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Superhero TV

I heard on Escape Pod that the Union Dues series may be coming to television. The prospective producer, Doug Nabors, posed the following question about superhero television series, to help him pitch this one properly:

Historically, costumed hero shows have failed, or have been perceived as juvenile camp. Why have they failed? What content/story/angle can Union Dues provide that other live action super hero shows have not been able to? Although "Heroes" has been a commercial success, it has failed critically. We are pitching this series as the antithesis of this type of glossy, bubblegum hero fiction.

I think this is a fascinating question.

I have only heard one podcast of UD, and so I can’t answer the second half of the question with precision, but I do have some ideas about why superhero shows fail, why they are dismissed, and what might be done differently. I’ll get the ball rolling, and then let y’all have at it.

The premise of a superhero story is that the protagonist is Fundamentally Different from other people, in a way that allows him/her to do what most cannot. The secondary premise, almost always, is that those Differences are used in the Service Of Good (i.e., They fight crime!). These two factors make it difficult to connect with the protagonist in a human way, because the protag is both in a situation and has a set of commitments that most people do not.

The Marvel comics of the 1970s and 80s tackled this by giving their heroes a lot of angst. If you couldn’t get into Spiderman’s obsession with responsibility, maybe you could sympathize with Peter Parker’s pathetic love life. If Captain America’s over-the-top patriotism left you cold, maybe his sense of being left behind by life and history got you. And so forth.

If one looks at contemporary crime dramas on television, they are made more interesting by virtue of either mundane character conflicts among the regulars or deep personal flaws in the same.   Some television series, such as Monk, take the superpower = superweakness paradigm and run with it; they just don’t bother with the spandex costumes.

From what I’ve seen of Union Dues, it has the advantage of irony. Because the characters are themselves actors in a Reality TV series, they have a healthy dose of cynicism about their situation, their costumes, the feats they perform. Some of them are also unhappy with their situations. The key, I think, is to take the human consequences of this sort of "power" seriously and run with them. Being a true telepath sucks, some of the time. Having electrical charge build up in your hands when you get upset is a bummer.

Clark Kent is a more interesting character than Superman.

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