Arrow and Flash Creator Greg Berlanti Aims to Make TV Superheroes 'Look Like America'
When fans settled in to watch the 13th episode of Arrow’s second season almost a year ago, they had no idea the show based on DC Comics’ Emerald Archer was about to make television history.
As Sara Lance — the show’s first incarnation of martial arts master Black Canary — passionately kissed Nyssa Raatko, we learned this Canary was a far cry from the character that first appeared during the Golden Age of comics in 1947. Instead, she was a kick-ass bisexual who'd had past romantic relationships with both the Arrow/Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) and the daughter of supervillain Ra’s al Ghul.
TV’s first mainstream LGBT superhero had officially arrived.
Since then, Arrow’s spinoff series, The Flash, has continued to superspeed ahead with the inclusion of gay characters. First when Central City Police Department director David Singh (Patrick Sabonguil) subtly mentioned his “boyfriend” during the two-episode crossover event between the two shows in December, and once again in Tuesday’s episode, “The Sound and the Fury,” where the gay sonic weapon–wielding member of the Scarlett Speedster’s rogues gallery, Hartley Rathaway/Pied Piper (Andy Mientus), made his TV debut.
It was another first for LGBT inclusion in the genre, but out cocreator and producer Greg Berlanti (pictured above) promises it won’t be the last.
“The next step is to add a regular character, not just a recurring one, who is openly gay on the next round of these shows, because I think that’s important and I’d like to do that in the next year,” he says, recalling the impact seeing such characters had on him during his youth. “I can remember when there were storylines with gay characters on shows like Family and Dynasty and thinking, I have something in common with that person. This was way before the internet and all the visibility that has brought with it. But back then, you really felt alone and when I saw those characters on TV, I knew I wasn’t alone.”
While Berlanti has made it his mission to break down barriers for LGBT inclusiveness in the small-screen adventures of DC’s superheroes, pushing for greater visibility is familiar territory for the 42-year-old TV veteran. The man who once battled with network executives to put the first passionate kiss between two men on a prime-time TV series during his early days as a writer and producer on Dawson’s Creek, has since helped craft several more inclusive moments through shows such as Jack & Bobby, Everwood, Brothers & Sisters, and the 2012 miniseries Political Animals.
“There are people doing it even better now and I salute them,” he says. “But I’m proud to play my role and foster stories. It’s a landscape that’s changed a lot in the last 15 years since I started doing this stuff, and it’s exciting to have been a part of that [evolution].”
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However, Berlanti and his creative team aren’t simply ushering in a new era for TV’s popular superhero genre by introducing LGBT characters on The Flash and Arrow. The shows also include a number of out actors in high-profile roles operating within their shared universe. In addition to the debut of bisexual actor Andy Mientus as Pied Piper, Wentworth Miller plays the part of the calculating Captain Cold, and Victor Garber will be appearing later this season as one half of the heroic duo who combine to create Firestorm: The Nuclear Man. Meanwhile, John Barrowman has been making bad look oh-so-good as Oliver Queen’s nemesis Malcolm Merlyn/The Dark Archer since the first season of Arrow.
“Honestly, most of the time we aren’t even thinking about that, because it really is about finding the best actor for the role and whether or not they happen to be gay is secondary,” Berlanti says. “But I love it when we get to cast openly gay actors in a role that other people may not cast that person in, because it’s nice to remind everybody of what they can do.”
He says the fact that the two shows are among the most popular on the CW network proves viewers are ready for more.
“The network has been very welcoming and they realize the younger generation doesn’t really have issues with that kind of stuff,” he says. “They don’t really see [being LGBT] as a negative. There’s a lot more understanding, openness, and compassion around this issue today and that’s a great thing.”
It’s an attitude echoed by the leads of each series — Stephen Amell (Oliver Queen/Arrow), whose outspoken support earned him a spot on The Advocate’s 2014 list of Coolest Straight People in Entertainment, and Grant Gustin (Barry Allen/The Flash), who has spoken up on behalf of LGBT equality a number times since he gained international attention as Glee’s scheming gay Warbler, Sebastian Smythe, in 2011.
“There’s so much I admire about Stephen and Grant,” says Berlanti, noting that he feels both actors embody the spirit of a superhero in their real lives. “As an openly gay man who works with them, they have always been so loving and supportive of me as a coworker. In fact, it’s very touching to me to see how supportive they are of all different people and causes. It’s really admirable.”
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Pictured from left: Carlos Valdes as Cisco Ramon, Candice Patton as Iris West, Rila Fukushima as Tatsu Yamashiro, and David Ramsey as John Diggle
However, the prolific producer and his team aren’t simply moving the needle forward for LGBT people on TV, they are also taking aim at improving racial diversity in entertainment by including a wide range of actors in numerous roles, reintroducing historically white characters like Iris West (played by Candice Patton) as a woman of color on The Flash and spotlighting strong Asian women such as DC’s sword-swinging superhero Katana/Tatsu Yamahiro (Rila Fukushima) on Arrow. “I always think we can do better, but we are trying,” he says. “I think Shonda Rhimes is still the best showrunner in the business in terms of diversity in general and I respect a lot of what she’s done in that regard. We often say that we want our shows to look and feel like America looks, and that makes for better storytelling. It’s a conscious choice and so rewarding to do what we do.”
He knows part of crafting shows that “look and feel like America” means hiring a range of voices to work on the projects. In addition to LGBT people like himself, Berlanti’s team also contains a larger number of women than men — a rarity for a popular action series.
“More than half of the writing staff are women on both of the shows combined, but I say we can even be doing better with more female directors and that’s an area where I want to keep improving,” he says. “It’s very easy in this business to do things the way you used to do them because it feels safe, but ultimately that doesn’t make things better. To make things better you have to commit to really making a change, and entertainment is better when there are different voices involved — it just is. So it’s nice to see the growth that’s happened over the past 15 years, but there’s opportunity for more.”
But lest anyone worry Berlanti and his team’s commitment to advancing equality in entertainment supersedes their geek cred, fear not. The self-proclaimed comic nerd knows it’s the story that comes first.
“Everyone involved in the shows are true fans of the genre and the books, and that just adds an extra level of enthusiasm for the work we’re getting to do,” he says. “A lot of times we watch the cuts or see the dailies and we feel like we’re just the first group of fans getting to see the material as much as we’re people making it. It can be very surreal.”
He adds, “The primary agenda has to be telling great stories. As a means toward that, it’s about opening up your own world. And if you do that, I think everything gets better.”