A love letter to the CW from a tired millennial
The network may be for sale, but its deeply mediocre lineup will always have a place in our hearts.
If your back kind of hurts, you fondly remember it as the WB, and its Michigan J. Frog mascot has haunted at least one of your nightmares. Warner Brothers’ foray into its own station began in 1995, and grew into a staple television network for younger viewers into the aughts. In 2006, a merger with CBS rebranded the network as the CW, which it has remained until the news was released Thursday that its parent companies, Warner Media and ViacomCBS, are looking to sell it due to a lack of profitability. I say nay, though. The WB/CW is worth its weight in gold to millennials who were raised by its brand of salacious and candid teen programming. Everything ends at some point or another, but we need to pour one out for the network that was every early 2000s latchkey kid’s solace in a big, scary world. It filled the gap where MTV’s hard-hitting reality antics, Cartoon Network’s LSD strangeness, and the Disney channel’s family-oriented corniness left off. It was formative, for better or worse.
I know this might be hard to believe for you younger folks, but we used to have TV channels. Now in the age of streaming, where shows new and old cross pollinate across platforms at will and there’s always something to watch, remembering how we used to get our entertainment feels like a memory from a dream. But as kids, we would memorize station numbers and their schedules. Our shows came on once a week, and if you missed it you were totally F’d around the cafeteria the next day as friends rabidly discussed the latest installment of teen programming that you hadn’t seen. Maybe you’d catch a re-run. And if you were extra bougie, you had TeVo and life was easy. But beyond how the logistics of old school television used to keep us patient and honest, it was the programming of everyone’s favorite network that made millennials the un-woke elders Gen Z loves to mock now.
Despite having very little representation outside of straight, white people — which is horrifying — the WB’s shows were where many kids learned about love, addiction, sex, and messy family dynamics. Their slate of iconic programming began with 7th Heaven (which put Jessica Biel on the map), which was a smart move as a launching pad: its conceit following the family of a minister endeared the show to more conservative parents, making way for them to sneak in what would become pretty racy programming. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was its next huge hit — and no matter how you feel about any other show that the network aired, Joss Whedon’s vampire juggernaut changed the television landscape forever. There wouldn’t be a single piece of vampire fantasy if Buffy hadn’t done it first, and beyond that, its insular universe that ultimately spawned some of the first bottle episodes, and running inside jokes on television laid groundwork for shows like 30 Rock and New Girl. It was a foundational show, and the fact that the WB platformed it cements the network’s place in television history whether y’all like it or not.
Shows like One Tree Hill, Felicity, Gossip Girl and Dawson’s Creek taught us honest truths about love and how fucked up it can make people act. They also launched careers of major stars like J.J. Abrams, Alexis Bledel, Blake Lively, Jonathan Jackson, Michelle Williams, and Katie Holmes. Those shows were where we first saw things like love triangles, pregnancy scares, and cheating — things that are perhaps scandalous for younger viewers, but real and informative about how the world really works. Yes, they could get soap opera-y sometimes, with murders and school shootings, but I think there’s an element of that in today’s teen-focused programming like Euphoria and Genera+ion. Melodrama is a natural state for teenagers, and all iterations of television centered on that demographic are going to add an element of overwrought, hyper gravitas to things.
The WB was also a pioneer of fantasy and sci-fi TV. Obviously there was the aforementioned Buffy and its spinoff Angel, but shows like the original Charmed and Roswell laid crucial groundwork for Gen Z hits like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Arrowverse and Riverdale. The WB/CW has also been airing one of the longest-running fantasy shows of all time, as Supernatural is just ending in its 15th season. And we can’t forget the looming legacy that is The Vampire Diaries franchise and all of its brooding, sexually charged glory.
This isn’t to say that the network didn’t have huge problems. It has aired incredibly, unabashedly white-washed programming and also featured very few queer identities. The argument though was never that the WB/CW were progressive — they were just all we had in an era where we couldn’t look to social media and the internet to learn about the world. They at least taught us that vampires were cool, sex could get you pregnant, alcohol consumption could lead to really unfortunate outcomes, and it’s a bad idea to F your best friend’s boyfriend.
It’s frustrating sometimes for us old folks to see the trends of our youth be ironically re-popularized by the youths. They say boot cut, low rise pants are the new trend, and the cherry chapstick-flavored, Abercrombie-scented acid flashback is almost too much to handle. But we keep our memories safe from our younger counterparts trying to co-opt our glory days, because they will never know the joys of what it was like to really be there. They can wear butterfly clips in their hair with chunky highlights all they want, but they’ll never know the thrill of when that was new. Much like they’ll never understand what the WB meant to so many of us, or what it was like to have a hormonally-charged fight over whether Buffy should be with Spike or Angel.