When forensic scientist Barry Allen is struck by a freak lightning storm, he’s transformed into the fastest man alive, a scarlet speedster known to criminals and the public alike as “The Flash.” Sound familiar? It should. Even if you haven’t been keeping up on your comic-book lore, last fall saw the debut of The Flash, The CW’s latest entry in the superhero genre and one of the 2014-15 television’s seasons most unexpected (and delightful) hits. Finding just the right balance between pulp thrills and sentiment, the creative team behind The Flash has a gratifying and rewarding grasp of exactly what kind of stories it wants to tell. The show is goofy but sincere, giddy with occasional heartbreak, and more than anything, gleeful at the sense of its own possibility. This is costumed crime-fighting done right.
But this isn’t the first live-action Flash to hit television screens. Inspired by the success of Tim Burton’s Batman, Warner Brothers brought the Flash to CBS in 1990, with an origin story that, in broad outline at least, matches the description above. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. TV’s original Flash (played by John Wesley Shipp, who appears on the current version of the show as Barry’s dad) was hampered by uneven effects work, limited serialization, and worst of all, a fundamental misunderstanding of what made superheroes entertaining to watch. Some of the pieces were there, but they never came together, and it’s instructive to see why that is, even if it doesn’t always make for the most exciting viewing.
Things start well enough, with a double-sized pilot that tells Barry’s origin story without shying away from its fantastical core. Barry gets the lightning zap, he gets the super speed, and perhaps most importantly, he gets the red suit, with its exaggerated six-pack and goofy ear lightning bolts. While the suit never looks entirely convincing (there’s something oddly felt-like about it), it’s visually true to the source material in a reassuring way. Fans could come away from the pilot feeling like the property they loved was being treated by people who had actually read a comic book.
That sentiment doesn’t last long, unfortunately, a problem that dogged the show for much of its original run. The popularity of Burton’s Batman apparently led this series’ creators (Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo) to the mistaken impression that the best way to handle Barry and his world was to mimic Batman’s gothic shadings. The resulting Central City exists in a perpetual cultural twilight, trapped between 1955 and 1985 in a way that could be fascinating, but is really just messy. While Danny Elfman’s theme music is appropriately thrilling, the action spends too much time bogged down in shadow. In a design approach so relentless it borders on surreal, nearly every location is marked by a grotesque, visually distracting mural. It’s a strong choice, no question, but lacks a single vision to unify the whole, unlike the version of Burton’s Gotham City. It often looks as though every artistic decision was made independently of every other decision, resulting in an ugly, occasionally hilarious mess.
Far more frustrating is the show’s initial unwillingness to let Barry face off against any actual supervillains. In the pilot, he goes after the scarred leader of a motorcycle gang who murdered his brother, a bad guy who wouldn’t have been out of place on any of a dozen action series of the period. While the villains get more conceptually interesting in later episodes, they’re still a disappointingly generic lot, hokey and tedious by turns. (With one major exception, which we’ll get to in a moment.) Barry as the Flash is interesting enough, and Shipp gives a likable, if limited, performance. It’s hard to know whether to blame him or the scripts, though his work on the new Flash has been great.
But superheroes can’t exist in a vacuum; they need enemies worthy of their abilities. Pitting a guy who can vibrate through walls against a crooked DA or an escaped convict made for tedious stories with a lot of unconvincing obstacles. Even the more impressive bad guys suffered from low charisma and clunky plotting.
The supporting cast isn’t much better. The Flash offered the barest thread of serialization, which wasn’t unusual for its time. A TV show doesn’t need to tell a single, ongoing story, but a show like this one could’ve benefited immensely from a better-judged sense of growth and change. As is, too many relationships remain unclear, most particularly the friendship/potential romantic pairing between Barry and Tina McGee (Amanda Pays), a Star Labs scientist who helps Barry with his Flash-related problems, and occasionally seems to be romantically interested in him. The two actors have reasonable chemistry, but their status shifts in almost every episode. At times, they’ll appear to be a couple; at other times, Barry will hook up with that week’s female guest star.
Even this small problem is symptomatic of a show incapable of building the sort of consistent world a superhero story desperately needs to be effective. Apart from Tina and a few familiar faces at the police station (including Barry’s mandatory ethnic sidekick Julio Mendez, played with affable charm by Alex Désert), Central City never feels like an actual place, which means that the Flash’s efforts to protect it never feel like more than a series of random encounters. This improves over time, as the writers introduce some history, play around with time travel, and even offer up a sequel to an earlier episode in the season finale. If the show had been renewed, it’s possible that these hesitant stabs at continuity might have resulted in something more solid. As is, it’s close, but not quite close enough.
Still, while The Flash isn’t great TV (or even good TV), it has a few positives. Shipp is an appealing lead, and while the effects work looks clumsy to modern eyes, it’s impressive for 1990. The writers didn’t shy away from using Barry’s powers, even if those uses often amount to watching the Flash do things a normal person could, just slightly faster. (Barry spends a lot of time running up to something at super speed, stopping, doing an action at regular speed, and then running off again.) Some of the flaws improve as the season goes on, as the writers start pushing stranger and more ambitious storylines. The scripts still suffer from sloppy logic and weird shortcuts, but that becomes a part of their allure.
The best thing to come out of The Flash, though, is easy to spot: Mark Hamill as the Trickster. In his two episodes, “The Trickster” and “The Trial Of The Trickster,” Hamill’s manic, growling performance provides the sort of villainous foil that the series desperately needed. Given the character’s bizarre costume design and uneven tone (he’s introduced as a serial killer who decides to go full clown after meeting the Flash), it’s impressive that Hamill manages to hold on to his dignity. Better still, he generates real menace in the part, shifting between comic absurdity and murderous rage without ever missing a beat. Two years after The Flash went off the air, Hamill voiced the Joker for Batman: The Animated Series, delivering the definitive interpretation of the superhero genre’s iconic villain. The Trickster feels like a dry run for that seminal work—the character even gets an infatuated female sidekick at one point, Harley Quinn in everything but name.
The Flash is difficult to recommend. The sluggish pacing and haphazard storytelling keep most of the episodes from being watchable to all but the most dedicated comic fans. But it remains compelling as a historical footnote, representative of a genre whose time had not yet come. As various actors from the show appear in its modern iteration (Hamill himself reprised his role in a recent episode), new fans might want to do their homework. For the curious, check out the two Trickster episodes mentioned above. From there, proceed at your peril.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wannabe, with a dash of wonder and not enough weirdoes.
Next time: In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. Sometimes the TV shows about those groups last for decades. Sometimes, in the case of Law & Order: LA and Law & Order: Trial By Jury, they only run for a season. These are their stories, as told by Joshua Alston.