We are two and a half seasons into Supergirl, and one main character is still mired in a search to find himself: James Olsen. There are a number of articles on the web that have their own take on the character as to whether James is ill-used or is an ill-fit. I think it’s a mix.
Reading my other articles, it’s obvious I’m a fan of Supergirl, Supergirl, and the stuff that surrounds that. Be that as it may, I also always look at these things first as a (former) screenwriter before I focus on being a fan. That’s just habit. My perspective here is heavily weighted to the point of view of character, story, and the execution of both those things. As we’re currently in the mid-season 3 hiatus, I figured I’d share.
Mehcad Brooks brought us a new take on James Olsen. He’s tall, black, pretty, adult, and has a voice as comforting as grits on a breakfast plate. This is in stark contrast to the naive, bow-tied, white nebbish the newspaper photographer is traditionally portrayed as. Personally, I think it was a brilliant choice by the creative team. Shake-up expectations a bit in a way that could let the story grow in new directions.
The realization of James Olsen as a grown man with some experience instead of a teen/young-adult just starting out offered a myriad of opportunities. Unfortunately, this was scuttled by the creative team from the start.
Enter Winn Schott. Other than name, he is the stereotypical Jimmy Olsen of the comics. This means that regardless of whatever Mehcad did or did not do with James, everyone was constantly reminded that Jimmy is sitting right there in his preppy sweaters. By doing this, the writers ensured that James was off-balance from the start.
Still, the first episodes did set up that Kara had a very obvious crush on James and he was not immune to reciprocating that interest. Had it been allowed to evolve, it could have been a fairly interesting story arc. But no. In comes ex-girlfriend, Lucy Lane, swooping in to give it one more try. This effectively sank any hope of the nascent Kara-James shippers because whatever momentum was starting to build was stopped dead in its tracks. It’s understandable to an extent. The writers didn’t want to pile too much on Kara’s plate as she’s learning how to become Supergirl. Even so, it took James out of the main throughlines — not always, but enough that it was hard to come back to the quickly solidifying core of Kara, Alex, Winn, Cat, and J’onn.
By the time Lucy split with James and James was ready to try again with Kara, the game board had changed. Kara saved the world for the first time and had become Supergirl. Meanwhile James had become…what? Lucy’s ex (again)?
Things started on the best foot possible for James in the new season as his best friend, Clark Kent, dropped by. The chemistry between Clark and James in a few seconds of screen time completely outshined any attempts that were made in Season One with James and a romantic partner. There’s little doubt that James is a bro (in the best sense of the word) and thrives with that.
James’ growing buddy-mance (I’m not sure Winn rises to the level of “bro”) with Winn, starting in season one yet blossoming in season two, underscores that James is best when he’s with the guys. And before anyone says it, I’m not saying James is gay or bi (not saying he’s not, either, but current signs point to not likely). It more that he doesn’t try so hard to be “James-ier” when he’s with guy friends. It’s less forced.
“Forced”. That’s a word that gets used a lot by commenters when talking about James and his situations. Guardian, for example. Yes, it helped to grow his and Winn’s friendship, but it did sort of come out of nowhere. Any clever writer can find the odd toss-off line in the season one narrative to justify James’ wanting to be a superhero, but it mostly came down to envy. His super friends make him feel impotent in comparison. Becoming Guardian, then, even if out of the blue, seems the next logical choice…if you were on Earth 1. Here on Earth 38, where the antagonists are so over-powered that Kryptonians are hard-pressed to win, being a guy in a fancy tech suit just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
I think it was also made worse by the fact that James was so dependent upon Winn to be Guardian. It’s Winn who made (and maintains?) the suit. Winn is the Oracle that feeds James info. James (as he mentioned in a moment of honesty) is pretty much just a guy in a suit who beats up other people when the opportunity presents itself. Maybe it’s because he’s angry that he isn’t getting a storyline the fans can salivate over.
Heading CatCo in Cat Grant’s absence has actually been a good fit. James makes for a confident executive and overall pretty decent boss. For the first time in the series, he doesn’t seem out of place. Unfortunately for Mehcad, having James sitting behind a desk doesn’t exactly allow him to exhibit his acting range.
The first half of the third season hasn’t been kind to James. All of his past storylines have been reduced. Even so, the writers have opted to try and give him another shot at love — this time with new CatCo CEO, Lena Luthor. This has elicited about as many supporters as has James’ dalliances with Kara and Lucy. The main non-visceral reason most stated is that it seems “forced” (there’s that word again). The writers have their share of blame with this. It was not set up well or given enough time to evolve plausibly — it’s made Kara’s romance with Mon-El in season 2 seem positively Shakespearean. The other part of the blame, I’m sorry to say, does seem to rest with Mehcad. To my eyes, he seems disinterested. I mean, if he looked at Lena like he looked at Clark, I’d be all-in, but he doesn’t and I’m not.
I’ve made the argument in various comments that after two and a half seasons, we have to be honest that Supergirl has a James problem. They keep trying to make him relevant, especially since, as a regular, they are paying him for every episode. It just hasn’t happened. I think it’s quite possible that, for whatever reason, and through no one’s fault, James (or possibly Mehcad) just isn’t a good fit for this particular show. I thought that about Rick Cosnett on The Flash season 1 as well. Good actor, but simply not for that character on that vehicle. Now, if James was on a Superman show with Tyler Hoechlin, I have no doubt they’d have something special.
Assuming that nothing is going to change contract-wise, then what to do? First, I’d call off the contrived romancing. No matter how much other characters parrot the party line of “chemistry”, it’s not happening. (In fact, when writers have characters use the “ch” word to prime the audience, it underscores how inorganic the pairing is.) Next, I’d have Lena and James share the top office at CatCo in a tag-team manner. A good part of the time have Lena off at L Corp doing all things Luthor, leaving James at CatCo running the day-to-day. On days when Lena is at CatCo, have photojournalist James go out in the field with reporter Kara. This gives them a chance to repair their dynamic while also giving James a plausible excuse to be in dangerous situations.
You can’t really do much more than that with James as he has to work his way back into the core screen-time group. He has to again feel like he’s part of the team instead of a lone wolf. I can imagine that James would wish for the shouts of joy that Agent Vasquez receives whenever she reappears. I mentioned about actors fitting their role — clearly that’s Vasquez. James…well, at this point, fairly or unfairly, it seems he’ll need to earn it.
Here’s the deal: James has been Mr. Plot device (mostly) since season one. Admittedly, there have been a few moments where it’s about developing the character of James Olsen. The best was probably when he told Kara about his father in S1E07, “Human For a Day”. Sadly, those have been more the exception than the rule. More often have been oblique revelations when he preach-yells to Kara about morality or duty or some such. It’s more him being a noodge than outright character development, but at least there’s some insight into his morality. Too often it’s mostly: we just need to have him do something.
That’s never a good sign. Floriana understood that Maggie wasn’t exactly going to be a featured regular and opted to go another route professionally — much to the angst of many fans. Like Maggie, and Lucy before her, James has also fallen into that dreaded realm of supporting character purgatory where both the actor and the producers have to wonder what sort of future there is for the character. To date, they haven’t yet found an answer.