With most of the TV season behind us, we can now fairly make a call as to which new shows were the best, which were the worst, which returning series were the most improved, and so on. Today I want to tackle the first catagory there. It probably will come as little surprise to regular readers of this blog that THE FLASH was probably my favorite new show of the season. My geekhood is well-documented. What might strike you as more notable praise is that my very non-geek wife also loves the show.
I had a feeling that the CW had a hit on their hands when my wife walked into the room two minutes into the pilot and before long, instead of checking her email and doing work on her laptop, she was as riveted to the screen as I was. Comic book shows always have to potential to play too much "inside baseball." Go too far in that direction and you run the risk of a non-geek audience feeling alienated. At the worst, you'll end up with scenes that make the uninitiated actively aware there's a gag they're missing.
The quintessential worst-case scenario is GOTHAM's brand of winking at the audience. The pilot features a scene with Edward Nygma, whom fans will realize is the future Riddler. He appears here as a forensic expert who delivers his finding in the form of riddles. You could almost feel the writers elbowing you in the side during this scene saying, "Get it? Get it! It's cuz he's gonna be the Riddler!" Even people only vaguely familiar with Batman probably got that one, but the gag only calls attention to its own unnatural construction. It's clumsy even before one of the cops delivers the line, "If I want riddles, I'll read the funny pages."
THE FLASH's counterpart to this gag came in Week 2. We learned in the pilot that Dr. Caitlin Snow's fiance had been killed in the explosion of the STAR Labs particle accelerator (the MacGuffin that provided Barry Allen with his powers and charged up a legion of characters who can serve as the adversaries of future episodes.) In the subsequent episode, Caitlin mentions her fiance's name in passing: Ronnie.
I grabbed the remote and paused the show, "Wait, did I hear that right? What did she just say?" My wife confirmed that Caitlin said "Ronnie." My reaction: "Oh shit! They're going there!" The significance completely lost on my wife was that Caitlin is fated to become the villain Killer Frost... who usually bedevils the hero Firestorm... who is a merging of two people, one of whom is Ronnie Raymond. Bear in mind, if I wasn't there, my wife wouldn't have even noticed this shoutout because Caitlin's line was completely organic to the scene. It was a beautiful way of throwing an Easter egg those steeped in geek lore without puzzling new viewers.
This is something THE FLASH does regularly and I give them a lot of credit for not turning the show into a "No Geeks Allowed" reference zone where things only have meaning if you know the lore. Everything the series uses from the comics, it takes care to re-contextualize for the audience. Series creators Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns and Andrew Kreisberg know what they're doing.
This shouldn't be much of a surprise. All of these men are veterans. Berlanti is one of the best writers on TV (I'll say it again, seek out EVERWOOD on DVD if you never saw it) and co-created companion show ARROW with Kreisberg (along with Marc Guggenheim). Also, in addition to being DC Comics's Chief Creative Officer, Johns is one of comic's biggest writers of the last fifteen years or so. The vast majority of my favorite DC stories since 2000 or so have been written by Johns. His relaunch of GREEN LANTERN might count as one of my favorite comic runs ever and provides ample evidence the man knows how to build an epic. It also needs to be noted that Johns had a very strong run on THE FLASH, so he understands this corner of the universe intimately.
It also doesn't hurt that the series boasts probably the best cast of any CW series, and possibly any comic book show. I only knew Grant Gustin from his stint on GLEE as a character I actively disliked seeing on screen. Now I'm wondering if I should go back and revisit those because Gustin has owned the role of Barry Allen from moment one. He's fun and charming, but if you had to describe him in one word, it would probably be "likable." It's nice to see a superhero lead who doesn't have to spend a wealth of scenes brooding and being moody. There's a lot of weight on Barry's shoulders, but the show regularly shows us what a rush these powers would be. Barry's having fun with his ability and when he has fun, WE have fun. It's a nice change of pace to see a hero enjoy the things he can do.
And did you ever think you'd see Jesse L. Martin on the CW? He brings such intelligence and emotion to the character of Joe West, Barry's foster father and mentor. There's an interesting showdown among Barry's father-figures: West, Barry's own incarcerated father Henry, and Dr. Harrison Wells. Henry is played by John Wesley Shipp, the first actor to play Flash on TV back during the 1990 series. It's stunt casting that feels less like a stunt because Shipp and Gustin have great father/son chemistry. Wells's portrayer is another coup for the CW - Tom Cavanagh.
Recent eps have revealed that Wells is actually the evil Reverse Flash in disguise, the same man who killed Barry's mother 15 years ago. Barry's father went to jail for that crime and Barry himself has recently realized that his father is innocent and that through a quirk of time travel, he is going to end up back in that past while battling Reverse Flash. The question is, can he change history to save his mom? Should he?
The last ep showed us Reverse Flash killed the real Dr. Wells that same night and assumed his identity. Everything he's done since then seems to have been to make sure Barry gained his powers, which Reverse Flash needs so he can siphon that energy and use it to return to his home in the 25th Century. I'm laying all of this out because I want to make a prediction: When Barry eventually finds himself in the battle with the Reverse Flash that sends him to the night of his mother's death, I think he won't save her. But I'd bet he WILL save the real Wells and bring him back to the present. Thus, history can stay intact and the show has a way of keeping Cavanagh in the mentor role once the Reverse Flash story ends.
(Wells has told Barry he can't change the timeline, but that's been shown to be a self-serving lie. Last week revealed that in the original history, the particle accelerator didn't become active until 2020. Reverse Flash/Wells brought that about in 2013, seven years early. Everything Wells has said one should or shouldn't do with regard to time travel should be considered suspect.)
I like the occasional hints that Wells isn't totally evil, as when he compromises his own evil scheme in order to save Ronnie Raymond. Cavanagh plays "good" Wells with such integrity that we actively want to find reasons for him not to be a bad guy. I'm really looking forward to seeing the show peel back more layers on this guy in the final stretch of episodes.
The rest of the cast is excellent as well. Danielle Panabaker has shown a variety of sides to Caitlin's character. We meet her as a colder, almost all-business type, eventually explained as her mourning the loss of her fiance. In flashbacks we see a less burdened Caitlin and recent shows have given Panabaker to bust out great comic timing as Caitlin's Type A personality attempts to be carefree. Few things have made me laugh harder on this show than her line reading of " I would like to start a tab," pronouncing each word as if it's the first time she's said it, and with verbal quotes around the word "tab." (Okay, I probably laughed even harder a few minutes later when a completely sloshed Caitlin attempted karaoke, and later still when an even drunker Caitlin accused Barry of sneaking a peek at her in a state of undress.) I'm enjoying this version of Caitlin so much that I'm wary of losing her when she embarks on her comic-mandated destiny. She's got great chemistry with Barry that it would be a shame to waste.
Carlos Valdes's Cisco took a little time to grow on me, but he's a fun geek-surrogate for the audience. It struck me recently that he might be the "Willow" of the group in that you can get easy audience investment in the peril by threatening him. (Yes, BUFFY fans, he's also got "Xander" qualities too.) Candice Patton does well with what she's been given as Iris, but I'm looking forward to her being let in on the secret. Her storylines can only go so far while she has to play the role of the person kept in the dark.
When a cast works this well, you can't overlook the contribution of the casting director, and David Rappaport is clearly the CW's star for these shows. He's also worked his magic on ARROW and just cast the SUPERGIRL pilot. SUPERGIRL also has what looks like a strong call sheet for a superhero show, and with many of the same creatives involved, I am anticipating that show like none other next fall.
This is probably a good time to heap some praise on Berlanti's producing partner Sarah Schechter, who collaborates with him on all three shows. I've seen a producing team like that be worked like crazy on just ONE show, so for this duo to take on three series simultaneously shows that they're an exceptionally well-oiled machine. In the old days of the site Television Without Pity, EVERWOOD fans used to lovingly say "Damn you, Berlanti" every time an emotional moment hit them in the gut. I kind of want to say "Damn you, Berlanti, for making TV writing and production look so easy!" (The man became one of the youngest showrunners in history at age 27 after doing a major rewrite over a weekend on a Dawson's Creek episode.)
THE FLASH really is the first true, unadulterated superhero show we've had since the original FLASH series. LOIS & CLARK was much more focused on the relationship than the superheroics. As a prequel SMALLVILLE seemed determined to keep Clark out of costume as long as possible. GOTHAM follows suit in that vein, telling less of a Batman story and more of a tale about everything that preceeded Batman. AGENTS OF SHIELD sticks to a lot of non-powered characters, a trait shared by AGENT CARTER, another wonderful show I've raved about. Even ARROW doesn't quite fit the bill as a superhero show because its lead is non-powered.
In the 50s, DC Comics relaunched their Flash character with a new costume and new identity. This is a moment historically remembered as the birth of the Silver Age of comics. (Some say that Silver Age ended with Barry's death in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, appropriately enough.) THE FLASH series seems poised to be a similar vanguard for the current era of superhero TV shows. With each ep getting better than the previous, I have faith we're in for a helluva ride.
If you haven't checked out this show, what are you waiting for?
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