Flashback: The Flash TV Series 20 Years Later
In 1990, CBS green lit a live-action television drama based on the DC Comic character, The Flash. A bold, daring drama, The Flash was a remarkable and unforgettable series, but ultimately a failure. The lessons of this series laid the foundation for the superhero Renaissance in contemporary film and TV...
Following the success of Tim Burton’s visionary Batman, in 1990 CBS green lit a live-action television drama based on the DC Comic character, The Flash. The Flash was one of the most expensive shows on television to produce at the time, costing upwards of a million dollars per episode, and featured a soundtrack by Danny Elfman and costumes by Stan Winston, no strangers to big-budget cinema.
Ultimately, The Flash lasted but one season, airing from 1990-1991.
Considering the revival that the superhero genre has enjoyed in recent years, blossoming into the 2011 slate of big-budget films like Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern, and X-Men: First Class, it is a perfect time to review this overlooked television show, 20 years after its original run. Should Warner Bros. green light a film based on the character, comparisons to the original television series will be inevitable.
From the outset The Flash asserts itself as a bold, daring drama, with a rich cast of characters, complex relationships, novel special effects, and a dash of science fantasy. The emotional anchor of the show is John Wesley Shipp’s inspired portrayal of Barry Allen, a forensic detective who, as a consequence of a freak lab accident, acquires the unwanted ability to move at incredible speeds. A reluctant hero, Barry uses his powers to resolve one city crisis after another, and conceals his identity as the mysterious and enigmatic costumed vigilante “The Flash.”
Like any compelling drama, the show’s driving force is the array of relationships that enmesh its lead and tragic circumstances that launch the series. In the pilot, Barry’s older brother, police captain Jay Allen, is brutally murdered by the psychopathic leader a terrorist motorcycle gang. Living in the shadow of his brother’s rising star and police heroics, Barry must now earn a greater measure of his father’s approval, who, as a retired beat cop, doesn’t think of a lab detective as a ‘real’ police officer. Barry must, in turn, become a father figure for his now orphaned nephew.
Barry’s relationship with Dr. Christina McGee, the putative romantic interest and the STAR Labs scientist who treats Barry after the lab accident and monitors his health, is equally complicated. Dr. McGee (“Tina”) is selfishly motivated to help Barry for an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study his powers and advance her work. Barry suffers numerous side effects from using his powers, including metabolic blackouts and a voracious appetite. Tina provides the suit (derived from a Soviet prototype), and helps Barry understand and cope with his powers.
An undercurrent of sexual attraction between the pair is ambiguously toyed with throughout the series, but never resolved, ala Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd in Moonlighting. When they meet, Barry has just been dumped by his girlfriend, the young and fashionable (usually shown wearing a Blossom hat) Iris West. Barry missed the opening of her gallery due to a blackout, and as the series begins, she announces a move to Paris to pursue her art career. Throughout the series, Barry and Tina’s working relationship teeters on the precipice of romance, but events always seem to intervene.
Acting and Characters
The acting throughout the series is uneven, although it exceeds in quality what would be expected in the genre at the time. The standout is the John Wesley Shipp’s lead. Without a hint of naiveté, Shipp delivers his lines with equal parts earnestness and gravitas. Shipp’s character is no young cadet, but a veteran officer (perhaps mid-30s) who has obviously suffered personal and professional disappointments. Shipp brilliantly blends earnest and passionate good cop demeanor with grizzled veteran calm. Perhaps lacking the full range of a Geoffrey Rush or a Derek Jacobi, he provides the inflective emotionally resonant delivery of a studied and veteran actor who takes his role seriously. Shipp brings greater dimensionality than any of the actors that have played Batman and a more authentic moral compass than even Christopher Reeves’ Superman. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the series is Barry Allen’s stirring conversation with his young nephew Shawn, just after his father (Barry’s brother’s) funeral in the epilogue of the Pilot.
The Pilot sets the tone and establishes most of the character relationships in the series, but -- with few exceptions -- the rest of the series rarely advances or resolves the shows fundamental tensions. Although there are several scenes between the pair mid-series, Barry’s relationship with his nephew Shawn is barely touched on again. Although his relationship with Tina deepens into an enduring and meaningful friendship, the hint of romantic possibility is never resolved. As a lead, Amanda Pays portrayal of Dr. McGee is less convincing. She simply lacks Shipp’s acting chops, although she performs a serviceable background role throughout the series.
More one-dimensional are the array of relationships Barry has outside of his family – from his boss, Lieutenant Garfield to his lab partner, Julio Mendez. These characters are rarely given significant screen time, and when they are, they serve plot advancement or comic relief rather than character development.
With very few exceptions, the villains in the show range from aggressively uninteresting to morbidly hokey. The show’s greatest strength are the leads and the rich cast of recurring characters that provide a sense of realism and verisimilitude. In some sense, The Flash is an ensemble production, with the same dozen characters weaving in and out of the show from episode to episode. Many of the faces throughout the series are familiar character actors from that TV era. Notable highlights from the ensemble cast include Richard Belzer’s Joe Kline, Dick Miller’s Fosnight, and Emmet Walsh’s Henry Allen. Richard Belzer (better known for Law & Order: SVU) plays the slimy TV anchor and “Voice of the City” Joe Kline. Dick Miller’s small time con-man ‘Fosnight’ is an erstwhile police informant and sympathetic figure.
Barry’s lab partner, Julio Mendez, played by Alex Desert, is a hip and likeable presence offers comic relief by pointing out Barry’s fashion faux pas’, and by trying to set Barry up on nightmare dates while trying to manage his own rocky relationship. Officers’ Murphy and Bellows partnership also provides a hysterical comic element to the series, without being campy. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Barry Allen’s golden retriever, Earl, who provides both comic relief and, oddly enough, emotional dimensionality.
The two most notable characters to appear only a few times, aside from the motorcycle gang leader Nicholas Pike, are Megan Lockhart, a sultry female lead who is instantly recognizable to fans of 1980s television, and Desmond Powell, the hospital administrator and retired vigilante Nightshade (shades of Watchman with generational/retired superheroes). Both actors generate critical inflexion points in the series, one as a serious love interest and the other as a respected mentor.
Setting, Style and Tone
Underscoring a more substantial problem, the style and tone of the show is confused. The pilot reveals a city under siege, overcome by crime and gangs, less expressionistic than Tim Burton and Anton Furst’s stylized vision of Gotham City in Batman, but no less gritty or dark. The darkness is distinctly modern, with motorcycle gangs in late 1980s punk fashion, jewelry, hair style, and all. In a later episode (E21: “Alpha”), the leads run into a nightclub styled to the 1990s, with the DJ playing the dance anthem Everybody Dance Now. However, the third episode (“E3: Watching the Detectives”) jettisons that mood and tone and introduces a 1940s noir style with retro-stylized gangsters (rather than punk), and art deco design rather than contemporary, but stylized. The remainder of the series uncomfortably meshes these two styles. In one scene, an art deco 1940s automobile will be parked in the street next to a modern 1980s police sedan. Some of the episodes abandon all pretense of style or place, and seem removed entirely from the city introduced in the pilot (“E2: Out of Control”). The result is a confused mess.
While seemingly a superficial complaint, it turns out that the confused style underscores a more substantive problem with the series. The writers can’t seem to agree on a consistent tone for the show, and as a consequence, the series lacks a consistent identity. The best parts of the series are those that firmly anchor the series in the context of a late 1980s/early 1990s major American metropolis – the time and place it was filmed. While the darker episodes, in general, seem to be among the strongest, being dark doesn’t make the episodes better. Some episodes stray too far into science-fiction unreality, and lose the viewers interest. But far and away the weakest episodes of the series are campier, retro-stylized, and non-coincidentally, more far-fetched plots and cheesy villains. The correlation between style and substance is unmistakeable in the uneven quality across episodes.
The Best and the Worst
The best episode of the series, in my opinion, is the Pilot, followed by “Beat the Clock,” (E11), “Sight Unseen” (E10), “Captain Cold,” (E 17), and “The Deadly Nightshade” (E16). Each of these episodes are flawed, but none of them feature the worst elements of the series.
“Beat the Clock” is a detective centric episode concerning an brilliant jazz musician who is wrongly convicted of murder, and must be exonerated before his execution. Barry’s lab partner, Julio Mendez, plays a larger role in the episode, and there are many scenes at a jazz club. Even more of a police drama is the episode “Sight Unseen,” which has Barry and Tina essentially working against both federal investigators and their own department, trying to piece together clues to solve a theft.
“Captain Cold” is nice blend police/gangster drama and science fantasy. This is part Hard Boiled and part Ray Bradbury. It is also notable because it transforms a cheesy villain into a dangerous, calculating murderer. The episode cleverly juxtaposes the sweltering summer heat (ala Do The Right Thing) with an assassin that kills by freezing his victims.
The worst episodes are those that feature more science fantasy than police drama, more unbelievable villains than selfishly motivated, but ultimately understandable, characters. When the series veers too far into campy science-fiction (“Twin Streaks” or “Out of Control”) or campy retro-stylized villains (“The Trickster”), it loses much of its luster. When the series stays true to police drama with milder or more sedate science-fiction elements and an emphasis on the leads, the series is at its best. There is no point at which the series “jumps the shark” because the strongest run is the final half dozen episodes, where the writers seem to have a better handle on what works and what doesn’t.
In retrospect, The Flash is a remarkable and unforgettable series, but ultimately a failed attempt to launch a superhero revival beyond Batman. The constitutive elements that could have made The Flash more than one season television experiment are the same elements that ultimately produced Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman. By the late 1990s, the brief revival inspired by Tim Burton’s Batman had sputtered out for the same reasons that The Flash failed.
The Batman series had turned to camp under the direction of Joel Schumacher. The expressionistic stylings of Tim Burton provided the needed serious tone for a successful superhero film, but perhaps the trappings that ultimately led to its demise. Style is no substitute for substance. The success of the other films is both a product of strong leads, human drama, and an emotional core that ties them all together. The Pilot of The Flash promised all of that and more. Unfortunately, largely because of poor screenwriting, it did not live up to that promise.
Just as Smallville meshed teen drama/angst into a superhero twist, The Flash could have melded police drama with science fantasy. “Beat the Clock,” “We Are Detectives,” and “Sight Unseen,” among others, suggest how. Lois & Clark, Smallville and Heroes demonstrated that live action superheroes can have a home on television longer than a season by adopting the best parts of The Flash while avoiding the same mistakes. The Flash showed brilliant promise in a thrilling Pilot, and that promise suggests the strong possibility for the character on the big screen, as long as Warner Bros. avoids the mistakes it made twenty years ago.
The Flash TV Series can be purchased on Amazon.com here (http://www.amazon.com/Flash-Complete-Gilbert-M-Shilton/dp/B000BPL2EM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1322854374&sr=8-1).
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