and Mara and The CW. We want this to be a black show and we’re not going to compromise that. That’s what you see on the screen. That’s the voice we want,” said star Christine Adams. “A lot of times that can get lost in the machine of making a show, but they have maintained that vision from day one.”
The show is also unique in that it focuses on an adult superhero, rather than the coming-of-age superheroes seen in Arrow, Flash and Supergirl that caters to the young adult CW aesthetic. But the creators met no resistance in their take on the character and world.
“The only conversation was, ‘Hey Salim. How do you see it and what do you want to do and we’re behind you.’ That was the conversation. Everyone wants to hear about the tug and pull, but there was no drama,” said Salim Akil. “That was the comic.”
In the show, Jefferson Pierce has retired from crime-fighting for nine years, but returns when as his community becomes increasingly dangerous. This is no accident considering the political climate.
“We have to unpack the times and what we’re dealing with. In our daily lives, how are we grappling with what’s before us?” asked co-creator Mara Brock Akil. “I think the conversation is about how we become our own heroes, how do we save our little piece of the world? That resurrection of the character, that decision to come back and fight, we hope the audience will embrace and think about that in their own lives.”
“It’s beautiful that we have Luke Cage, us and Black Panther conquering every possible outlet. I think there’s an animated black Spider-Man coming, so I’m stoked. As the kid who used to look and all I had was Superman, we have so many things to choose from, and I hope that keeps growing, not only for African Americans, but for every ethnicity, gender, religion. It’s important,” said Cress Williams. “Ideally, I want people to be able to look and go, ‘that’s me,’ and find some sort of representation. Not just for us, but for everyone.”
Salim Akil addressed why Black Lightning exists in a separate universe from the other CW superhero shows.
“Warner Bros. and The CW allowed us to create our own world. We wanted folks to get to know this family before we start branching out,” he said. “You probably think I’m bull*****ing you, but at this point, I don’t have to schmooze up to anybody.”
But is what we’re witnessing with more black voices on television a sea change or just a moment?
“It’s that ten year cycle. We hot now. Black people have gone in and out, but what I’m seeing now is all these young voices. I don’t know if we’ve turned that corner, but I for damn sure know we’re straightening out the curve,” said Salim Akil. “If you look at Issa [Rae], we knew from Awkward Black Girl. You couldn’t deny Awkward Black Girl. If you look at The Chi [created by Lena Waithe], that’s people taking responsibility and not asking anymore. The thing now with black folk is not to ask anymore, but do. There’s enough ways to get your message out there, you don’t have to ask. If you do it at a level where you’re pleased with it, and authentic, people will pay attention to it.”
“When you get an opportunity, when you’re supported, when you can raise to the best of your potential and ability and get staying power, you can grow,” said Mara Brock Akil. “The roots can settle and the tree can grow. We’re continuing to grow and thankfully we’re not done.”
The CW’s Winter TCA presentation wasn’t done either, introducing critics to Life Sentence, a comedy about Stella Abbott (Pretty Little Liars’ Lucy Hale), a young woman who has fought cancer for eight years, only to discover that she’s been miraculously cured.
“This is about life after coming through a terribly hard time and starting over and starting again,” said co-creator Erin Cardillo.
The show strikes a delicate balance between comedy and tragedy that many critics were concerned about.
“We definitely have tried to be sensitive to the whole situation. We’ve all been affected by cancer in different ways and that’s been important to us,” said Cardillo. “Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.”
“They’re taking chances. I believe [TV] is where you take chances,” said executive producer Bill Lawrence, someone familiar with balancing melancholy and frivolity while creating Scrubs.
“When you try to do this tonally, it’s high-risk, high-reward. If you trivialize too much it fails. If it’s too heavy then the comedy won’t play,” said Lawrence. “But if you do manage to hit the sweet spot in an extremely cluttered landscape for content, you have a chance to stand out. Ultimately, if they hit that sweet spot more often than they don’t and tell an optimistic family show in a time that we need them and in a time when there’s not a lot of family shows on, they could have something.”
But the producers wanted to caution against labeling Life Sentence a “cancer” show.
“Our storytelling is focused on what comes next,” said co-creator Richard Keith.
“We were interested in how families recover from that. Too often films tie the little bow at the end when someone’s better,” said Lawrence. “What happens after the movie ends? This pilot is about the two scenes that end the movie. Now you’re in a whole new world, dealing with the ramifications and ripple effects those eight years had on the family.”
“I don’t think our show exists to be a cure for cancer. It exists to show another side of the story that’s rarely told, the family story,” said star Elliot Knight. “It opens everyone up to living their life in a way that they should, by not holding back.”
For Stella’s mom Ida (Gillian Vigman), that means grappling with her bisexuality.
“She’s still in a world of exploring her sexuality. It doesn’t mean that she is fully a lesbian, it doesn’t mean that she’s going to end up with a guy. Like Stella, she’s trying to figure out what’s next in her life,” said Vigman.
While Stella was sick, her family’s life was on pause. Now, not so much.
“It’s a delayed coming-of-age story for all of them,” said Keith.
That sentiment could also be attributed to The CW, another network embracing change within their programming.
In addition to the spotlight on their two new midseason shows, The CW announced Rosario Dawson will be featured in a multi-episode arc on Jane the Virgin during the back half of its current fourth season.
They also unveiled the premiere dates for its other shows, with Life Sentence beginning Wednesday, March 7 at 9 pm ET/PT after an all-new episode of Riverdale.
Clinging to life in death, iZombie returns for its fourth season Monday, February 26 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, while Dynasty moves to Friday nights at 8 p.m ET/PT, starting March 9.
The Originals’ fifth and final season begins Friday April 20 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, with The 100 coming back for its fifth season Tuesday, April 24 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
[All images courtesy of The CW]