Monday, March 21, 2016

Farewell, Flash. Adios, Arrow: When Shows Jump the (King) Shark

How bad does a show have to get before you bail? I'm 56 now. My earliest television memory is an episode of Lost in Space called "The Keeper" from January of 1966 (the day after it aired, all the kids in the neighborhood took turns walking around as if hypnotized, repeating "I'm being summoned," as Dr. Smith had the night before) -- so I guess I've been a devoted TV viewer for half a century now. In the old days, if a show you loved got rotten, you kept watching; there were only three channels, and unless there was something compelling on one of the other two, you stuck with your show through even the dreariest lows. But today, chances are, there are more shows that interest you than hours in the day: not just those airing weekly on network television, but streaming series with dozens of episodes instantly available. How do you stick with a show through the dry patches when you know your viewing time could be put to better use: when there's that show on iPlayer or On Demand that's going to be disappearing soon, or that series from thirty years ago that you'd always heard about, that someone just uploaded to YouTube and might vanish any day due to copyright infringement?

The Flash and Arrow return to the air this week, after a four-week hiatus, and I'll no longer be watching. I made up my mind after their last airings that it was time to let go: over time, they'd managed to both bore me and offend me. (You'd think indifference would numb you to feeling actively insulted, but no.) And watching another comic-book adaptation, Agent Carter, which aired from January through March and basically got everything right, only further reminded me how much The Flash and Arrow were suffering creatively.

But letting go of The Flash and Arrow fills me with mixed emotions. They're the kind of shows I should love; I'm one of their target audiences. I was raised on DC Comics, and read them faithfully from the '60s to the mid-'80s, and resumed when they launched the New 52 in 2011. So in some ways, those shows are dearer to me than others I've dropped. I dumped Dallas and Falcon Crest in the same week in 1988, but that was easy: I had no real attachment. More recently, I let go of a slew of series: Survivor after twenty-seven seasons; Criminal Minds after nine. The former had simply worn me down; I couldn't regain the enthusiasm I'd once had -- I found myself more eager to go to Hulu and revisit Parvati and Cirie in Micronesia. And Criminal Minds -- well, I felt betrayed. It had added the marvelous Jeanne Tripplehorn to its principal cast, and then disposed of her after two seasons, with no explanation for her departure. Did the actress want out? Or did the network want her out, so they could bring in a younger actress to shore up the almighty 18-49 demo (which is just what they did)? Since no press release went out, even the curt, standard one you don't even believe, but accept with some degree of grace ("Ms. Tripplehorn only signed for two years, and has decided to move on to other ventures"), one can only presume CBS dumped her -- the likeliest scenario, since her airtime had been shrinking dramatically during her final months on the show. For me, the axing of Tripplehorn was a terrible move, dreadfully handled, and it drove me away.

In this day and age, when there's so much to watch, shows make me angry in ways they never used to: "You're trying my patience," I think -- or worse, "You're wasting my time." There are hundreds of shows vying for my attention: do better. The Good Wife inspired those feelings repeatedly after its first three seasons. Early in Season 5, when Alicia left Lockhart-Gardner to start her own law firm, and the show was garnering the most acclaim it had ever enjoyed, I jumped ship. I found the story-lines contrived and repetitive. (How many ways could the writers manage to put the two firms on opposing sides of the same case?) And juvenile! My God: there was the charismatic Jason O'Mara, added to the cast so he could -- steal furniture? But would I have quit watching if creators Robert and Michelle King hadn't already squandered the audience's trust? In season 4, they penned an awful storyline in which Kalinda's (smarmy) estranged husband Nick appeared on the scene. It was dismally conceived and abominably written -- and when the Kings pulled the plug on the storyline, well before they had intended to, they blamed the viewers. "Some characters you actually don't want to see that much backstory," they said in interviews. "People just don't want Kalinda to go there. This was not a place where the audience wanted to go.” No, the place we didn't want to go was into the bowels of a bad story-line, with paper-thin characterizations and gratuitous sex and violence. Deflecting blame anywhere they could, the Kings even went so far as to blame the actor playing Nick (Marc Warren, a brilliant actor who was handed such drivel, it was impossible to tell he was a brilliant actor) for being so dynamic that he drove the audience away. Michelle King: "Everyone is agreeing that he's doing a fantastic job portraying the character: in fact, maybe so fantastic that people are upset that Kalinda would be connected to that." That is the most novel excuse I've ever heard for why a story-line isn't working: the actor is too good.

The shamelessness of showrunners -- blaming audiences and actors for the failings of their own storylines -- is a new development (and ironically, they're doing it at a time when they can least afford to alienate their audiences). In the old days, if the headwriters screwed up, they did a mea culpa. After Bobby Ewing was killed off Dallas, and Patrick Duffy was persuaded to return a season later, Leonard Katzman devised the whole "Bobby in the shower" dream scenario -- effectively wiping out an entire bad season with an apology -- and viewers were quick to succumb. (The move has become a punchline now, but it's worth remembering that it restored both ratings and quality. "The storylines last season were awful, and we know it," it assured us. "Let's pretend they never happened. Forgiven?" And we forgave.) For Season 13 of Knots Landing, creator David Jacobs hired a new writing/producing team, and after fifteen dreadful episodes, he canned them and shut down production. He went public, apologizing for the fiasco, and smartly hired one of the best writers in the business to salvage the show (which she did). Now when a show goes off the rails, it's our fault. So I quit The Good Wife for a spell, ultimately fast-forwarding through a half-dozen episodes until it regained my interest. I was there when they killed off Josh Charles's Will Gardner, and I was there through the remainder of Season 5. And then Season 6 started, and within a few episodes, I was ready to call a halt once more, and did -- this time for good. The storylines again felt static, but more important, a new show had come along that quenched my thirst for adult character drama: Madam Secretary. You lose my trust and confidence these days, it's perilously easy for me to bail; there's probably another show nearby that fills my viewing needs.

As a footnote, the Kings continued their reign of viewer terror; their ongoing duplicity and arrogance made me glad I'd left. Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi hadn't shared a scene together in almost three years -- clearly due to some unresolvable personal issue -- when Panjabi departed the show at the end of Season 6. Viewers were promised that the two would appear together in her final episode, to properly button their relationship. And when the scene aired, it was evident that the actresses had taped their lines separately, and it had been spliced together in the editing room. In an interview with the creators, columnist Michael Ausiello noted that he wasn't digging for dirt -- whatever the reason for the friction wasn't his concern -- he simply wanted to know if keeping the actresses apart all those years had impacted stories. And instead of saying something simple like, "There were obviously personal issues, but we tried not to let it affect the writing," the Kings went on the offensive, as if shooting actors separately, then splicing them together, were standard practice: "We’re making the show every day using tricks, like if you’re in a car and there’s green screen and it looks like Chicago out the window but that’s not exactly where we are." (That's an actual quote.) And if the tone of condescension wasn't clear enough, Michelle King chose to deflect the question back to Josh Charles's departure the previous season, to hammer home that the show was fiction, and we shouldn't question anything about it: "Just so we’re clear, Josh wasn’t really killed [when his character Will Gardner died]. We faked those gunshots. We fake everything in the show, so I can address this on a storytelling level that there was no intent ever to dupe the viewers." And readers were rightfully outraged: "Treating your viewers like sheep or downright idiots ('we didn’t kill the actor') is the worst thing to do, and only proves that whatever humility was there in the beginning is now gone." And "the snarkiness was uncalled for and inappropriate, and insults the fan base they rely on for their show’s success. Shame on them." And my favorite: "I am done with the show, and I will demonstrate my disappointment by no longer being involved. I know my changing the channel won’t influence the ratings an iota; however, it will make a big difference for me."

"It will make a big difference for me."

These days, there are too many viewing options: don't try my patience. Don't come out swinging in defense of a bad story-line; I'm here armed, remote in hand. It won't make one bit of difference to the ratings of The Flash and Arrow that I am not watching this week, but it'll make a big difference to me.

So why Flash and Arrow? Why now?

When did Flash stop being good? In truth, I'm not sure it ever was good. Oh sure, I found the pilot amiable. But right from the start, the metahuman-of-the-week format started to feel limiting, and as the season progressed, logic seemed to take a back seat to action. I wrote last August that the show had already "devolved into the kind of lazy shorthand that requires characters to act stupid in order to generate story," as in "Let's put the shape-shifting metahuman in the back of my car and drive him to the police station. What could go wrong?" But so much else rankled. The torn-between-two-men contrivances of the Iris West storyline made her unsympathetic; the sight of a drunken Caitlin coming on to Barry made her pitiful and pathetic. Greg Berlanti's hit factory doesn't have a great track record for writing strong women -- they're better at writing strong, shirtless men -- but these two were in a disaster class all their own. And for me, the Season 1 finale exposed an indolence at the show's core. The set-up: the Flash is going to go back in time, to prevent his mother's death. And he's warned that by changing the time stream, any and all events could be altered, probably dramatically, possibly calamitously. His colleagues, huddled around him, are told that their own rebooted lives could play out totally differently: possibly for the (far) worse. So should he do it, knowing he's putting all their lives in some sort of jeopardy? Sure, they tell him in unison: go for it. Save your mother. You're the hero. It was the kind of lazy writing I find most irritating: everyone agrees, because that's the easiest way to script it. Could one person have expressed disdain for the plan? Caitlin was about to wed the man she loved -- but sure, Barry, if you want to rewrite my history, it's fine; the show is named after you, after all. So they all nodded their heads and went along with him, like he was Maria teaching the dutiful Von Trapp children to sing.

But the absurdities didn't stop there. Barry wondered if he could really break through the time barrier -- "Do you think I'm fast enough," he asked his faux-father Joe -- and Joe responded, "Yes, I know you are." Based on what? Instinct? This isn't your kid racing in the high-school track meet, wondering if he has a shot at winning; in that scenario, worst case -- oh, I don't know: he loses. This is end-of-the-world stuff. But it was the start of an awful development on The Flash: the vapid pep talks. Because after Joe assured Barry that he could run fast enough, he admitted, "I don't think I can lose you," and it was Barry's turn: "You won't ever lose me. Ever, you hear me? Ever." Trust me when I say, the best empty assurances repeat the same word three times. (Three times. Three.) This, for me, was the beginning of the descent of The Flash -- and the abrupt, callous disposal of Barry's father in the following episode (his whole story-line, which had dominated Season 1, turned out to be a MacGuffin) was the next nail in the coffin. And then the tackiest tropes started dominating. Barry: "We need a machine that can do X-Y-Z." Cisco: "It'll take me 20 minutes." It became laughable how quickly boy genius Cisco could construct seemingly anything. And then, at one point last fall, the writers outdid themselves. Barry came in requesting some contraption, and Cisco announced that, "as some of you may well know," he'd already been working on it for months, and it was nearly ready. It was preposterous meta-story-telling: like Cisco had been in the writers' room while they were breaking story: "I know it's only episode 6, but I'm working on something you'll need in episode 9."

And then there's Tom Cavanagh. As I've noted before, I'm not a fan of his work on The Flash. I hear he excels at light comedy; someday, I'll take a look at Ed and (apparently) see how capable he is. But the Harrison Wells of Season 1 was a mismatch of actor and role: whatever Cavanagh does well, quiet malice is not it. Enigmatic is not his strong suit. I breathed a sigh of relief when he was killed off at the end of Season 1. But if at first you don't succeed, try, try the viewer's patience again. They revived him as a new character in Season 2, a father passionately fighting for his daughter's life -- and there were moments so melodramatic that I cringed. (And then he started to have ready-made inventions. "Cisco, having trouble controlling your visions? Wear this.") There were two great characters introduced in Season 2, right out of the comic books -- police detective Patty Spivot and Earth-2 Flash Jay Garrick. I could have watched them forever. But no, Patty had to written out, and Jay's role had to be diminished so that Tom Cavanagh could get more screentime. And it wasn't even done subtly -- everything was telegraphed. You knew Patty was leaving the show two episodes before she did; the minute Barry wrestled with whether to reveal his secret identity to her, it was clear she was being given the heave-ho. (And the "don't tell so-and-so you're the Flash" plotline had already proven irritating when it was foisted upon Iris in Season 1 -- it reeked of contrivance and chauvinism -- so why were they reviving it?) The Flash telegraphs everything; it's unbearable. If the heroes journey to Earth 2, and they're warned in advance that they shouldn't be surprised if they run into their doppelgangers, you can bet that they'll be surprised -- over and over -- when they do. When they return, if they're instructed not to reveal to the other characters that they saw their doppelgangers, you can bet that -- one by one -- they'll let that slip.

And by the middle of Season 2, the use of pep talks to resolve plots becomes unbearable. The nadir has to be the visit to Earth 2, when the Flash gets stuck in a cell and can't seem to vibrate his way out, and his Earth 2 doppelganger, a Barry Allen who is not the Flash, merely a geeky CSI (overplayed by Grant Gustin), assures him he can: "Today I did things that I never thought possible. Now, if I can do the impossible today, so can you. I'm just Barry Allen, but you're The Flash. If you tell yourself you can phase out of there, you'll do it." Logic of the A+B=3 variety. And by the way, what the hell did you do that day that was so impressive, Barry? You walked on ice -- that's pretty much it. But no matter the circumstances, no matter the logic, or lack thereof, everyone gets a pep talk on The Flash -- and then they find their inner strength, and succeed.

As an experiment, I decided to fast forward my way through the most recent episode, and only hit "play" when a scene looked like it would engage my attention. I only hit play twice. Two characters cross over from Arrow. Fast forward. Giant shark comes out of a pool. Fast forward. Mind-numbing idiocy with new character Wally West. Fast forward. Wait, what's that Cisco is telling Caitlin? Play: "You're being shut off. You're being detached. You're being cold." No, you moron, she's lost two men she loved in the space of six months -- have you ever heard of mourning, you stupid cretin? Fast forward. Oh, look, it's the end of the episode. What's happening? Guess they vanquished the giant shark (apparently he was called King Shark), and what's this? We're back on Earth 2, immediately after the end of the previous episode. A week earlier, we'd cut to credits on Jay Garrick being snatched back to Earth 2, and now, in this week's closing moments, we resume that scene at the exact second we left off. So in other words, this whole episode that I fast-forwarded through, this episode that was literally about trying to jump a shark, happened between two consecutive points in time. It was an episode of filler. I could have wasted an hour on it; fortunately, I only wasted eight minutes.

I know others enjoy The Flash tremendously. I know the show's contrivances, for them, are part of the fun. They see all the tropes I disparage as faithful to the spirit of the source material. But here's the thing. My favorite comic book writer, Cary Bates, wrote The Flash uninterrupted from 1972 to 1985. He tackled most of the characters seen on this show, and devised some of the very plots that the show is exploring. And he never settled for this sort of predictability. Cary's nickname in the business was "Mr. Surprise" -- he was best known for constantly springing fresh traps, unveiling new tricks. And he did so with a tone that was unmistakably warm, but that never stooped to easy sentimentality. The Flash is now a fun-house reflection -- or perhaps "reduction" is a better word -- of what folks suppose a comic book to be. But at its best, under Cary Bates, whose ebullience and imagination are very much the cornerstone of this new series, The Flash was easily more adventurous and less contrived than its TV adaptation. And I don't have time for a show that's content to be less than its best.

As for Arrow: oh well, in my year-end wrap-up, I argued that Season 4 was back on track, so I'm probably to blame for the dramatic decline in quality since then: I tempted fate. Season 3 had been a mess: a pairing to please the Olicity shippers that only made Felicity look needy and whiny; flashbacks that served no purpose, except "we do them every year"; and a host of errors in judgment. Season 4, from the start, restored the camaraderie, the sense of fun, and I had credited the return of Marc Guggenheim to active showrunning duties as the cause. I didn't much care for the villain-of-the-year, Damien Darhk; I prefer my TV villains on the subtler side. And the flashbacks seemed almost as lame as the previous season. But the cast was interacting so nicely, I didn't much care -- I didn't even mind when three presumed-dead characters were revived in three consecutive episodes. I found the new season such a relief from the previous one, I was willing to put up with anything.

But then the holidays hit. We started with oodles of subplot about fan-favorite Felicity Smoak's Jewish heritage. And then the villain abducted her, stuck her in a gas chamber and canonized the Holocaust as she lay gasping for breath -- and I sat there in disbelief. I went on Twitter, expecting an uproar -- and there was nothing. (Only one friend was as offended as I was.) The episode was shrewdly constructed; its cornerstone was our hero Oliver Queen proposing to Felicity, and Berlanti and Guggenheim knew that's all the fans would focus on. So they could be as outrageous, and ultimately offensive, as they wanted to be, and no one would notice or mind. And I dare say, I don't suspect a lot of Holocaust survivors are watching Arrow -- they are not the CW's target audience -- but that's hardly the point. The Holocaust was a horrific period in history where six million Jews were slaughtered, a mass incarceration and extermination that continues to impact its victims and their families -- and serves as a cautionary tale for what is currently a terrifying political climate. You don't trivialize it. (I grew just as angry two summers ago when The Strain suggested that there was some demonic creature killing Jews in the death camps. The Holocaust is not there so you can run your fun variations on it. It is, as the comedians say, "too soon.") The Holocaust plotline shattered my affection for Arrow, and there was clearly going to be a healing process. And as it turned out, there was going to be a healing process for Felicity, too, as she was gunned down in that same episode, with permanent damage to her spinal column, and we were advised, "She's never going to walk again."

Except you knew she would. I mean, even at the age of seven, watching TV, I had a good bullshit detector, like all my friends. (We didn't watch Gilligan's Island expecting the castaways to be rescued.) Nothing surprises me anymore -- and on a show that had already had three people return from the dead in three consecutive episodes, you knew something as "minor" as permanent paralysis wasn't going to stick. But still I wasn't prepared for how badly the writers would handle it. We had to wade through the usual cliches. There was the surgery episode, where all the characters got to intone aphorisms like "She's stronger than all of us." (No, she's not, but it's what people say when writers are parroting what people always say on shows like this.) Next came the post-surgery wallow-in-self-pity episode, complete with a guest appearance by Felicity-of-days-past, with pretty much the same backstory and hair color they gave fellow hacker Penelope Garcia when they delved into her backstory on Criminal Minds. (Felicity. Penelope. Potato. Potahto.) But then we get the news that Curtis, this year's good-guy cast addition, has devised a possible cure for her: an "implantable biostimulant." He advises her, "In a perfect world, it will work in time for you to walk down the aisle" -- which is a huge comfort, because ask anyone who's suffered crippling injury, and they'll tell you that the worst part of it is not being able to walk down the aisle on your wedding day. But it's not like the show was sensitive to Holocaust survivors, so why should we expect a story that respects the dignity of the disabled?

So Felicity gets the miracle cure, but surprise: it doesn't work. But before we have a chance to digest that, there's a crisis: Ollie's bastard son has been kidnapped. That would be a plot in and of itself, but here's the clincher: Ollie never told Felicity that he had a son, so suddenly she makes the plot all about her -- and the writers let her. They encourage her to hijack the storyline. They love their Felicity so much that an episode about a kidnapping becomes all about Felicity feeling betrayed, but bravely rising above all that to help find that boy. (My God, she's wonderful. Those self-sacrificing screen heroines of the Thirties -- who gave up their children so they could have a better life -- were no less noble.) And at episode's end, even though the boy's mother has told Felicity that she had demanded of Ollie that he tell no one, that it was a condition of him getting to know his son, Felicity still blames Ollie for his duplicity. She gives him back his ring, with righteous fury, and then: omigod, her legs are moving. She can walk again -- and more important, she can make a big, dramatic exit. Yup, her ability to walk again is used as a plot device. It was because she had to walk out in a huff that her legs worked. The writers rewarded her for her self-absorption with the use of her limbs.

I walk with a cane. I've had mobility issues for ten years. I live with constant pain. I have many friends dealing with disability, and chronic illness, and none of us are expecting miracle cures any time soon. But by God, when a show goes out of its way to show that all you need to overcome a permanent condition is self-absorption -- well, that was the straw that broke my disabled camel's back. I can't watch a show that gives Felicity a miracle cure just so she can make a dramatic exit.

And so I'll be making my own dramatic exit, and bid farewell to The Flash and Arrow. (Despite the pun-ny title of this post, which was too good to pass up, I don't claim the shows have "jumped the shark": merely that they've grown tiresome and objectionable.) If friends write in a few months and say they've suddenly become must-watch TV, I'll catch them in reruns, or from a streaming service. But the trust is gone, and with that goes the dedicated viewing. Thirty years ago, I would have continued to watch out of habit; now I can't justify it. Indian Summers is back. Grantchester is back. Daredevil is back. I still have to finish binging Happy Valley or at least two close friends will seriously wound me. I have been meaning to finish Season 2 of The 100 for a year now, so I could start on Season 3, and I still have five unwatched episodes of Les Revenants. Not to mention unopened DVD's of George Gently and Vera. I don't have time for shows that aren't even trying, and that are only succeeding in annoying me.

So in the spirit of The Flash and Arrow, I leave you with this:

"My name is Tommy Krasker. After fifty years spent watching television, I have moved on to a new goal: to only watch programming I love. But to do so, I can't be the indiscriminate viewer I once was. I must be someone else. I must watch... something else."

Farewell, Flash. Adios, Arrow.


If you enjoyed this essay, you might want to check out this post where I make the case for two other shows: Limitless (cancelled after one season, but available on Netflix) and Madam Secretary. And for more thoughts on Flash and Arrow, I discuss the failings of the latest crop of TV baddies in "The Sorry State of TV Villains." If you enjoy detailed looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Judging Amy Season 6, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. Or if you prefer sitcoms, I pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, look back at WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4, take a look back at Bewitched Season 2, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.

5 comments:

  1. Yeah, I find it increasingly difficult to ignore The Flash's many faults these days, and sadly the same rot is starting to set in on Arrow. It's not until you watch a show like Daredevil--a show which mostly gets everything right--that you fully realise just how simplistic the storytelling on The Flash is. Not that I think either The Flash or Arrow should be exactly like Daredevil--the first two seasons of Arrow were excellent in my book, and the first season of The Flash was definitely watchable--but their early seasons definitely felt like they had their own identity. Now the storytelling on The Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow is so generic, you could just about use the scripts in any show. Swap the main characters out, bung in the evil Selachimorpha of the week, and you're good to go.

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    1. It's funny: I'd been getting more and more annoyed with The Flash all season, and since the Christmas episode, Arrow has been really getting on my nerves -- but I think it was, in part, seeing how good Agent Carter was that reminded me how Flash and Arrow were coasting. I wrote most of this post on Saturday, and coincidentally started Daredevil that evening. And yes, seeing Daredevil too, as you said, reminded me how these sorts of shows can be done "right." I am much more interested in seeing what happens next on Daredevil (I'm up to episode 5) -- and on a host of other shows, for that matter -- than I am in keeping up with Flash and Arrow. There's just too much else I want to be watching, that I know I'll enjoy more.

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  2. I can't argue with any of your analysis if Flarrow - they are deeply, deeply flawed. I also, like you, found the 'here's a handy McGuffin to walk' plot very offensive to people who can't walk (more so than the gas-chamber, funnily). Though their repetitive nature and treacle moments do annoy, I still enjoy them. I found the Earth2 Flash episodes a blast and love Cisco. Arrow also keeps me watching. Maybe I'm just addicted to bad cape shows. Totally agree that Agent Carter and Daredevil are quality but to group them with Flarrow is missing the point - they both plough a very different furrow. I treat Flarrow like a fun, down-market soap opera with added punching.

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    1. I wasn't so much saying that Flash and Arrow should emulate Agent Carter (they are, as you said, very different shows) -- merely that Agent Carter, also comic-book derived, seemed free of so many of the traps that Flash and Arrow repeatedly fell into. It made me see more clearly that Flash and Arrow could do better -- and just as important, that I wasn't enjoying them as much as I used to. And truthfully, if my TV viewing schedule hadn't suddenly gotten so busy, I might have stuck with them -- as I noted, letting go of them was hard: it's tough to let go of shows that have given you pleasure. But there was so much else I wanted to be watching, that I knew I'd enjoy more. BBC One premiered another series last night that looked wonderful, and I was, like, "Omigosh, I can't add yet another show!"

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    2. I know! I genuinely can't keep up! I've got both Black Panthers and Fargo S2 on my Sky box with no time to watch them and on my DVD shelf Luther, Battlestar Galactica and S2-5 of the Wire!! Doesn't help when Netflix drop 13 eps of Daredevil either!!

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