Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Recommended: The Flash TV Series

CW Network’s The Flash begins with the most important day of Barry Allen's life: one night, when Barry was a child, his home was filled by a yellow and red tornado. His parents rush their kid out of the room, screaming for Barry to run... And the upshot is that his mom dies, and his dad is wrongly imprisoned for her murder.

In one of the most unlikely conflicts of interest in fiction history, the arresting officer – Det. Joe West - adopts the kid whose dad he sent to prison (awkward!). 15 years later, Allen is a scientist working crime scene investigations alongside his adoptive father. Barry is a bit tortured by his family history - he's convinced his real dad is innocent, which Detective West can't even begin to believe - but he's generally an upbeat, right-minded, good-looking nerd... Until the next major evening in his life, when everything gets simultaneously far better and far worse.

As it so happens, Central City's biggest purveyor of technology – S.T.A.R. Labs – has built their equivalent of CERN's Large Hadron Collider. On the night that Barry is working in his CSI office, S.T.A.R.'s device goes online, disastrously. A blast of energy envelops the city, Barry is left in a coma after being struck by lightning, and the world will never be the same.

What changed? For starters, Dr. Harrison Wells (Thomas Cavanaugh), the director of S.T.A.R. Labs (and Barry's sort-of idol), is left crippled. Bound to a wheelchair and blamed for nearly destroying the city, Dr. Wells' thriving business has been abandoned by all but two of its junior scientists. For another thing, Barry’s coma lasts for months, his vital signs confuse the local doctors, and time starts moving slowly once he wakes up. Also, Central City is now teeming with a new species of criminal – “metahumans” who control the weather, teleport, shoot electricity from their hands, or induce rage in anyone they lock eyes with.

The Flash is kind of a miracle. Much like the first season of its big sister, The Arrow, this CW series tries to bring comic book characters and stories to the small screen, and succeeds greatly. Super-speed is a pretty odd gimmick for a television series – it will require lots of expensive CGI work, as few modern day producers/editors/directors will risk using old techniques that may look dated today. Moreover, it’s also not easy to create tons of tension or intrigue when your protagonist has an ability that should resolve most problems – possessing, in essence, more time than everyone else. Heroes, for example, had a guy who could travel through space and time... and that show handled his mega-super-power with plots wherein he lost his powers or kept him as far away from the action as possible.

Ugh, but enough Heroes flashbacks, we’re here to talk about a show that had a fine first season, as well as a chance at offering up a decent second (or third, or fourth) effort.

Not my work. All credit goes to Dylan Todd's recaps.

It’s quite an accomplishment, then, to see that the FX work is quite good – you don’t see those “oh, it’s got a TV budget” seams at all. Barry’s powers don’t betray him just so the series can stretch things out (oh, god, Heroes flashbacks again – no, must fight it, let’s not do this)... And the program manages to bring its weird world to life – a vivid, vibrant life – with the same kind of confident ease that Arrow showed in its initial run. Above all, I like that Flash maintains an appropriately-distinct tone from its predecessor.

I’ve been working on this writeup, on and off, for a month now. The extra time made me certain that this series is easier to discuss than its sister show – which is a real blessing for me, because I only have limited time, and I still need to review four more films for my 2014 roundup. But I’m not saying that The Flash deserves less attention than Arrow got (which included a Double Dip about why I dropped it) - it's just that it's a much simpler show, in concept and execution, and its pleasures are easier to describe.

I don’t know the Green Arrow comic well, but I do know two things about how that TV show handled its lead: it’s basically The Count of Monte Cristo meets Batman, but with the Robin Hood motif of its title character. Oliver Queen has a mission of revenge and a tale of loss, personal growth, and isolation. Barry Allen, however, is positive and happy despite his woes – hell, once the action starts, the guy is joyous because his new-found ability is so liberating and empowering. Oliver Queen is a gritty figure who does what he has to do; Barry has a sense of obligation, sure, but he’s doing what he loves to do.

So, the basic premise, which was introduced in the middle of Arrow’s second season, is that Barry Allen is a smart CSI in Central City (DC Comics always use fictitious cities). He wants to solve the murder of his mother and clear his father’s name. The biggest problems he faces are (a) the lack of evidence on who else might have killed Momma Allen, in addition to (b) the fact that Barry fell in love with his adoptive sister, Iris (which is even more awkward and kinda icky).

But the audience has no time to get introduced to his depressing past, because Mr. Allen can now run so fast that his clothes might burst into flame. He heals broken bones in hours, and gets hungry enough to eat 20 pizzas in 20 minutes. So Barry turns to S.T.A.R. Labs for help understanding and dealing with his problem, whereupon fun and danger ensue.

The key, as keeps coming up in my recent TV coverage, is casting and tone. Grant Gustin makes for a charismatic lead. He effortlessly conveys the smarts of a budding scientist, as well as the exhilaration of a guy who loves to help others and then gets to do so - while also coming across as an otherwise normal guy in his early 20s (it’s an American show, he can be quirky and exceptional, not weird and hard to figure out). I must confess, it's a bit problematic to have a lead who simultaneously acts like a teen and a twenty-something - but, hey, it's a CW series. They like the incidents of adulthood (e.g., sex, booze, moody music), but maturity really isn't their thing. No matter what, Gustin carries the material nicely, even when the plots surrounding his role get... problematic.

Yet there’s someone here who’s even better: Jesse L. Martin completely steals the show as Detective Joe West. Every scene of his has a credible, natural feeling - he pulls off the gritty longtime cop beats, but he also has this playful, humorous intelligence that shines through over and over. He calls people on their bs gently, he shouts about the moral lines that gets crossed, and he giggles like a schoolkid when his “son” shows off some of the unexpected uses of his power.

Mr. Martin oozes charm and nails every scene – which is amazing, because his role is often defined by the writers as (a) plot-cop (coming to FOX this fall), (b) Barry’s surrogate dad, and (c) the casual father of Iris, who makes a lot of decisions about her life behind her back. Whatever the tropes in the writing for him, he consistently elevates the script and is \basically the secret weapon of this show. Whenever Mr. West acts happy, it’s both infectious and natural, and now I want Jesse to start appearing in everything.

Danielle Panabaker and Carlos Valdes play Caitlin Snow and Cisco Ramon, two techies who now deal with the stigma of working at the science center that almost destroyed the city. These actors are great at being nerdy and distant and yet also involved and caring. They both deliver exposition naturally, and it’s fun to watch them develop from oddball armchair scientists into people more deeply connected to our lead and the rest of the cast. Their support work is solid enough that, 20+ episodes in, it’s a shame that they probably won’t get episodes dedicated to their roles until the third or fourth season.

Candice Patton and Rick Cosnett have the relatively weaker roles of Iris West (Joe’s daughter) and Eddie Thawne (Joe’s partner and Iris’ secret boyfriend (hyper-awkward!)). Although there is a gradual building up of Patton’s role, for too long she occupies the position of “the girl our hero pines for.” This necessarily forces some of the plots involving her, meaning that she’s kidnapped because it’s a threat to Mr. Allen’s lovelife, which is reductive and objectifying all on its own.

Just as bad, it restricts her character’s range – she has to be written so the protagonist can’t get what he wants (her), without being undesirable. TV does this far too often with its female characters, and those parts always seem less developed/appealing/annoying for it. As of today, the first season finale airs tonight, and she has barely had five scenes that expanded or displayed her as a person outside of her bf or the guy who wants to be her bf. Patton seems like a perfectly capable actress, but it would be nice to see her flex those muscles.

I think it’s a damn shame, as this is 2015, and female players should be used better than that, both to raise the stakes for the audience and to quit this never-ending cycle of locking women into male-dependent positions. Romance is great, sex is the best, and breasts and giving birth are both also really wonderful – but I always thought of women as... I’m trying to think of the right word here. Oh, yeah, “people.” I always thought of women as being people, too, not just an object to receive the emotional affection or physical attention of a good man. This dynamic feels not just antiquated and clichéd, but fundamentally kinda disrespectful, definitely wrongheaded.

And it’s also a bad writing decision. Making most of Iris’ plots centered around Barry also deprives the audience of a chance to see what she’s like, to understand why she’s desirable beyond her good looks. Doesn’t romance mean more when both halves of the relationship are fleshed out, and you get more engaged because you want them to get together – not just for him to get her, but for both of them to “get” each other?

No wonder so many real-life males who watch tv and movies and read comics act like privileged, misogynistic a—holes: they’re used to their entertaining stories where the guy is totally awesome and the girl is just... good-looking. The archetypal “She” always keeps “Him” in the doghouse because she has an attitude problem, doesn’t notice him, or doesn’t appreciate him in that way. And it’s always about adding the romance in the last act, or making the hero “earn” the girl as if he were 17 and she were his driver’s license or high school diploma.

I mean, he’s the f--king Flash and he gleefully saves lives every day. Barry’s also a budding young scientist, he wants to get his pop out of prison, and he helped solve crimes before he even got powers. Iris is... pretty. She has a good work ethic, I guess, because she works in a coffee shop that’s one of the five most commonly used sets on the show. Iris does later embark on a journalism career, and that feels pretty good, but it gets pulled into the lead’s arc, too. Why can’t most writers figure out that it will all work better when you give your characters a room of their own, and then let them rejoin the proceedings?

Also, at some point, everyone starts talking about Barry and Iris like they’re “meant to be,” which only exists because she’s his girlfriend in the comics and ohmyf--kinggod are we gonna ignore the fact that he grew up with her and that it’s kind of weird and creepy that he’s her best friend who’s had a pure infatuation with her since childhood?

Okay, it’s out of my system... for now. Eddie, meanwhile, isn’t a problem so much as he’s frequently a non-entity, someone on screen so seldom that you feel like he should be credited with a cameo. It’s a shame, because he has these somewhat younger Simon Baker good looks, and he does really, really well with what he’s given. He’s undersized compared to Jesse as his partner, and his role is capable of being strict, funny, casual, uptight, and by-the-books. It screams of “forced characterization” regularly, but you can tell that Cosnett is a pretty good actor. No matter the quality of acting or the enjoyable vibe that he brings to his part, the writers already have a very specific use in mind for him, and that’s a bit of a shame (so far, at least).

The final major role goes to Tom Cavanaugh as Dr. Harrison Wells. He has a fairly cool part, as there’s a lot of mystery around his intentions and goals, but I don’t want to spoil the ambiguity surround Doc Wells. It’s too much fun to play with the idea of a screw-up scientist who may not care about nearly destroying a city, or who may have done it on purpose, or who may be a victim of fate who’s playing the cards he’s been dealt as best as he can. Harrison may be a red herring or he may be the crux of the entire series, but I can guarantee that Cavanaugh meets or exceeds the challenge presented by the rest of the cast.

So with that premise set up and these characters in place, what actually happens? Barry hooks up with those scientists, figures out what's going on with his body, and then slowly figures out what he should do with this opportunity. The accident created a whole lot of people with incredible abilities, and they’re joined by the occasional hoodlum who got their hands on some of S.T.A.R.’s technology. Cops, scientists, and freaks populate the series, with lots of cameos from new superheroes to balance out the growing new breed of supervillains.

Everyone around the lead serves as a helper or an obstacle - or both, for a brief time - generally receiving plots that either keep them busy or loop them back into the main action. It's a situation that could grow annoying quickly, save that (a) Barry's importance to the world is presaged often, (b) those supporting actors do a pretty nice job with a decent-to-solid script, and (c) it's clear to most any viewer that it's more emotionally- and narratively-pleasing to prioritize the lead. Especially when that lead is someone who can break the sound barrier.

In terms of warnings, the stuff you'd warn a newcomer away from is pretty obvious: most importantly, the story is so intent on setting up the future of its world that it deflates some of the tension of many particular episodes. It makes a lot of narrative sense, and yet I don’t like to watch legends that are born when they’re not surrounded by people constantly talking about the future and how legendary everything that’s going on is. In other words, The Flash should not be in a rush to emulate the comics too closely (what do I know, I only read it briefly as a teen). And they definitely don’t need to do the Spider-Man franchise thing where the iconic girlfriends of the hero appear in each installment.

Also, everything I wrote about Iris before should be multiplied by 2, because "let's not tell Iris Barry’s secret" becomes the de facto mantra for most of the cast. Similarly, the first run of episodes establishes enough pathos and questions for multiple seasons, yet seems to feel obligated to gratify its viewers by resolving as many of them as possible - Barry coming into his own and resolving his problems, while the Flash determines how to use his powers and figure out what happened to him as a child... It's a show with lots of forward momentum - which can make it easy to watch - even though it would probably be more satisfying to play out the beats over a longer stretch.

More critically, however, we're talking about a series where people get killed about as often as in a standard crime procedural - think CSI or Law and Order - but that boasts characters who remain upbeat and cheerful while lots of awful events are going on. If it weren’t for the consistent charisma the cast conveys, it would feel weird. But instead it’s just a completely ingrained part of the show’s mood and tone.

The show itself points it out during their (admittedly-cool) midseason crossover with Arrow: the bad guys - people who kill and rob or threaten the same - get silly code names. Code names like a kid playing with dolls and renaming them. Sure, it's fun, but it risks undercutting some of the tension - and it definitely creates a vibe that suggests our heroes don't take what's happening as seriously as they should.

And then we come to one final, massive oversight: the metahuman prison. Long story short, some magical science stuff makes the particle accelerator work as a safe prison for the bad guys that Flash stops. Many first season scenes take place in a metallic corridor where the day’s villain is put behind a plexiglass barrier. Now, for one thing, this gives the series room to address “rights” versus “safety” issues, and those are basically completely ignored. It gets some lip service in the season’s penultimate ep (“Rogue Air,” which was on a week ago), but it’s nowhere near a sufficient treatment of a serious issue with tons of relevancy in this post-9/11 world.

But, in addition, there’s no practical mention of how much space these guys have, whether they’re sedated, whether they get books... God, even from a practical perspective: what happens when they have to use a bathroom? And do they feed these guys every day?

When the show misses stuff like that, it’s kind of a sign of the youthful “don’t worry about it” approach that the show takes to its narrative. They do make me worry about what else they're going to fumble, and while I can respect that this series puts the focus on the most interesting aspects of the story, it is kind of like watching your child or younger sibling playing video games before they do their homework. Really, just listen to the opening credits - when Barry talks about all the things he’s gonna do, he sounds like a teenager acting all tough in front of a friend. “Yeah, I AM gonna get my dad out of jail. Then, Iris will totally agree to go to prom with me, and next week, I’ll get this new skateboard and I’ll do a sweet 720 spin when I jump over Springfield Gorge on it!”

Despite its various flaws, The Flash has a ton of great elements, and I recommend you give it a whirl. The show is genuinely fun and happy viewing, and it’s very different than most anything that’s been on TV before. I hope that the showrunners only improve on what they’ve done when season 2 rolls around. It was a lot of fun to watch them bring a bright superhero world to the small screen so successfully, so I hope things only improve, and I hope Warner Bros realizes how stupid its being in how it’s handling the cinematic versions of its DC characters. If only they’d tune in to the CW, they’d see what happens when this material is handled with the right tone and spirit.


  1. Happy to see that you like The Flash! I agree that they overdid the whole "don't tell Iris" routine but when she did find out, people were properly called out on that by her. Hopefully, next season she'll have more agency there.

    Jesse L. Martin is the MVP of the supporting cast and adore the evil that Dr. Wells dishes up so delightfully(also, Wentworth Miller as Captain Cold is a blast). The season finale last night was beyond awesome and I'm so looking forward to S2 as well as DC's Legends of Tomorrow. If only Supergirl seemed as promising!

    1. =) after my experiences with Arrow, I have "managed expectations" when it comes to superhero shows on the CW. The important thing is that The Flash is so different and manages to be genuinely delightful despite its flaws. I really do hope they can keep it going...

  2. Only someone as badass as Jesse L. Martin (totally leveraging his almost decade-long stint on L&O for the seen-everything cop feel) could sell all the "don't tell Iris"es he dishes out this season. You need a lot of charm and audience goodwill to be so consistently wrong without everybody hating you.

    The end of the season saw a much-improved Iris and did address the issue of the secret extralegal metahuman prison, so I'm hopeful that the writers are dedicated to shoring up the show's weak points rather than resting on their laurels.

    I love this show. As Thaddeus mentions, the tone they achieve is pretty unique--it's a true 8PM all-ages adventure program, which is something that's been scarce the last few years. The show nods to some of the comic book's sillier silver age ideas without being campy or self-parodic. And Gustin's childlike enthusiasm--which Thaddeus pokes a little fun at above--is to me a breath of fresh air (Gustin reminds me of a young Matthew Lillard).

    Although I don't watch Arrow, I think it's particularly neat how they've managed to give the title characters in this show the relationship that's usually reserved for Batman and Superman in the comics. TV Oliver Queen is a Batman-like ninja-trained gritty crime fighter, while TV Barry's a good-natured, earnest guy who was raised by an adoptive parent and has godlike powers. These two guys have really different shows and approaches to heroism--and if they had to share an apartment, they'd probably drive each other crazy--and yet they're good friends.

    Looking at the craptastic teaser for next year's Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Justice, I'm betting that the DC's live action TV guys have captured that Superman-Batman dynamic a hell of a lot better than Zack Snyder will.

    1. I must admit that Law & Order going on for so many years makes a lot more sense if they had Jesse on board. Yes just the best.

      I enjoy that this program has slightly risible elements, because they're not a mark of bad quality. The Iris business is, though, so I hope that the show can proceed forward without me having to put myself into the mindset of a 15 y/o boy and ignoring how the female lead (and possibly Ms. Snow) is used.

      You're dead right that Arrow and Flash have this Superman/Batman vibe and that it works well. Considering that The Flash is CW's best-rated show, you'd think the movie studio would have the se se to work with this rather than go against it - and pick up a relatively fledgling actor like Grant, who doesn't need big $ just yet.

      It's one of the issues with Marvel picking Scarlett Johansson for Black Widow. Not only do they have a bias against really promoting female characters, they'd have to pay her a truck full of money if they ever wanted to do a movie about her role. God, when will DC learn?

  3. Great write-up! I really enjoy this show. It's fun and lighthearted and has a hot/cute lead- what more could I want from a CW show? :P No but seriously, I adore how much Barry loves being the Flash. It's exactly the kind of attitude I would have if I had superpowers. I agree about the Iris part. I am happy that she's finally in the loop now but she was pretty useless for a long time. And yes, I thought about the metahuman jail thing too. Like do they need food or what? How does it work?
    I love the Arrow crossover episodes even though I don't want Arrow, mostly because of Barry's and Felicity's chemistry.
    Martin is great but my favourite actor in the show is definitely Cavanagh. He's so deliciously bad- I love it!
    I haven't watched the finale yet because of my self-imposed TV ban for 2 weeks but I have heard good things :D
    And oh, I am super excited for the spin-off show, mostly because it has Arthur Darvill and Captain Cold.

    1. I must say, Nikhat, I didn't know you followed this program until a few weeks ago - and I was very happy to learn that you did! It's a lot of fun, and I join you in saying I'd probably rejoice in my new abilities just like Barry does.

      Felicity is a real strength to Arrow, and I hope Ms. Rickards gets a lot more work based on what she's done there. Arrow has all the ingredients to make a great series, but the flaws in the writing have gradually pushed me away.

      And I agree that the future looks bright - I only hope that the showrunners take a note of their weaknesses and failures, not just the stuff that draws good ratings. There is room to tell a lot of cool, entertaining stories here, I just don't want it to come flooding out and ignore things like bathroom breaks for metahumans or Iris existing as a love object and the show not really realizing it...

  4. Just a late comment to note that, although I do love the cast, I would probably (nowadays) write a new post stating that I'm not going to follow The Flash's third season. I'm just not writing new blog posts anymore, although I will still comment here.

    Long story short, The Flash has many flaws similar to Arrow. Since I stopped watching the latter show a while ago, it's just not quite worth my limited free time...

    I would also say that High-Rise is very good, but also disturbing as the other J.G. Ballard adaptation I covered here, David Cronenberg's Crash. But that's all I'll add here today...


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