The first words we hear on “The Flash” come from our hero Barry Allen, who explains, “To understand what I'm about to tell you, you need to do something first: you need to believe in the impossible.”
That “The Flash” (it debuts tonight night at 8 on the CW) is as good as it is isn't impossible, but it is improbable. The core of its creative team – including Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and longtime Flash comics writer Geoff Johns – are all important parts of another CW superhero drama, “Arrow.” “Arrow” (which begins its third season tomorrow night at 8) has turned out to be a strong show, and the standard-bearer for this new wave of comic book TV series, but it also has an obvious template: it's “Batman Begins: The TV Show,” with some of the names changed, but not all (see Ra's al Ghul, coming soon to an “Arrow” episode near you!), taking advantage of Green Arrow's many similarities to another DC Comics vigilante playboy to do a show very similar in tone to the Christopher Nolan films. It does what it does well, while playing into a pre-established appetite for this exact kind of dramatized comic book storytelling.
“The Flash” is something different. It still has plenty of darkness of its own – borrowing from a recent Johns-scripted revision to the character's origin story, the show opens with a young Barry witnessing the strange, superhuman events that led to his mother's murder – but the overall tone, and the conception of Barry, is much lighter. It owes more to the 1990 CBS “Flash” drama(*) – whose star, John Wesley Shipp, plays Barry's father here – than it does to “Arrow,” “The Dark Knight,” “Man of Steel” or any other recent DC films and shows.
(*) That short-lived '90s “Flash,” of course, owed a debt to a different generation of Batman on film: the more macabre '89 Tim Burton film with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. There are times when FOX's “Gotham” also appears more stylistically in sync with Burton than with Nolan, and I wonder if this is an attempt to avoid encroaching too much on the current DC films, or if this approach simply appeals to the various showrunners.
As introduced last season on “Arrow,” this Barry (played by Grant Gustin) is an enthusiastic young CSI for the Central City police, working closely with his mentor, Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), who raised him after his mother's murder. The combination of a lightning storm, the malfunction of a particle accelerator at the local branch of STAR Labs, and the various chemicals Barry has in his office transform our slowpoke hero into the fastest man alive(**), capable of creating sonic booms with just a hint of acceleration, or unwinding a tornado simply by running around it in the opposite direction.
(**) The lightning and the accelerator explosion also function the way the storm of Kryptonite debris did on “Smallville”: as a one size fits all explanation for all the super-powered freaks Barry will be battling for the life of the series, all while the Arrow is mostly dealing with more human villains on his show.
The character in this version is as much Peter Parker as he is the square-jawed comic book Barry Allen – there's even a joke similar to the one from the first Tobey Maguire Spidey film, when Barry notices how much his physique changed after the accident: “Lightning gave me… abs?” – and that plays to Gustin's strengths. One of the reasons superhero films and TV shows have trended towards the grim 'n gritty is that there aren't a lot of actors who can play an old-fashioned, unironic good guy and not seem like a sap. Christopher Reeve made it look easy back in the day, and Chris Evans does it well now, but more often than not, people who try come across as embarrassed to be doing it that way. Gustin – well-scrubbed, dimpled and forthright – tacks right into the fundamental good-natured decency of Barry and makes that into an asset. The character has a lot of tragedy in his backstory, and the show and Gustin don't run away from that, but they also recognize that being able to run at hundreds of miles per hour and help people is fun.
Gustin helps the pilot's big emotional scenes land, and he's helped enormously by Martin, who brings a lot of gravity to Barry and Joe's relationship and what it says about their backstory, and by Tom Cavanagh as Harrison Wells, the scientist whose team helps Barry learn about his powers. Martin's a cop drama vet (though this is a world away from “Law & Order”), where Cavanagh has mainly been a comedy guy, but each provides a valuable backstop to their young co-star. Other parts of the ensemble need some tweaking – as Joe's daughter (and Barry's unrequited love interest) Iris, Candice Patton seems positioned to fill the same oblivious wet blanket slot that Katy Cassidy did for the first two seasons of “Arrow,” and the writers will need to better balance the comedy and drama load between Carlos Valdes and Danielle Panabaker as Cavanagh's two sidekicks – but there's a good core here.
(Also in need of careful monitoring: the dialogue, which – as on “Arrow” – walks a knife edge between melodramatic corn and something appropriate for a show about a guy in a red costume who can faster than the speed of sound.)
As for the super-speed itself, the technology has come a long way from what John Wesley Shipp was doing when he wore the red suit, but it's still being done on a TV budget, which means a lot of it is shot tight on Gustin as red and yellow streaks fly behind him, or so far away that he could be animated. It does the job, though, and this is a case where I can imagine the situation getting better as the series moves along. Ordinarily, action series are at their most elaborate in their pilots, but when digital effects are involved, the software is improving all the time, and usually getting cheaper in the bargain.
I like “The Flash” at this stage a lot more than I did “Arrow” after its solid but unremarkable pilot episode. It helps that many of the key creative people worked together on the previous show and have learned some lessons about what does and doesn't work in a superhero TV show. But the lighter and more optimistic tone is unexplored territory that could be tough to navigate at any speed. For the first hour, anyway, “The Flash” makes it look easy.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org