I've said it before and I'll say it again. Superheroes belong on TV, and nothing has proved my hypothesis more this year than the terrific debut season of the CW's The Flash, a spinoff show to their original hero series Arrow, but one that already surpassed it's parent show on every level in its smooth, slick, fun and non-stop entertaining example of the genre done right.
Traditional network shows are at something of a disadvantage in having to produce more than 22 episodes a year as opposed to the 10-13 episode number for most cable shows these days- it invariably leads to lots of filler hours, and the inevitable "freak of the week" one offs that have always characterized so many of the action-adventure/superhero crime dramas. But when done right, some classic shows were able to strike the perfect balance between serialized, ongoing arcs and entertaining, memorable standalones, so that both elements mixed smoothly, occasionally intertwined, and every single episode still felt like a can't miss, or at least an enjoyable entry. Some of my all time favorites at meshing these elements were Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars and The X-Files. You can go ahead and add The Flash to that list, and for me that's a pretty big deal. I was hooked early on and began looking forward to it every week, not least of all because it absolutely nailed what every successful show like this has always had to do first- we got a spectacular core cast and characters that you immediately fall for and care about.
That's really the most important factor to any series- and many don't often get it right. A cast needs to be able to gel and you have to feel like the characters are real in order to get truly invested. Marvel's Agents of SHIELD has struggled mightily with forcing anyone to give a damn about any of their characters, and even Arrow, from which The Flash was spun, hasn't been able to nail everyone in its core group aside from a couple of supporting standouts. But this show struck casting gold, starting with the title character. Barry Allen, the Flash himself is played by 24-year-old Grant Gustin, who's so naturally charismatic and likable at every turn that he can take anyone along for whatever ride he's going on. I defy you not to care about this kid. His couple of guest stints on Arrow Season 2 started the journey, but here he's asked to carry a series and he makes it look so easy that it instantly becomes hard to imagine Barry played by anyone else. As an 11-year-old kid who watched his mother be killed by a speeding blur of light, and his own father arrested for her murder, Barry grew up vowing to find out who really did it, only to be eventually struck by lightning and turned into The Flash, the iconic superhero who can run faster than the speed of light.
The premise of the show takes Barry as he wakes out of his coma with his new powers, and just runs with it (pun intended) placing him among an insta-crew of techies working out of "Star Labs" who help him to figure out how he can use his speed- a setup that was perfected on Arrow and carried over here, which gives him a supporting trio of sidekicks Cisco (Carlos Valdes), Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker), and the mysterious Dr. Wells (Tom Cavanagh, in a battle with Gustin and Jesse L. Martin for series MVP), and the chemistry between the characters is instantaneous and only grows over the season. Barry's also a forensic scientist for the Central City PD, where he works alongside his adopted dad Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), who he went to live with after his real father was arrested, and who is also immediately brought in on the Star Labs operation as Barry's devoted and supportive paternal figure. As a I said, cast chemistry is tops in a show like this, and the interaction between Barry, Joe and Wells especially (along with the scene-stealing Cisco, who basically functions as this series' Felicity Smoake) is instant perfection that most shows need to work to develop. The father-son relationship between Barry and Joe in particular is so genuine and emotional that it forces you to not to want Barry's real dad to ever be let out of prison (although guest star John Wesley Shipp, 90's TV Flash, plays him as a tribute and has some good scenes with his son from behind the glass window throughout the year as well).
Unlike other soaps on the CW, The Flash embraces the family dynamic of its characters, and works to maintain the affection and warmth between them, as opposed to melodrama and artificial conflict. We like the characters and their relationships so much that it helps to overlook anything that might not be perfect on the show (which I'll get to in a second) mostly because the actors are so good here that they sell everything that's happening. The one trouble spot, unfortunately, is again with the love interest, reminiscent of Arrow's struggles in that department. Barry Allen's iconic comic book love is Iris West (think of her as The Flash's Lois Lane, beloved by comics fans), and here she's Joe's daughter and Barry's best friend from childhood, played by the gorgeous Candice Patton. But once again, the show misfires in the typical superhero secret identity trope, making her the one person on the show to remain in the dark about Barry's identity for almost the entire season, thus placing her as the damsel in distress, who gets in the way instead of helping out, while the rest of the cast serves a function in Barry's quest to stop super powered bad guys in Central City (dubbed "metahumans" affected by the accelerator explosion that gave Barry his own powers). She's also saddled with a useless and boring boyfriend whose sole function is to act as a roadblock standing between the inevitable Barry/Iris union, and this one element is handled in a way seen a thousand times before, rather than the refreshing and honest manner in which the rest of the cast meshed into the perfectly oiled machine that the show quickly became.
But oh well- that story can always be fixed, and the show does take some steps to fixing it and bringing Iris into the rest of the gang where she belongs in the latter half of the season. It's hardly an irreparable blunder- I just wonder why they can't bring the love interest in on it from the beginning and make them an equal partner on these shows, rather than a hindrance to the action that goes on too long (although the one good thing to come out of it is the Superman/Lois Lane-esque flirting between Iris and The Flash in the first part of the season- I have to admit, some of those scenes were awfully fun). Other than the well developed cast and characters here, the tone of the show is pure comic book fun, and embraces the lightness, action, humor and full on costume antics (Barry's giddiness about his red suit is catching) that comics fans have wanted to see done onscreen for years. Marvel's movies do everything with a wink, true, but it's not done in a way that engenders genuine emotion for the characters the way they manage to do on The Flash, and the movies with virtually the same plots over and over again, tend to be forgettable. Here, we're fully invested in Barry and Co. as people, which makes the thrills all the more fun and memorable.
Because super-speed is a power that won't always lead to typical fight scenes (the Flash can't even land a punch), the writers are forced to come up with different ways for Barry to be heroic (saving every single person in a train before it crashes, carrying a bomb thousands of miles out of the city before it explodes) and the special effects deliver in this area (surprisingly, since the CW's budget can't be that huge). The freak of the week episodes lead up to and tie in its overarching villain story, who turns out to be Reverse Flash in a season long plot that incorporates that risky, loophole ridden sci-fi theme of time travel. That's right, The Flash is so fast that he can disrupt the space-time continuum, which when it's finally introduced, becomes a thrilling possibility that opens doors to all kinds of stories (already in my head I'm imagining several arcs involving the ongoing alternate universe lives of our characters, which I can't wait to see unfold in coming seasons), and the truth is I've never been so excited about the creative possibilities of a sci-fi show in years. But the stories wouldn't work as well as they do without the actors there to sell them, and I think I could buy Grant Gustin selling me just about anything- he's honestly the best male lead of a show in the CW's existence, and they probably only stepped away from their typical buff, late 20's, early 30's Calvin Klein-esque male casting model because of his puppy dog ability to charm the pants off anyone- even CW casting execs.
I'm so excited for the show to come back that I'm bemoaning the four month hiatus- this when most shows I watch now go off the air for a year before returning. The Flash was one of the best new shows of the season, so good it brought me back to network TV. Bravo, Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and the rest- you guys set a new standard for the genre that I'm willing to bet will outshine all of WB's upcoming dreary, cinematic takes on DC superheroes. This is truly where they belong.