MCC 2014 Pilot Binge #18: “The Flash”

The Flash!

Of all twenty-six pilots in this series, I had more mixed emotions about The Flash in advance than I did any of the rest. When I began collecting comics at age six, Barry Allen was one of the first heroes to teach me about truth, justice, and sequential numbering in long-running comics. I still have issues #270-350, along with the first 200+ issues of Wally West’s subsequent series (including the weirdly numbered Zero Hour and DC One Million crossovers). The first time he came to TV in 1990, I’d taped nearly every episode on VHS years before DVD was a thing, and when it became a thing and the show was eventually granted its release, finally getting to see the legendarily preempted Captain Cold episode was, pardon the expression, pretty cool. Until several years ago, I was a longtime fan of the Flash legacy.

I entered with trepidation into his new vehicle produced by The CW, purveyors of the frequently aggravating Smallville, which left me with so many negative emotions that to this day I still haven’t convinced myself to try a single episode of Arrow because I assumed the results would be similar or worse. (I haven’t forgotten Birds of Prey, either. Yikes.) Knowing that The Flash was a direct spinoff from a show I’m not watching didn’t encourage me, nor did the announcement that both shows are already planning their first crossover (ugh). Insert obligatory reference here to other problems with translating DC heroes to other media, especially movies.

But it’s on the list. So I gave it a try. And I was happy to be surprised. (Fair warning to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet: one paragraph in this entry covers the specific subject of Easter eggs. If you’re a fan of those and plan to savor them as a surprise someday, consider this your courtesy spoiler warning.)

For newcomers to this little corner of the DC Universe: Barry Allen was an awkward crime-lab scientist (decades before the term “CSI” entered the pop-culture lexicon) who suffered an accident involving lightning and chemicals that gave him the gift of super-speed. Good-natured Barry was inspired by others to use his powers for the good of Central City and became…The Flash, The Fastest Man Alive! In recent times, his past was altered retroactively by the tragic event his mother’s murder under paranormal circumstances, adding a touch of pathos to his story but leaving him nonetheless an upright citizen doing the right thing, battling any number of metahuman ne’er-do-wells, and juggling both his work schedule and his free time spent with a girl he liked named Iris. Also, sometimes there was a treadmill that could handle super-speed users.

All of the above is material from the comics that made it into the show. I hadn’t expected such reverence to the source material. Compared to Clark Kent’s ten-year Smallville journey from mopey mophead to Guy Who Agrees to Wear a Costume, and especially compared to seeing 75 years of Batman stories scrambled and reshaped into Gotham‘s disjointed patchwork monster, The Flash practically treats the books as sacred text. Barry’s a good five or ten years younger, and two established characters aren’t white anymore, but nothing’s harmed in the least. If anything, Grant Gustin’s youthful, hopeful version of Barry’s aw-shucks charm accentuates a much-welcome optimistic outlook lacking in other live-action heroes.

Gustin is surrounded with a supporting cast that click well with him, if not necessarily with each other at times. Jesse L. Martin from Law & Order is once again a detective as Joe West, the overprotective father figure who raised young Barry after his mom’s death. He’s also the natural father to Iris West (The Game‘s Candice Patton), who in the comics would later become Barry’s wife, but in the series grew up as his sort-of sister. (Barry’s tight relationship with the Wests from youth onward is the most affecting deviation from the comics.) Joe’s partner is the clean-cut Eddie Thawne (Rick Cosnett from The Vampire Diaries), a recent transfer from neighboring Keystone City and a name rather recognizable to comics readers. After Barry goes through the paces of his origin story, he befriends and becomes the ongoing project of a science team at S.T.A.R. Labs (a name quite recognizable to Smallville fans), whose very few employees include a pair of young-adult scientists for comic relief and science exposition, overseen by the wheelchair-bound Harrison Wells (NBC’s Ed‘s Tom Cavanaugh) who encourages Barry in all he does but has secrets of his own. Meanwhile in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, there’s Barry’s real dad as played by John Wesley Shipp, a name and face instantly recognizable by fans of the previous TV show.

Unlike most other shows in this project, I’ve now seen two episodes before writing all this down. That might seem unfair, but it’s my project and my rules to warp. The origin story nicely lays out a lot of moving parts and snaps all the characters into their proper playsets, while introducing as our first super-villain the Weather Wizard, a name faintly recognizable to older fans of The Super-Friends. Fans may also note throwaway references to a policeman named Chyre, TV reporter Linda Park, a broken cage with a nameplate reading “Grodd” (another gimme for the Super-Friends crowd), and the prison known as Iron Heights. Episode two brings us the villain called Multiplex (from the Rogues’ Gallery of Firestorm the Nuclear Man); TV’s William Sadler as ignoble rich guy Simon Stagg (who, along with his bodyguard Java, come from the supporting cast of Metamorpho the Element Man); and a casual mention of Iris’ late boyfriend Ronnie, who may or may not be dead and may or may not be related to a certain Nuclear Man. I should also mention the pilot had one scene with very special guest star Stephen Amell from TV’s Arrow.

So far, that’s the only reservation I have about the show: there’s so much material from the comics and cartoons that it’s hard to treat the viewing experience as an hour’s worth of plot and themes and Acting, when the whole thing is designed like a virtual arcade shooting gallery where every name, location, or object I recognize is worth geek points, and maybe after I spot hundreds of them I can trade in for stuffed animals or free pizza. The Flash is so full of Easter eggs that his costume should be made of plastic grass and equipped with a built-in Paas coloring kit. We get it! The showrunners have comics cred! And I know sooner or later we’ll learn that Central City, like every other DC TV/movie city ever, will have hundreds of streets and businesses named after famous writers, artists, and editors. It’ll mean nothing to casual viewers, but I’ll be rolling my eyes when we get to the episode where the Flash has to run down a villain at the old Infantino warehouse at the corner of Broome Street and Fox Lane, which used to be owned by Schwartz Consolidated until they were sold to Bates & Baron Ltd., whose office was on the top floor of Messner-Loebs Plaza over on Guice Avenue, but now the building is rented out to the law firm of Waid LaRocque Wieringo Jimenez Johns Kolins & Manapul. That episode should earn me enough points to win myself a PS3, I think.

Proper nouns notwithstanding, and despite a few one-note supporters that will hopefully have their chances to blossom in the weeks ahead, The Flash is great fun with a likable hero whose chats with his father and his father figure lend the show some proper gravity while he’s learning about great power, great responsibility, knowing your limits before they’re tested, proper police work, and the joys of comic book science.

(Obligatory thing I nearly forgot: the special effects were fine by me. I tend to grade CG visuals in TV shows on a generous curve, wherein anything better than Once Upon a Time gets an easy stamp of approval. I’m willing to grant artistic leeway if it means I can devote more head-space to dwelling on other, more interesting criteria. I daresay, though, in this area The Flash already has a better batting average on my scorecard than Doctor Who.)

(For more information on the MCC 2014 Pilot Binge project, please visit the initial entry for the rationale, the official checklist of pilots, and links to completed entries as we go. Thanks for reading!)

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