A Casual TV Fan's Guide
The Flash, part one
Rated: N/A :: Air dates: 1990-1991
By Dan Toland
21 February 2008 I was interested once, not too long ago, in watching the Fantastic Four cartoon from the 1990s (having missed it entirely due to having a job that kept me out of the house when it aired), but didn't want to actually pay for it. A friend suggested I get a disc from Netflix, watch a couple of episodes and get on with my life.
Disc one arrived in my mailbox a couple of days later. After what I can only describe as enduring a couple of episodes, with a theme song that will haunt my nightmares, I found myself telling this same friend, "Dude... that was ass."
To which he replied, "Well, yeah. It sucked pretty hard at first. It picked up in the second year. You should have gotten, like, disc four or something."
"You didn't say that."
"You didn't ask."
And so on. TV shows on DVD are popular enough that Hollywood went on strike over them. However, they can get pretty expensive, especially if, like me in this scenario, you're not a diehard fan of the show in question and just want to watch an episode or two. I therefore present to you possibly the most important thing you will ever read in your life: if I'm not going to buy a TV series, what discs should I order from Netflix?
The Flash: The Complete Series
Episodes / DVDs: 22 episodes on six DVDs
Starring: John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen / The Flash, Amanda Pays as Tina McGee, Alex Desert as Julio Mendez
Featuring: Richard Belzer as Joe Klein, Mike Genovese as Lt. Garfield, Vito D'Ambrosio as Bellows, Biff Manard as Murphy
Probably the first comic property to see the light of day after the huge success of the 1989 Batman film, The Flash aired on CBS during the 1990-91 TV season. I spent that year in geek rapture on the increasingly rare occasions I was actually able to watch the show. The Flash spent the year getting preempted by Persian Gulf War coverage and NBA games, getting its ass kicked routinely by The Cosby Show and The Simpsons and, then, it got bounced around the schedule with little or no warning beforehand. After low ratings and a reported $1 million / episode production cost, the series was cancelled after a single season.
Now, you're not going to watch this show because you're deeply interested in the state of dramatic television in the early 1990s. You're watching this because you want to see a guy in a red suit run really fast. And for what it is, it's a good show, if very inconsistent. Some of the bad episodes will make you bury your face in shame, but the good episodes are really fun. The cast is perfect for the material, especially Shipp (Dawson's Creek), who has buckets of charisma, and looks like he's having a pretty good time as the Flash, despite a costume that can't have been comfortable. He and Desert (from Becker, as Barry's lab partner Julio) have an especially good rapport with each other; they really sell the friendship between the two, despite their scenes together usually being relatively brief. The only real exception is Pays (Max Headroom) as Tina McGee (who, yes, is a Wally supporting character, not a Barry one), who's not awful, and has chemistry with Shipp, but is pretty wooden. She can recite techno-babble and crack an occasional joke just fine, but if she's asked to do much more than that, she flounders a little.
Comic trivia and name-checks are sprinkled liberally throughout the show. For example, in the second episode, a radio calls in for backup at "the corner of Gardner and Fox." Another episode has Tina waiting for a phone call from Doctor Carter Hall. That's become way overused now, but this show was the first time this had really been done to any extent, and at the time I remember being pretty jazzed. "Hey! I know what they're talking about and no one else in my family does! On an unrelated topic, I wonder why I don't have a girlfriend?"
The special effects are decent (especially for the time), and when the show runners remembered that they had a whole comic book universe to draw ideas from in the second half of the show's run, there are some really great stories to be had here. The main theme is by Danny Elfman you've undoubtedly heard it in a hundred movie trailers, and it's almost identical to his Batman theme and Shirley Walker scored the episodes, who went on to write the music for the DC Animated Universe. Central City looks amazing. It's definitely influenced by Anton Furst's Gotham City designs, but it's considerably brighter, with lots of neon and pastels; it's very Art Deco. Whereas Gotham looked like a really impressive set, Central City looks for the most part like an actual city. Oh, and I can't believe I used to dress the way these people are dressed. It's 1990: Balki vests for everyone!
Technically, the transfer is okay, but not fantastic; there's a lot of grit and scratches on the film. Also, there are no special features. None. I counted them. But what I'm mostly going to talk about is the content of each episode on a disc-by-disc basis, going over the plot, the good stuff, the less good stuff, any random observations I make and, finally, whether I think the disc as a whole is worth your time assuming that you're only getting one disc. This will be as spoiler-free as I can make it, but within reason I assume you'll realize the Flash wins at the end of every episode.
Writers: Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo
Guest starring: Tim Thomerson as Jay Allen, Paula Marshall as Iris West, M. Emmet Walsh as Henry Allen
The Plot: Central City is being terrorized by the Black Riders, a motorcycle gang led by Nicholas Pike, a former motorcycle cop and the ex-partner of police scientist Barry Allen's brother, who, coincidentally, is appointed leader of the task force organized to stop Pike's gang. Meanwhile, Barry gets struck by lightning and bathed in chemicals, giving him the ability to run faster than the speed of sound. (He's not as fast here as he was in the comics. He's not traveling at the speed of light; 770 MPH is still pretty fast, though.) He goes to STAR Labs to try to find a way to get rid of this, as the speed brings with it extreme fatigue, blackouts and an insatiable appetite, which Barry has to figure can't be good signs. He changes his mind when Jay is killed, and fashions the identity of the Flash in order to bring Pike to justice.
Good Stuff: Almost everything. This is a well-written pilot episode that avoids most of the clunky exposition inherent in pilots, and is also a (reasonably) mature handling of a superhero story, which nowadays we expect, but was rare at the time. It has a lot of humor, but it's humor that arises naturally from the plot, and isn't forced or campy in any way (at one point, Barry tries to clean his apartment using superspeed, but the wind he kicks up keeps sending everything flying all over the place, and he eventually gives up in disgust). The speed scenes, especially the first ones that take place out of costume, and therefore can't be covered up by the signature red blur, are very convincing.
Not So Good Stuff: Except for his haircut, which might be the funniest ever seen on network television (It's a mullet! It's a ponytail! It's a mullet and a ponytail!), Michael Nader brings nothing to his role as Pike except for a bad Clint Eastwood impersonation. Every line is snarled through gritted teeth. Fortunately, he's not actually on screen all that much.
The "bad guy killed my brother and that's why I fight crime" thing is nailed on and unnecessary. The pilot goes out of its way early on to establish that Barry works in the crime lab (this was before CSI, so the crime lab was still uncool) because he promised his mother he wouldn't become a street cop like his father and his brother, but that he still wanted to keep the public safe. This is something that really feels tacked on because of Batman's success.
Random Observations: There's a scene where Tina is going over the glories of the red suit with Barry (it can withstand the pressures of speed without tearing, it insulates him, it probably makes toast) and he's wearing most of the Flash suit, except for gloves and mask. At this point, it never looks like anything except a big inflatable foam suit. Which is unfortunate, because it looked pretty good most of the time.
This episode introduces the wonder and glory that is the team of Murphy and Bellows, two beat cops that float in and out over the course of the series, providing much of the show's comic relief. They are pretty awesome.
This episode marks the only appearance of Iris West, played by Paula "Hey! It's that chick from that show!" Marshall. Another thing that is really only seen in this episode is the blackouts that Barry suffers. His metabolism is touched upon over the series, mostly for the comedic effect of the sheer amount he has to eat, but the weakness that hits him at inopportune times here largely goes away, without any explanation.
Overall: This is a solid pilot that does its job of introducing the characters and setting up the premise. The material is treated seriously and money was clearly spent. This is well worth your time.
Out of Control
Writer: Gail Morgan Hickman
The Plot: Homeless people are dying mysteriously across Central City. Meanwhile, a college friend of Tina's is in town on a lecture tour about his work in genetic manipulation. Coincidence?
Good Stuff: There's some inventive use of speed effects in this one.
Not So Good Stuff: The missing / kidnapped / experimented-on homeless story has become a fairly common one, popping up in Batman: The Animated Series, Doctor Who, comic books and a number of other shows. The familiarity takes away from it, even though it's not the writer's fault that this became a bit of a clichι within a few years.
What is the writer's fault, however, is the lack of suspense; if you want to create doubt in the audience's mind about who the bad guy turns out to be, you really do need to have more than one main guest character that week.
Oh, and the bad guy Hulks out. Twice. I swear to God. He even gets the green eyes.
Random Observations: Barry gets a little winded after superspeeding twice in this episode. It won't happen again.
Overall: This isn't an awful episode those are coming but it's kind of blah.
Watching the Detectives
Writers: Howard Chaykin and John Francis Moore
Guest starring: Joyce Hyser as Megan Lockhart
The Plot: A private investigator discovers Barry's secret and sells it to a crooked DA.
Good Stuff: Joyce Hyser (Just One of the Guys) gives a fun performance as PI Megan Lockhart. She'll be back for a couple episodes later on.
There's a scene of Barry using his powers to wreak havoc in a casino, which is pretty amusing (and which offers us our first glimpse of Barry going what he seems to think is "undercover," which is to say he puts on sunglasses and a goofy accent. The series returns to this, with varying results).
Not So Good Stuff: I want to punch the actor playing DA Simonson in the face. Forcefully and repeatedly. He's awful.
There's one particular speed scene at the end that is a very good concept, but the execution is a little cheesy. (If you accept the technical limitations of the time and appreciate what they were going for, however, it's a cool bit.)
Random Observations: Yes, that Howard Chaykin. He was made a producer, and will go on to co-write or plot another eight episodes with comics scribe John Francis Moore. (We will come to know them as "most of the good episodes."
Overall: This was a decent episode. They got the prerequisite "bad guy learns the hero's identity" episode out of the way early, and did a reasonably good job with it. Shipp and Hyser work well together, and the producers wisely brought her back for two more episodes.
Disc one has an excellent pilot, one mediocre episode and one pretty good episode. Even if you don't necessarily need to start at the beginning, this is a good disc to watch if you just want to get a feel for the series.
Honor Among Theives
Story: Howard Chaykin and John Francis Moore
Writers: Milo Bachman, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo
The Plot: Six bad guys are in town at the same time that the Death Mask of Rasputin a really creepy, but still quite cheap-looking, piece of artwork is in the Central City Museum. When the police catch wind of it, virtually every cop in the city is sent to the museum to guard the mask, leaving the rest of the city wide open.
Good Stuff: For the first time some thought is put into how the Flash's mind processes information. If he moves at superspeed, and is able to perceive everything normally at that state, then his mind must be racing constantly. Barry has a hard time shutting his brain off, and it's affecting his sleep and his work. This is a side to the Flash that doesn't get explored very often and it's cool that it's addressed while he's still making adjustments to his powers.
There's also a really nice subplot concerning Barry's estrangement from his university archaeology professor.
Not So Good Stuff: Nothing especially bad. It could be a little more interesting. There aren't any roadblocks or obstacles in the Flash's way; bad guy comes onscreen, Flash dispatches bad guy in a minute or two of screentime. There's no thought or cleverness to it.
Random Observations: Clarence Clemmons (Bruce Springsteen's sax player) is one of the bad guys. I spent the whole episode saying, "I know I know that guy."
Overall: A solid, if unspectacular episode.
Writers: Jim Trombetta
The Plot: A mad scientist finds a way to gain control of the Flash during the Day of the Dead festival in Spanish Hill, Central City's Latino neighborhood.
Good Stuff: It ended.
Not So Good Stuff: So... so very much. The depiction of Latinos in this episode just feels wrong on so many different levels. Hispanic street gangs in zoot suits. Crazy santeros who look like Keith Richards and hand out chicken feet. The people of Spanish Hill communicating through graffiti. "These people, they're ignorant, superstitious." Yeah, that's an actual line!
Even if we choose to discount the vague racism, this is a terrible script, delivered by some of the worst guest actors you'll ever see.
Random Observations: Trachmann's sunglasses seriously have to be seen to be believed. (That does not constitute a recommendation to put yourself through the pain of actually watching this.)
Overall: This episode may give you rabies. Or scurvy. Or some sort of rabies / scurvy hybrid.
Sins of the Father
Writers: Stephen Hattman
Guest starring: M. Emmet Walsh as Henry Allen
The Plot: Johnny Ray Hix escapes from prison and targets the cop who put him away Barry's father.
Good Stuff: Here we have the returning M. Emmet Walsh playing the same loudmouth asshole Walsh always plays. Walsh is one grouchy bastard, but dude can act. He radiates "retired-cop." He and Shipp play off each other well; Henry has no respect whatsoever for what his son does (he doesn't see Barry as a real cop), and Barry desperately wants his dad to accept him. It leads to some great scenes.
Not So Good Stuff: Henry Allen, a decorated policeman, has a conversation with a man in a red suit, who has his son's height, build, voice, posture and eyes. And who, like his son, could out-chin Bruce Campbell. Yet he doesn't make the connection. Not even a little bit. (I know, suspension of disbelief. But still.)
Overall: This is a pretty good one. It doesn't make up for "Double Vision," but it tries really hard.
Story: Stephen Hattman and Gail Morgan Hickman
Writers: Howard Chaykin and John Francis Moore
The Plot: As a new designer drug hits the streets, murderous hippies are after a juvenile delinquent who stole notes belonging to an investigative reporter.
Good Stuff: The episode has a few meta touches; the writers are winking at the audience from time to time. They don't overdo it.
The script has some good lines in it, and wisely gives a lot of them to Lesko (Jimmie Skaggs from Puppet Master), the main villain. He's not a great bad guy, but this is the point where the producers seemed to start to get that the villains make or break a show like this.
Not So Good Stuff: In case you didn't catch it from "The Plot," Central City is under siege by hippies. That's okay, though: the Flash saves us all through the power of rock. No, I'm not kidding.
Random Observations: For the only time during the whole series, Barry vibrates his molecules and passes through a wall. Classic.
Overall: This is a tremendously goofy episode. Sometimes it's fun goofy, but not always. Sometimes it will fill you with shame for the families of everyone involved. There are worse ways to spend an hour, but there are times when you have to turn your head and not watch. John Shipp is a very, very, very good sport.
Disc two has one good episode and two fair / decent episodes, but another one is the most painful 45 minutes I've ever spent outside of a hospital bed. This is definitely not the disc to start with.
As we can see, The Flash began life as a truly inconsistent thing struggling to find its footing; uncomfortable as a crime drama, uncomfortable as a fantasy. Superheroes on primetime television had long had a difficult time of it; Batman was a success because it embraced high camp and became a comedy viciously satirizing its subject (although not as much as we like to remember; read a mid-1960s issue of Detective Comics to see just how closely the show paralleled the comics), and The Incredible Hulk virtually ignored its comic book roots entirely to become a hybrid of The Fugitive and Jekyll & Hyde. All other attempts to bring superheroes to TV were either short-lived failures (Nicholas Hammond's Spider-Man, Reb Brown's Captain America) or afternoon children's entertainment (George Reeves' Adventures of Superman, which I am absolutely not knocking).
The producers of The Flash are clearly still finding their footing here. They fall into the timid trap of having their hero go up primarily against gangsters and thieves, not wanting to alienate the non-comic fan audience by having too many fantastic elements on the screen. However, as we'll see next week, they do begin to figure out that if you have a guy that runs fast, you need to give him something comparable to go up against. It's not a coincidence that next week will find the team of Howard Chaykin and John Francis Moore beginning to be heard from more and more.