Why I was completely wrong about ‘The Flash’

11.13.15 2 years ago

It's easy to dismiss a TV show and never look back, at least as far as I'm concerned, because there are always other things to watch, and I feel no real obligation to try everything on TV. It's not my regular beat, and Alan Sepinwall does such a great job talking about TV in the same kind of all-inclusive context that I try to bring to film that I don't feel like you guys need me weighing in on TV in general.

But every now and then, there's something worth discussing, and in the case of “The Flash,” I feel like it's worth taking the time to say something that you rarely hear from critics: I was completely wrong.

Last year, when all the pilots for the various networks started to circulate, I remember setting aside an afternoon to watch two specific pilots. First up was “Gotham,” which I detested immediately. Everything about the show rubbed me the wrong way. It embodies this insane prequel-and-backstory oriented era we're trying to survive right now, and it tells a story I genuinely don't care to hear. I don't care about Jim Gordon's years in Gotham before Batman arrived. I don't care about watching the various iconic Batman villains show up in their pre-villain forms. It played grim and unpleasant, and I decided by the end of that first episode that I wouldn't waste another minute on “Gotham.” Ever.

That's no mind-set to carry into another show, and so I'm willing to concede that I never really gave “The Flash” a proper chance that afternoon. I half-watched the pilot, already annoyed, and didn't care for it. I wasn't really sold on Grant Gustin, and I didn't buy the tone at all, so I made some snide comments about what a terrible show it was going to be on Twitter, and then never thought about it again…

… but you know how it is with TV shows. When something starts to catch on and people start talking about it, you get curious. In particular, there's a friend of mine who was watching the show each week with his kids, and listening to him talk about their reactions (as well as his own), I started to regret my decision. There was no guarantee I'd share his enthusiasm, but I was willing to admit that I'd made that choice very quickly.

The thing about catching up with shows once they've started to pick up momentum with an audience, though, is that it can be difficult. I'm a Hulu Plus customer, and I have Netflix, and beyond that, I try not to spend any additional money on TV. That seems like it's enough for me. The CW definitely has a decent deal with Netflix, but it's always a year behind. Hulu has a deal where they can only have the last five episodes at any given time on their service. Since Netflix got season one of “The Flash” the same day the first episode of the new season aired, it felt like a challenge. Could the boys and I catch up with all of season one before the CW aired six new episodes of the show?

After all, we don't have unlimited time together these days. We have weekends. And so as soon as they came over on the first weekend after the show was made available, we sat down to try the show together. I wasn't sure they'd like it, or that I'd like it, and so I sort of crossed my fingers and held my breath and hoped for the best.

Boy, was I wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. What came across as campy or silly when I watched the pilot in the wrong mood was simply something that is always difficult to pull off properly: earnestness. The thing is, though, “The Flash” earns that. It is a deeply sincere show, and it has a truly good person at the center of things. Barry Allen (played with movie-star levels of charm by the uber-skinny Grant Gustin) was defined by a childhood tragedy, but instead of using that to drive a dark and angsty take on The Flash, the creative team behind this version (developed by Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns and Andrew Kreisberg) have made a strong and conscious decision to always push this show towards the light. I take back my initial assessment of Grant Gustin. He's perfectly cast, and one of the unexpected benefits of watching the show with my kids is that Gustin serves as a new role model to my youngest son, who is super-skinny. He loves that the Flash has the same kind of long lanky build that he does, since he's used to seeing superheroes with giant gym-built physiques. The show is relentlessly good-natured, even when it's playing rough, and it did everything so right in the first season that my only hesitation now is wondering how you go about following up something so solidly built.

One of the things that helped this team is that there is no single accepted version of “The Flash,” one defining run of the comics or creative team that has owned it so completely that fans refuse to accept another vision. Instead, what this creative team has done is pull from all the versions of the comics as well as inventing things specifically for this show. They are playing with DC iconography in every episode, bringing in familiar characters in new forms, and they're having so much fun doing it that you can almost hear them laughing just out of frame. One of the running threads in the first season was the slow gradual introduction of Grodd, a character that has always seemed tough to imagine as a live-action bad guy. They pulled various ideas from earlier incarnations to create their Grodd, and they did a great job of teasing his appearance over the course of the season.

I've said before that superheroes are only as good as their supervillains, and I've always thought the “Flash” comics were silly, and that his rogue's gallery is vaguely embarrassing. Somehow, though, this team has done a great job in picking and choosing who to use and how to define them onscreen. Captain Cold, aka Leonard Snart, is a character I've always found silly on the page, but Wentworth Miler's done such a good job of making him interesting and fun to watch that I look forward to the episodes where he appears now. And while I'm not a “Prison Break” fan, I think it's fun that they pair Miller with Dominic Purcell as Heat Wave on the show. It's like the casting they did for Barry's father and for Dr. McGee on the show. Did they have to use John Wesley Shipp and Amanda Pays, who appeared on the early '90s incarnation of “The Flash”? Nope. Is it a fun way to nod at that show? Absolutely.

What made the first season great as a piece of storytelling, though, is the way they used Reverse Flash, the main bad guy for the year. It is a perfect example of making the “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” model pay off, and I think Tom Cavanagh (who before this I knew primarily as the guy from a very silly podcast with Michael Ian Black) was outstanding as Dr. Harrison Wells, who served as both mentor and antagonist to Barry. The way his story was revealed, piece by piece, was masterful, and it built to one of the most emotional final acts of any onscreen superhero story so far, whether on TV or in movies. That emotional acuity is one of the things that makes the show special, and they're always careful to make sure there is a weight to these things that happen. Jesse L. Martin, who has always been a solid, reliable actor, ended up being a deadly weapon as deployed by “The Flash.” His scenes with Barry, especially whenever they were talking about fathers and sons, are consistently powerful, and Martin provides a great deal of heart to the show. And while I like the entire ensemble cast, Carlos Valdes as Cisco Ramon is the show's biggest discovery. That's saying something when you have a relative unknown as the title character, but Cisco is the audience's surrogate voice on the show, the one who says all the things that no one normally says in a superhero show. He's the one who understands how cool and amazing it is that there are superheroes and supervillains, and who can't help but point out the absurdity of much of the material.  He delights in his role in things, right up until the moment where any sane person would stop delighting in it. His developing role in season two opens up new opportunities for the character, something which delights my sons to no end.

That's not to say the show was perfect in its first season. They've had enormous problems writing for Candice Patton's character, Iris West, and Patton's a fairly one-note actor. Rick Cosnett's Eddie Thawne played an important role in the first season, but because of the way they wrote for him over the course of the season, it became pretty clear what that role was going to be way before they actually got there. It was one of the few pieces of exposition that felt significantly fumbled in the first year, but considering how important it was to the resolution of things, it's worth noting. When you weigh how much they got right versus how much they got wrong, it's about as confident a first season as I've ever seen. It is clear that they had a vision for what this show could be and they shared that vision completely, something that is not always true on television or in films. How many times have you seen a film where the various elements of the world just don't mesh in a way that works? I always consider movies a magic trick. They are completely artificial, and the trick is finding a way to make them feel real. The more outlandish the premise, the more of a trick it is, and with “The Flash,” there's so much that they need for you to buy in order for it to work. In the case of this show, you see what happens when everyone shares that same vision, and they know how to get there.

By the time my sons and I got to the end of season one, which culminates with a very specific image of the Flash, they were on their feet cheering and I was happily totally won over. It's exciting to have a show that I can share with the kids each week when we get together, and we've already caught up with this season's episodes. We love the way Barry continues to learn more about his powers, pushing them forward, trying new things. We love the way they've introduced Earth-2, one of the biggest weird moves in the DC Universe, setting up adventures across the multiverse both on TV and in features. Knowing Grodd's going to be back on the show next week, the boys are beside themselves, and I love seeing that anticipation and that joy in them. I don't think I'm overstating when I say that “The Flash” is the best live-action superhero television show ever produced, and it is as dense and fun as any superhero movie in recent memory.

And as I said, way back at the start of this, I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And I've never been happier that was the case.

“The Flash” appears Tuesdays on the CW. Season one is available now on Netflix. The last five episodes of season two can be found on Hulu Plus.

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