If there is one clear mark that comic book media has left on the television landscape, it’s the crossover episode. Superheroes interacting with each other is in the very bones of comic source material, and bringing the audiences of different shows together to watch the characters interact is an easy marketing ploy that—if well executed—is appreciated by fans. It’s been used to good effect both in the CW’s DCTV series as well as Marvel’s Netflix properties. And yet surprisingly, the shows that offer up the best examples of this are not superhero series at all, but the long-running Grey’s Anatomy and its much younger spin-off, Station 19.
Since the first season of The Flash aired in 2014, the CW branch of DC Comics shows have been known for their yearly crossovers, and while they are always an all-out affair, it would be inaccurate to say that they don’t have their flaws. When the first Arrow/Flash crossover aired in 2014, it served as a great way to further establish the story universe Oliver Queen and Barry Allen shared. Having Team Arrow and Team Flash interact with each other created an untapped well of potential for closer relationships to strengthen the connection between the shows. There were smaller moments dispersed through that season of The Flash where Oliver, Felicity, Laurel, Ray Palmer all crossed over for one-off episodes, and if moments like that had continued consistently as DCTV expanded on The CW, we would have gotten to see an incredibly rich shared universe.
Unfortunately, this level of cross-show interaction drastically decreased as time went on. As the multi-episode crossover events started to get bigger, they weren’t getting better. The relationships between the characters on different shows became less and less believable. At best, the majority of these characters were minor acquaintances, and while that works fine in a fight scene, it made for weak interpersonal interactions. There were so many times where the bond between Barry and Oliver was supposed to serve as some sort of emotional core in these crossovers, but they ultimately failed because the two didn’t speak to each other any other time of the year. By the “Elseworlds” crossover, Barry didn’t even know that Oliver had been taken to prison by the FBI, even though that was readily available public knowledge.
Marvel doesn’t fare well either when it comes to the crossover game. While a major crossover with any of the Disney+ shows is yet to be seen, the first half of Netflix’s foray into the Marvel Universe were centered around a large crossover series: The Defenders. That series did manage to forge convincing relationships among heroes Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand, but the story that brought them together majorly hinged Iron Fist’s first season, one of the weakest Marvel productions to date.
Unlike the previously mentioned DC characters, the majority of characters in the Netflix shows never had the chance to create stronger bonds with each other beyond their interactions in Defenders, and those who did were never titular characters. In the one of the greatest ironic twists of all time, Iron Fist’s second season managed to greatly improve upon its first, and a large part of that was the exploration of the friendship between supporting characters Colleen Wing and Luke Cage’s Misty Knight.
In a purely technical sense, the best elements of these crossovers combined to create a convincing shared universe, but the most important thing that a multi-show television franchise has to offer its audience is constant cross-show interaction. And this is where Grey’s and Station 19 come in.
In the five seasons that Station 19 has been on air, there have been 10 multi-episode crossover events between both shows, running anywhere from two to four episodes at a time. Along with these larger crossovers, there are almost 50 episodes where a character has crossed over to their sister show outside of an event. There are multiple instances where the character crossing over isn’t a main member of the cast, but rather a one-off character who’s story independently carries over from an episode of Station 19 to an episode of Grey’s or vice versa. Even if you only watch one of the shows, you’re still made aware of the existence of the other constantly, and you’re regularly shown interactions between each show that make the friendships between those characters believable.
Part of this cross-show connectivity is largely dependent on romantic relationships between Grey’s and Station 19, but considering romance is a core part of these shows, it’s really great to see the different struggles those relationships go through. Ben Warren becoming a firefighter leads to a massive revelation in Miranda’s life that affects both shows and is prominently showcased on Grey’s, and that bounces back and forth between their respective shows for a decent amount of time; it’s clear that the writers’ rooms made sure they were totally in sync with each other for that part of the story. There is even a case of a character completely moving over from one show to the other in Carina DeLuca, who went from recurring on Grey’s to being a series regular on Station 19 after starting a romantic relationship with one of the show’s main characters.
To cut DC and Marvel some slack, it’s a lot harder to manage a crossover with more shows involved. Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19 have the advantage of having the same showrunner—Krista Vernoff—and being the only current shows in their franchise, which is a lot easier to wrangle than trying to organize and develop interactions between characters that come from from anywhere between four and six different shows.
Still, even if the CW shows weren’t going to show us the close relationships that we craved they would build between the shows, it would have been nice for them to take the easy way out and at least tell us they existed instead of expecting us to believe that The Flash’s Iris West-Allen and Supergirl’s Kara Danvers are best friends just because. With so many years of crossovers, there’s no need for Iris to be vague about getting information from “a friend” when we all know that she’s talking about Kara. She could just say Kara’s name instead, or say that she knows Supergirl. Either one is a much more casual way to say that she knows Kara, especially because there shouldn’t be anyone hearing this information who doesn’t know that.
It cannot go unsaid that, at least in the DCTV realm of things, the pandemic has made the large crossovers a bit more of a logistical challenge. That could be used to the franchise’s advantage though, because it’s probably a lot easier to cross one character over than it is an entire show’s cast. Fans of Ryan Wilder on Batwoman finally got a glimpse of what a friendship between her and Iris West-Allen could look like this season on The Flash, and if either character were able to cross over to the other’s show outside of a large event, it would only serve to strengthen the franchise. Even though each crossover wanted us to believe that Barry and Oliver were best friends, the better dynamic was always between Barry and Kara, and with Supergirl over, having Iris, Ryan, and Barry make an appearance or two on the other’s home turf would be a great second chance at trying to make the CW shows truly feel connected.
Regardless of where Marvel or DC take their television shows, any franchise present or future that aims to create a shared world on the small screen should look to Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19 as a guide. Even when compared to other drama franchises that share a universe like Law and Order and One Chicago (which are also connected to each other), there are no other shows that put the same amount of effort into making their characters feel so deeply connected to one another. Krista Vernoff is inarguably the only person who has successfully facilitated a shared universe on TV at this level, but any show that follows her lead could potentially pull off the same feat; we can only hope that other franchises start taking a page out of her playbook.
Kathryn Porter is the TV Intern for Paste Magazine. You can find her @kaechops on Twitter
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