No CW show ever seemed like it was meant to be the biggest thing in the world. As popular as Riverdale or Supernatural were at the height of their powers, they were still CW shows, the kind you don’t watch live but rather binge over a weekend on Netflix. They weren’t trying to appeal to everyone; they were trying to appeal to the people who got it, the people who were already predisposed, for whatever reason, to fall head-over-heels in love with whatever that show was doing.
And that was never more true than it was for DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow. A spin-off of a spin-off of the Batman Begins-inspired Arrow, the show seemed to require so much homework that it never had a chance to be the next Riverdale or Supernatural. But it still managed to build a head-over-heels fanbase that carried it through seven seasons of stories about a found family of time-traveling superheroes who took it upon themselves to save history from aliens and immortal warlords and demons and fantastical creatures.
One of the things that made Legends Of Tomorrow special, though, was that it had worked hard to earn the love of its fans. The show’s first season, the one that was most explicitly set up by the events of Arrow and The Flash, was—to put it charitably—lousy. It was the kind of (mostly) serious superhero action with soapy CW drama that its forebearers had found success with. But with a whole team of heroes to worry about, there wasn’t enough time or budget for any of it to get the attention it needed. By all rights, Legends Of Tomorrow could’ve or should’ve ended there, but over its second and third seasons, it shifted into a different kind of show, one that would use superhero action and soapy drama as seasoning rather than the whole dish, embracing its status as an outsider and becoming a phenomenal high-concept comedy series in the process.
But, of course, Legends Of Tomorrow isn’t the only thing to reject the boring path to mainstream success in favor of embracing outsider status to better serve a more loyal and dedicated fanbase. Beginning life as the back-page supplement to a satirical newspaper and later setting up a home base in Chicago—a city that prides itself on rejecting the mainstream appeal of the coasts—The A.V. Club built its reputation on being a website that preferred to be a little outside. Rather than catering exclusively to the Hollywood scene or to hip New Yorkers, it was made for the regular folks who wanted to read a funny Onion headline and then check out a thoughtful take on an obscure David Lynch project.
So it makes perfect sense that Legends Of Tomorrow and The A.V. Club would have a shared affinity for each other. We are who we want to be and we like who and what we want to like, and we want to build spaces for people who feel the same way. We covered Legends throughout its entire seven-season run here at The A.V. Club, with reviews of every episode and occasional essays on absurd moments that went viral (yes, there’s one where classic comics villain Gorilla Grodd attacks a young Barack Obama), so you’d be hard-pressed to find any more thorough chronicle of Legends’ transformation from—as we once put it—“bad superhero show to best superhero show.” Like with everyone else in its head-over-heels fanbase, it worked its way into our hearts to become something worth loving.
The funny thing, though, is that Legends felt the same way about The A.V. Club. In the season-four episode “Wet Hot American Bummer,” Caity Lotz’s time-traveling spaceship captain Sara Lance is laying in bed with her girlfriend, Ava (Jes Macallan), enjoying some downtime by watching a terrible horror movie called Swamp Thaaaang. (You can watch this opening scene on Netflix—season 4, episode 4, around the 1:20 mark.) Sara wonders where this movie she’s never heard of came from, since she’s a horror fan, so Ava decides to figure out what’s going on by looking up a review of Swamp Thaaaang from The A.V. Club:
Ava: “Okay, Swamp Thaaaang. Apparently there are four As in the name because it’s the fourth film in the franchise. The A.V. Club gave it a D+, saying, ‘the production design is as lazy as the action staging.’”
It’s a fun meta nod to The A.V. Club and our reputation as tough critics (a reputation that The Simpsons also once paid homage to), but it goes even deeper than that: The line Ava reads is actually a nearly direct quote from an actual D+ A.V. Club review written by longtime contributor Oliver Sava from the first season of Legends Of Tomorrow:
“That big action sequence takes place in one of the Time Masters’ outposts in the time stream, which is just a big airplane hangar with a few light-up cylinders set up to give it a vaguely sci-fi look. The design is as lazy as the action staging, which there is hardly any of because The Pilgrim can manipulate time in the immediate area surrounding her.”
Here at The A.V. Club, we always took that nod as a friendly nudge in the ribs, as if the show was saying “we have fun together, don’t we?” to both us and to any fans who are obsessive enough to catch the reference. But how did it happen?
To answer that question, we reached out to David Geddes, the episode’s director (and, in-universe, credited as the director of Swamp Thaaaang), and Ray Utarnachitt, one of the credited writers, to ask: Does this canonically mean The A.V. Club, and all of its writers and readers, exist as part of the Arrowverse? We’re out there somewhere, getting swept up in the Crisis On Infinite Earths? Seeing a red blur from the Flash at CC Jitters? Being attacked by roving Deathstroke gangs in Star City?
Ray Utarnachitt: I can only assume that IF The A.V. Club exists in the Arrowverse, then you and everyone at The A.V. Club, past and present, must exist there, too.
Confirmed! Sort of. We’ll take it. So how did it happen in the first place?
David Geddes: It was part of the original script. [Sara’s] “harsh” was ad-libbed. The scripted response was supposed to be Sara saying “ouch.”
Utarnachitt: My best guess is that it was a room pitch! Which means it’s virtually impossible to cite where the idea originated and most likely came from a bunch of ideas building off each other and coming together. Just like a lot of ideas that come from the writers’ room, it was a confluence of things that led us to the idea.
First, writer Matthew Maala always remembered The A.V. Club’s scathing review for his very first episode of TV he’d ever written [the first-season Legends episode “Last Refuge”]. In fact, he would often quote a specific line from the review: “The design is as lazy as the action staging.” It was sort of a badge of honor, especially because we believe it’s A.V. Club’s lowest-rated episode of Legends! [Editor’s note: It is.]
So when we came up with the beat where Ava looks up a synopsis of Swamp Thaaaang, we immediately thought about how funny it would be if they read an A.V. Club review of the film. And of course, why not make it an inside joke between Legends Of Tomorrow and The A.V. Club?
Utarnachitt also confirmed, via fellow writer Tyron B. Carter (who was on set the day they filmed the scene), that Lotz and Macallan were informed that the quote was from a real review from the show’s first season and that “they all laughed.” That probably explains why Lotz ad-libbed “harsh” instead of “ouch,” which reads as a more playful reaction when you know what the quotes refers to.
Legends Of Tomorrow has since been unceremoniously canceled as part of a cost-cutting campaign at The CW ahead of a potential sale, depriving the show of a proper finale and fans of getting to see more from a superhero series that had enough faith in its characters and storytelling to dedicate a scene to watching two of its leads read a movie review.
The A.V. Club is still here, obviously, but it has similarly gone through changes and is no longer just the back page of The Onion. New things will always come along to eschew generic mainstream popularity in favor of cultivating a head-over-heels fanbase, but for at least one quiet moment, Legends Of Tomorrow was part of ours and we were part of theirs.