No network has a reputation quite like that of The CW. The broadcast channel was formed in 2006 as a merger between entertainment giants ViacomCBS and Warner Brothers, which previously had their own networks, The UPN and The WB. Together, they created The CW, which featured a new slate of original shows.
The CW started with clear goals: to appeal to an under-served viewer. It aimed for a younger audience, originally tapping into the teenager demographic, specifically teenage girls. It became known around that time for Gossip Girl, which was a strong departure from most other high school shows because it opted for a raunchier and more scandalous take on the inner lives of teenagers. The network eventually expanded its demographic outreach with the premiere of Arrow, ushering in a steady stream of DC-based superhero shows. The most recent universe expansion has been Riverdale and its several spinoffs, a pulpy successor to the legacies of both Gossip Girl and Arrow.
But the CW has often become synonymous with cheesy, cheap, and perhaps even “dumb” shows. The network invests everything in the series that work, spawning five or more seasons of every show that gets consistent viewers—for better or worse. Riverdale is a prime example, often referred to online in less-than-positive terms as a “peak CW show” due to its off-the-rails storytelling. A show simply airing on The CW has become grounds for dismissal for being of lesser quality than that of a cable giant or specialty programmer. It is the rare network that seems to have become associated with a very certain kind of show, despite having a roster that contains nearly every genre of TV imaginable.
This narrow view of The CW undercuts the wide variety of excellent series that have aired over its 15 year existence. Often shows aimed for younger people are dismissed for their plotting, but The CW is such a special network because of its ability to embrace pulp and melodrama to make entertaining TV. Every series feels like the cast and crew are having fun making something enjoyable. It is a network full of everything from comfort watches to critically acclaimed hits, and deserves more credit than the reputation it has.
So, if you’re willing to give the infamous network a chance, below are the 15 best CW shows, and where to stream them.
Note: Series that aired at least half their run on The CW Network were eligible for this list, but shows that were almost entirely on The CW were given priority.
Created by: Julie Plec, Kevin Williamson
Stars: Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, Ian Somerhalder, Candice King, Matt Davis, Joseph Morgan
Watch on Netflix
If ever a TV show moved the needle on bourbon sales, I’m guessing it was The Vampire Diaries. Vampire brothers Stefan and Damon Salvatore (Paul Wesley, Ian Somerhalder) have a seemingly endless supply of brown liquor and an impressive collection of glassware. And I’ll admit, never before has a show more inspired me to drink along with the leads. But I digress… What began as an angst-filled teenage supernatural drama has actually developed into a compelling and frequently gruesome foray into the world of vampires (and werewolves and witches and hybrids and siphons and …) alongside the men and women who love them. While CW shows are often painted as skewing towards melodramatic teen/YA fare, that’s an increasingly unfair assertion and one that The Vampire Diaries did a great job of dispelling, particularly once it grew out of its early “Dawson’s Creek with vampires,” phase. Season 1, while intermittently strong, was more or less one of those shows people refer to as a guilty pleasure. It was fun, but not really good. Once creators Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson (creator of Dawson’s Creek, not a coincidence) really got a feel for where they wanted to take the show, however, it took off, and over the past seven years the show has proven to be a reliably well-acted, creepy and ethically complicated hour of drama. The upcoming eighth season is the show’s last, and it’s still strong. In the world of TV, there’s nothing worse than staying on too long. We’re going to miss the gang but it’s time and hopefully some of them will pop up in other spinoffs from time to time. (And yes, you should be watching Legacies). —Mark Rabinowitz
Created by: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
Stars: Tom Welling, Kristin Kreuk, Michael Rosenbaum, Eric Johnson, Sam Jones III, Allison Mack
Watch on Hulu
Now that pop culture is so saturated with superhero media, it’s hard to imagine what a sensation Smallville was when it first aired in 2001. While the series started on the now-defunct The WB network (moving to The CW for its last five seasons), its long-standing run and ultimate end on The CW marks it as belonging to both networks. Starring Tom Welling as Clark Kent, who carried the show for a decade, Smallville worked both as an origin story for Superman and, eventually, a full fledged DC series about the beloved character. Smallville may have started as a villain-of-the-week show, but it eventually evolved into a much grander story connecting all aspects of the DC mythos. The exploration of Clark Kent as a character still makes for a fascinating journey that even holds up two decades later. The show always held fast to its roots, and even when Smallville became bigger in scope it always kept Kansas in its heart. While newer and older iterations of the Superman characters may supersede Smallville’s depictions in the collective consciousness, it remains an impressive feat and one of the most inspired takes on creating a live-action superhero show. Even though the Arrowverse, shows like Gotham, and even aspects of the MCU, have all set out to create grand origin stories and watch characters become legends, Smallville remains one of the first great achievements in superhero media in the 21st century. —Leila Jordan
Created by: Greg Berlanti, Todd Helberg
Stars: Tyler Hoechlin, Elizabeth Tulloch, Jordan Elsass, Alex Garfin, Erik Valdez, Inde Navarrette
Watch on HBO Max
After years of building up its superhero roster with more unknown DC heroes, the CW finally tackled the big man with Superman and Lois. Greg Berlanti and Co. approached the legendary character from a more grounded perspective, adopting the melodrama that has defined the structure of the Arrowverse, and adding a more cinematic perspective. The series follows an older Clark Kent (Tyler Hoechlin) and his wife Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch) as they struggle to raise their teenage sons while dealing with otherworldly threats. The series immediately stands apart from the CW shows that came before it, filled with the optimism of old school comics and the charisma of a cast perfectly fit for their characters. While many filmmakers have been lacking inspiration for what to do with the character of Superman, Superman and Lois energizes him by centering the story on his family and understanding him at his core. The end result is one of the most interesting CW initiatives to date, and a new version of these beloved characters to live on. —Leila Jordan
Created by: Michaele Fazekas, Tara Butters
Stars: Bret Harrison, Tyler Labine, Missy Peregrym, Ray Wise, Rick Gonzalez
Watch Free on ABC
Reaper follows the misadventures of Sam (Bret Harrison), a twentysomething white boy slacker who has to come to terms with the fact that—thanks to his parents selling his unborn soul to the Devil (Ray Wise)—he’s now saddled with being Hell’s least likely bounty hunter. A little more than a year after the pilot script was commissioned, the cult-favorite supernatural comedy made its debut. And a month after that, the Writers Guild of America, following a summer of failed contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, staged a walkout. Reaper—which finished its debut season with a healthy (for the time) 18-episode run—did get renewed for a second season. That said, it ultimately failed to score a third. And while creators Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas were eventually able to bring two of its stars back to cameo in a single 2018 episode of another doomed high-concept project, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, Reaper’s early demise just came too soon in the “new media” age for even the most fervently run fan campaigns to have had any hope of finding it a new home. That Butters and Fazekas were able to put such a unique twist on the broadcast procedural formula—something they were both well-versed in, having just come off of several seasons as co-EPs on Law & Order: SVU—remains as impressive now as it was then, as is how immediate and idiosyncratic the core cast’s chemistry was, even in the pilot. —Alexis Gunderson
Created by: April Blair
Stars: Daniel Ezra, Taye Diggs, Bre-Z, Greta Onieogou, Samantha Logan, Michael, Evans Behling, Cody Christian, Karimah Westbrook, Monét Mazur, Jalyn Hall, Chelsea Tavares, Da’Vinchi
Watch on Netflix
More or less the Platonic ideal of the American High School Drama, the CW’s All American is a bright spot of explicitly diverse near*-realism (*I’m looking at you, all you unreasonably fit twenty-something Adonises) in a still mostly white network sea of superheroes, the supernatural and the comically stylized.
Inspired by the life of professional American football player Spencer Paysinger, All American tells the story of Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), a star football player from South L.A. who’s recruited by a coach (Taye Diggs), an expat of the same neighborhood to come play for him in Beverly Hills—a plan which necessitates Spencer moving in with the coach and his family in order to get around the school’s hyper-strict zip code requirements. Much of the drama that follows, both in Beverly Hills and back in South L.A., is what you’d expect: The rich kids have expensive pill addictions or are spiraling into depression after being left alone in their mansions for months on end by their oblivious jet-setting parents, while the kids in South L.A. are trapped in a school that is chronically underfunded and over-policed, and are at risk for falling into gang life.
But the compassion and grace with which All American handles all of these problems, matched with the grounded performances each of the young actors puts in, gives the show ample opportunity to transcend primetime melodrama. As the lead, Ezra is excellent, as compelling in tender moments of private vulnerability as he is in athletic feats on the field, but equally arresting are Bre-Z as Spencer’s fast-talking, bar-spouting queer best friend Coop, and Samantha Logan as the fragiley sober Olivia Baker, Coach’s daughter and the first friend and confidante Spencer makes in Beverly Hills. Throughout the real-time run of each of its first two seasons, All American hasn’t made much of a splash, but given how immediately it rose to the Top 10 in Netflix’s new internal ranking system once its latest season was added, and how long it held a spot there, even weeks after first being made available, it’s clear that teens streaming at home know exactly where the good shit’s at—and now you do, too. —Alexis Gunderson
Created by: Chris Rock, Ali LeRoi
Stars: Tyler James Williams, Terry Crews, Tichina Arnold, Tequan Richmond, Imani Hakim, Vincent Martella
Watch on Peacock
Watch on Hulu
Watch on CW Seed
Chris Rock is one of the funniest comedians of all time. This is far from a controversial stance. Upon developing a period sitcom about his Brooklyn childhood for the (now defunct) UPN back in the mid-2000s, however, the question emerged of whether or not his brand of knowing, acerbic comedy could survive the transition to network TV. The answer proved to be both yes and no. From the opening seconds of its pilot, Everybody Hates Chris positions itself as an incisive, utterly confident comedic tour-de-force that is perfectly in line with Rock’s brand. And yet, in the hands of co-creator/showrunner Ali LeRoi, the show aimed to be much more than simply the comedian’s stage work reformatted into TV storylines. The result was a family sitcom that both harkened back to the Norman Lear comedies of old, while still retaining the rapid pace and tight construction of the best single-camera productions. The show was never more successful, however, than when it came to its casting, with Tyler James Williams demonstrating immense charisma and comic timing as a young Chris; meanwhile, Terry Crews and Tichina Arnold would promptly enter the pantheon of great TV couples as Chris’ larger-than-life parental units. And though low ratings and frequent schedule shifts would ultimately snuff Chris out after four seasons, it quickly sketched out its place as one of the greatest sitcoms of the new millennium. —Mark Rozeman
Created by: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Stars:: K.J. Apa, Cole Sprouse, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Madelaine Petsch, Marisol Nichols, Ashleigh Murray, Mädchen Amick, Luke Perry
Watch on Netflix
This is the way I’ve been selling Riverdale to friends who have not yet wised up and started watching it: it’s Gossip Girl meets Twin Peaks, but with the characters from Archie Comics. That alone should be enough to suck them in, but if they need more convincing, I add that the late Luke Perry plays Archie’s dad, Molly Ringwald plays Archie’s mom, Skeet Ulrich plays Jughead’s creepy hot dad (who is also the head of the local gang, the Southside Serpents), and for the first third of the season, Archie is boning his music teacher, Ms. Grundy—who, unlike in the comics—where she’s an elderly white-haired lady—goes around wearing heart-eyed sunglasses and picking up teen boys. It’s ridiculous and campy in all the right ways (hey, this is a CW teen drama, after all), but there’s also a compelling murder mystery driving the plot (“Who killed Jason Blossom?” is Riverdale’s “Who killed Laura Palmer?”), with new twists and turns peppered in along the way. —Bonnie Stiernberg
Created by: Salim Akil
Stars: Cress Williams, China Anne McClain, Nafessa Williams, Christine Adams, Marvin “Krondon” Jones III, Damon Gupton, James Remar
Watch on Netflix
Greg Berlanti’s Arrowverse (just recently valorized by a $400 million cash contract made to keep the universe-runner around until 2024) has been an undeniable success for The CW—and for the DC universe on screen. But it has not, historically, had a great deal to say about the deeply rooted prejudices of the real world that have conspired to create the violence and terror that shape places like the Glades in Green Arrow’s Star City, or that are mirrored in the bigotry metahumans face by “normal” society. Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil’s addition to the fold, Black Lightning, takes that challenge head on, positioning endemic racism and systemic inequity as the central evils a real superhero would find himself (or, in the case of Nafessa Williams’ Thunder, herself) up against. It then uses those injustices, and the tensions they cause within not just communities but individual families (Black Lightning, as played by Cress Williams, is father to two superpowered daughters), to tell a compelling, heady story about what it means to do what is right in a world that resembles our own more than any superhero story to date. Plus, its soundtrack? Double platinum. —Alexis Gunderson
Created by: Jason Rothenberg
Stars: Eliza Taylor, Marie Avgeropoulos, Bob Morley, Isaiah Washington, Henry Ian Cusick, Lindsey Morgan, Richard Harmon, Zach McGowan
Watch on Netflix
The 100 is what happens when you combine a classic CW teen drama (or to throw it back a little further, a WB teen drama) full of dynamic characters with fancy sci-fi terminology, vivid visuals, and really complicated storylines. The series, which premiered on the CW in September 2014, is set 97 years post-nuclear apocalypse, when thousands of survivors are now living in an impossibly large space station called the Ark. As a last-ditch attempt to figure whether or not Earth is actually still inhabitable or not, the powers that be send 100 juvenile detainees down to the planet to essentially survive or die trying. While on Earth, the really attractive cohort encounters a few different groups who’ve actually weathered the apocalypse: the grounders, who’ve organized themselves into clans; the Reapers, grounders who are now cannibals, thanks to the Mountain men; and the Mountain Men, who are essentially the descendants of the ultimate doomsday peppers, those who locked themselves away prior to the apocalypse. Chaos ensues whenever the different groups collide, but by the end of the seventh season, there’s another group the juveniles have to worry about: humans from another world, the Disciples. The sort of series that sucks you in and spits you back out in another reality, The 100 is not for those looking to just dip their toes into a new series. Get in or get lost. —Joyce Chen
Creators: Rob Thomas, Diane Ruggiero-Wright
Stars: Rose McIver, Malcolm Goodwin, Rahul Kohli, Robert Buckley, David Anders, Aly Michalka, Robert Knepper
Watch on Netflix
Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Veronica Mars is the best way to describe this delightful drama. iZombie, from Mars creator Rob Thomas, draws on the strengths of both of these iconic series while carving a distinct path for itself. Liv Moore (Rose McIver) was a promising medical student until one bad night of partying turned her into a zombie. Now she works in the morgue solving murders on the side, all while keeping the true nature of her condition from her loved ones (she’s not that pale because she uses sunscreen, people). As the second season progressed more were let in on Liv’s secret, and she assembled a Scooby gang of her very own, while struggling to protect those that she loves. Much of the show’s success stems from its great sense of humor—witness all the delectable ways Liv serves up brains. But the ghoulish and voracious zombies offer real frights and Steven Weber’s nefarious CEO Vaughn Du Clark is truly terrifying. However it’s the show’s overarching premise—that any of us could find ourselves among the undead trying to control our most basic instincts while our normal life remains just out of our grasp—that will keep you up at night. —Amy Amatangelo
Created by: Eric Kripke
Stars: Jared Padalecki, Jensen Ackles, Misha Collins, Katie Cassidy, Lauren Cohan, Mark A. Sheppard, Mark Pellegrino, Alexander Calvert
Watch on Netflix
Even though Supernatural aired its first season on the defunct The WB channel, the show is baked into the core of The CW as a network. Supernatural was the show that could not be killed, airing for 15 seasons and featuring perhaps every working actor in Vancouver. And it’s no surprise with such an eternal premise: two brothers drive around America hunting all kinds of supernatural creatures. Over its run the creatures grew from vampires and skinwalkers to demons and angels and eventually biblical figures alongside God himself. The impact Supernatural had on the new era of internet fan culture has yet to bee fully tallied, but perhaps even more impressive is just how well much of the show holds up. The first 5 seasons remain some of the best of any adventure show, finding a perfect mix of humor, horror, and quality storytelling. By the end of its run Sam (Jared Padalacki), Dean (Jensen Ackles), and Castiel (Misha Collins) had conquered just about every battle imaginable. Supernatural’s meta-understanding of itself always saved it from reaching the depths of quality it always teetered on. While the quality of Supernatural was not always consistent, the show at its best somehow overpowers it at its worst. There are countless episodes that can always be returned to, jokes that still manage to crack a smile, and heartbreaking moments that you won’t ever forget. The main cast embodied their roles perfectly, and over 15 seasons the chemistry between them could not be overstated.
While Supernatural may have ended, its impact will live on forever. The show was with The CW at the very beginning and made the careers of much of its cast. But the show will always be most special because of how brilliant it was capable of being. Supernatural turned episodes with shoestring budgets into some of the best of TV horror. It’s a comfort watch that will endear for years to come, whether you’re returning to a favorite episode or starting from the beginning. The Winchesters will always be saving people and hunting things. I mean, it’s the family business! —Leila Jordan
Created by: Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage
Stars: Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Penn Badgley, Chace Crawford, Ed Westwick
Watch on HBO Max
Slick, uber-wealthy and almost unbearably white, Gossip Girl was adroitly dubbed the “hockey fights video of teen romance drama” by the New York Daily News. While I tend to like my TV a little weightier and with a less blinding palette (seriously, you could set your white balance on most of this cast) I was, despite myself, quickly won over by this absurdist look at insanely wealthy New York teenagers. When the reactionary Parents Television Council referred to the show as “mind-blowingly inappropriate,” I was sold. Anything that pisses off a group of backwards tight-asses that much has got to be supported. And you know what? It was inappropriate. But so what? It was like Bugsy Malone with martinis and sex toys. Its tongue was planted firmly in cheek, and the show had wit to spare. And lest you think it was all modern fluff and wastoid teens, the show did have over-arching literary pretensions that often paid off. How else do you explain episode titles like “Pret-a-Poor-J,” “You’ve Got Yale!,” “The Witches of Bushwick” and “The Treasure of Serena Madre”? Sure the “Who was Gossip Girl” reveal makes much of the five years one giant plot hole, but who cares? You know you love her… XOXO, Gossip Girl! —Mark Rabinowitz
Created by: Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, Andrew Kreisberg, Phil Klemmer
Stars: Brandon Routh, Caity Lotz, Dominic Purcell, Maisie Richardson-Sellers, Nick Zano, Tala Ashe
Watch on Netflix
And here is the lone Arrowverse series to make the list (since it only got better and better with each season, a trajectory not shared by its brethren). “Joyful” is an underused and underrated term when it comes to TV dramas. Too many series conflate “prestige” with sorrow, violence, and horror when it can (and should) also mean happiness and splendor. Legends of Tomorrow, though, is a drama that truly understands the meaning of joy. The series—which follows a rag-tag bunch of misfits through space and time trying to “fix” historical anomalies caused by villains and supernatural beings—can be flippant and glib, but it can also be devastatingly emotional. The bottom line is that it’s just good. For those who were turned off by its first episodes or even first season, dive in to Season 2 (or even Season 3, if you’re really strapped for time) and go from there. It gets much, much better. Legends is the rare series that learns from its mistakes, always ready to grow and innovate to bring us the most bonkers but wonderful television. And unlike most other series (especially those dealing with superheroes), it isn’t afraid to change out its cast members when things aren’t working, which keeps each season feeling fresh while the stakes remain high.
Legends of Tomorrow is funny, strange, bizarre, beautiful, and silly. It incorporates puppets and unicorns and sentient lopped-off nipples, but also explores the devastation of losing loved ones, of advocating for those who need a voice, and an ever-developing journey of self-discovery. Join us for the ride.—Allison Keene
Created by: Jennie Snyder Urman
Stars: Gina Rodriguez, Justin Baldoni, Yael Grobglas, Jaime Camil, Andrea Navedo, Ivonne Coll, Anthony Mendez
Watch on Netflix
A virgin perfectionist with a heart of gold shouldn’t be this watchable. However, add a pinch of the ol’ impregnated-by-artificial-insemination storyline, mixed in with the possible threat of a grandmother’s deportation, all while the protagonist is trying to rock both a writing career and motherhood, and you’ve got one of TV’s most fascinating characters. What’s great about Jane is that she handles everything with an impressive sensibility, and you can’t help but fall for her optimistic outlook on life. If there’s a will, there’s a way, and Jane takes the cards she’s dealt in life while never forgetting or forsaking the deep goodness Abuela instilled within her. We watched as this character celebrated life’s big moments with everything from dance-offs to earnest weeping, without any embarrassment for her vulnerability—but don’t get on her bad side. —Iris A. Barreto
Created by: Rachel Bloom, Aline Brosh McKenna
Stars: Rachel Bloom, Vincent Rodriguez III, Santino Fontana, Donna Lynne Champlin, Pete Gardner, Vella Lovell, Gabrielle Ruiz
Watch on Netflix
Don’t let the name keep you from tuning into this one—creator / star Rachel Bloom (who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work on the show) addresses it before the theme song is even over, responding to choruses of “she’s the crazy ex-girlfriend” with lines like “that’s a sexist term” and “the situation’s more nuanced than that.” And it is: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a clever musical-comedy (think Flight of the Conchords, if they leaned more heavily on musical theater) about Rebecca Bunch, a lawyer who turns down a partnership at her New York firm to follow her ex-boyfriend Josh to West Covina, California and try to win him back. But it’s more complicated than that: along the way Rebecca learns to address some of the neuroses she’s been carrying around since childhood and gets sidetracked (depending on how you look at it) by a sort of Sam and Diane “will they/won’t they” thing with Josh’s friend Greg. Her “crazy” is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always presented smartly and sensitively—never what you might expect from a show called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. —Bonnie Stiernberg
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