Television

The Flash: Season 2, Episode 10 - "Potential Energy"

Gregory L. Reece

The Flash is the best of the current crop of superhero television; "Potential Energy" shows us why.


The Flash

Airtime: Tuesdays, 8 pm
Cast: Grant Gustin, Shantel VanSanten, Jesse L. Martin, Candice Patton, Keiynan Lonsdale, Danielle Panabaker, Teddy Sears, Tom Cavanagh, Aaron Douglas, Carlos Valdes
Subtitle: Season 2, Episode 10 - "Potential Energy"
Network: CW
Air date: 2015-01-19
Amazon

I'm a fan of CW's The Flash. Readers of this column know that, I'm sure. The Flash, I believe, is the best of all the current crop of superhero television. The acting and writing aren't as good as Netflix's Daredevil or Jessica Jones; the production values aren't as good as ABC's slick Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; The Flash is not as dark and violent as Fox's Gotham or as earnest as CBS's Supergirl.

There are better crime shows on this list, better action adventure stories; there are more realistic and moving dramas. The Flash, however, is something special.

I've been trying to put my finger on exactly why this is, why I enjoy watching a lot of these other shows but get a thrill, a genuine thrill, from almost each and every episode of The Flash.

Clearly one of the reasons for this is that I’m a huge comic book fan, and The Flash is probably the purest comic book superhero program of the whole bunch. Most of the others are examples of superhero stories embedded in other, more traditional, television genres: urban crime story, spy thriller, hip romantic dramedy. The Flash, however, feels like a comic book story. Its success at this has helped its older sibling, CW's Arrow, transition into more of a comic book show as well -- a welcome improvement. Of course, comic books work in all of these genres as wel,l and have stretched the form to include as complex and diverse a set of storytelling methods as any other medium. But, at its heart, at least since the rebirth of the superhero in the Silver Age, comic books have been about super-powered beings in battle with other supe- powered beings set against a backdrop of a pulp sci-fi universe that includes extraterrestrial civilizations, time travel, and alternative dimensions.

That is the universe in which The Flash resides, the universe that The Flash embraces.

The Flash takes all the chances that every other television version of superheroes has been afraid to take. The pulp sci-fi universe of comic book superheroes is complex and potentially confusing to outsiders, what with all those alternative timelines and alternative dimensions, all those duplicate characters from Earth-1 and Earth-2, all those super-scientists and futuristic ray guns and cosmic treadmills. For decades we've been told that you can't do all of that on television, that the audience won't buy it, that it’s just too much. Nothing seems like "too much" for The Flash. Multiple versions of a character, some evil and some good? Check. Giant talking gorillas? Check. A whole cast of super fast heroes and villains? The Flash gives us the title character, plus his alternative version from Earth-2; it gives us the villains Reverse Flash (Matt Letscher) and Zoom (Tony Todd); and it drops big hints that Kid Flash and Jessie Quick may be on the way. You think building a series around a man who can run at super speed sounds ridiculous? What if we do that, and then toss in four or five others as well? And what if we refer to them all in the squarest way possible by calling them "speedsters."

It shouldn't work. But it does.

Watching this week's episode, "Potential Energy," helped to give me a good sense of just why The Flash is able to pull this off when everything says that it shouldn't.

First of all, it should be clear that the show doesn’t take the slow and steady approach. The Flash, likes the superhero at its heart, never stops moving. Excess, as it turns out, is a good thing in this case. In this episode Barry (Grant Gustin) worries about whether or not he should tell Patty (Shantel VanSanten) that he’s The Flash. Joe (Jesse L. Martin) and Iris (Candice Patton) struggle to find a way to bring Wally (Keiynan Lonsdale) into their family. (Comic book fans know that Wally West is the alter ego of The Flash's sidekick, Kid Flash). Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker) discovers that Jay (Teddy Sears), the Flash from Earth-2, has a secret. The Earth-2 version of Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) reveals that he’s willing to go to extreme measures to defeat the evil speedster from Earth-2 known as Zoom in order to save his daughter (who comic book fans suspect may turn out to be the speedy hero Jessie Quick.)

And then there's the main storyline involving the arrival of a B-list villain from the comic books known as the Turtle (Aaron Douglas) a villain who has the ability to slow down all the objects, and people, around him, a power that he uses to commit robberies, kidnap Patty, and give The Flash a serious run for his money.

All of this works because this cast is so unbelievably good. In particular, Jesse L. Martin, Shantel VanSanten, Tom Cavanagh, and Carlos Valdes as Cisco manage to do the impossible. They make us care about their characters, care about their loves and losses, their struggle and their pain, but they do it with a lightness that also allows us to believe them when they talk about time travel, supervillains, and alternative timelines.

And leading them all is Grant Gustin as Barry Allen/The Flash. His performance in "Potential Energy" made me, for the first time, stop and realize what he achieves week in and week out, made me realize how he, even better than the rest of this wonderful cast, walks the tightrope between serious drama and hokey pulp superheroics. Stepping too far in either direction -- toward melodrama or toward sci-fi camp -- would send this whole show tumbling from the high wire. Gustin -- looking for all the world like the comic book version of Barry Allen just stepped from the pulp pages of an old Carmine Infantino drawing, what with his slight frame and oversized head and thoughtful, sad eyes -- is earnest, but never too earnest; he’s ironic, but never too ironic. I believe him when he’s mourning the loss of his mother, when he’s lovesick and sad, and when he puts on the red suit and says something that should sound ridiculous about the speed force or time travel, or breaches into another dimension. It is a weekly tightrope act that’s always exciting to watch.

That's my answer for why The Flash does the impossible, why The Flash succeeds where it shouldn't: Grant Gustin is just that good.

Ezra Miller has been cast to play The Flash in the character's big screen incarnation. "Good luck" is all I can say. Grant Gustin has created some pretty big winged boots to fill.

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