I had an opinion about The Flash after seeing the pilot on 7 October, but I know pilots don’t always represent series very well. So I had to wait for the second episode to confirm. And then the third.
I’m used to the dark underbelly reveled by recent superhero flicks and shows, you know, the post-Frank Miller, brooding good guy filled with hate, revenge, regret or some other (or other worldly) motivation. It’s the underbelly revealed by almost every superhero show that isn’t written by Joss Whedon.
And so I wasn’t prepared for a character who is so, well, earnest. The Flash’s Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) is earnest. Barry is a somewhat naïve nerd, working a nerd job in the Central City Police Department’s forensics lab. This Quincy wannabe is bright with little more than young adult angst to color his daily routine.
Barry Allen’s story became less routine when S.T.A.R. Labs launched their new particle accelerator and an “accident” occurred and the uncontrolled reaction sent some kind of energy through Central City. Allen was hit by “lightning” from this energy and gained mental and physical super-speed, as well as one hell of a metabolism and an appetite to match.
There is darkness to be had here. Early in young Barry’s life, his mother was killed in front of him by something that can only be described as a Flash-like being swirling around his living room. Barry’s father, Henry Allen (John Wesley Shipp), was convicted of the murder and has since served 20 years in prison. Not the ideal life for a kid, but the child Barry (Logan Williams) was adopted by Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) and raised with his daughter, Iris West (played by Amina Elkatib as a child, Candice Patton as an adult), in what is apparently a single parent household.
Both Barry and Iris seem well adjusted, with the exception of his understandable attraction to the beautiful and sister-like Iris. This tension is brought into clear view in the episode titled “Going Rogue” where Arrow’s Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) makes an appearance, nearly throwing herself at Barry, who met her previously, during a guest appearance on Arrow. After he literally chases her down on a train, they share a conversation about how perfect they would be for each other if they weren’t pining for other people. I recall a similar conversation when I was Allen’s age. I’m sure I’m not alone. The writing here is earnest.
There is darkness to be had here too. Tom Cavanagh’s perpetually calm and smiling Dr. Harrison Wells, the former head of S.T.A.R. Labs, is a murderer and a liar, this we know so far. And he is probably worse. There are hints that he not only created the event that transformed Barry into the speedster, but also that he did so with Barry in mind. It isn’t clear yet if the peripheral fallouts of various other “metahumans”, those who also gained powers through the “accident”, were expected or not. Their existence seems to intrigue Wells, who is now collecting them in the amazingly clean remains of his particle accelerator.
Just under the surface, the earnest Barry suppresses his darkness in the hope of freeing his wrongly convicted father. The equally earnest Joe West’s darkness emerges occasionally in his guilt over being the lead detective responsible for convicting the elder Allen. Wells’ darkness is less submerged, visible in well-timed revelations designed to intrigue viewers with a complex character who is just starting to show his true colors.
There is darkness as well n the metahumans transformed, and in those humans who gain leverage through S.T.A.R. Labs. For all of its earnest good-will toward Allen, and Dr. Wells’ oft repeated admonition that this is all to protect Barry Allen, S.T.A.R. Labs and its creator are the source of all things evil so far. The meta-humans created the night of the “accident” as well as the human, now called Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller), who stole, then applied, a freezing ray gun from S.T.A.R. star Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes). Ramon and S.T.A.R. teammate Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) make up what remains of S.T.A.R. Labs post-accident brain trust.
As with any good show, you can see the train wreck coming but you can’t know exactly how the cars will fall (please note this is a metaphorical train wreck, not the train wreck in episode four from which Allen saved everyone before being temporarily frozen out by Captain Cold).
There is darkness here in the minds of the earnest writers (Greg Berlanti, Gardner Fox, Grainne Godfree, Geoff Johns, Andrew Kreisberg, Harry Lampert, Alison Schapker and Kai Wu, so far). They must remain earnest to keep this show balanced between darkness and light on that knife’s edge. That is its charm and its attraction. Sure, we watch for the impending train wreck, but if the writers can keep the show balanced on the edge just before the train wreck, in that blurry shockwave of unstable chaos that arrives before the first car derails, then they will keep me and many others watching.
There is light amid the darkness. The Flash sports a great cast, visually well-designed sets and effects, and the pace and atmosphere reflect the deft hands of directors and crew. But a superhero show can’t live on those elements alone. As Stan Lee discovered in the ’60s, the modern superhero needs to be complex, even vulnerable, and his fictional world needs to be as messy as our world. Comic books have become increasingly non-escapist commentary on modern life. Television shows get lost when networks push to resolve things too early, to make things too easy to understand, to eliminate conflict and turn down the darkness.
There is darkness here in my fear that the CW will try to make The Flash too earnest, too mass appealy as its characters evolve. The Flash should never become Gotham, but it does need all that darkness just under the surface. Darkness is the engine that will keep this show running.