In 1985, Greg Berlanti was a 13-year-old kid living in New York, decades away from being labeled “Power Producer” on the cover of Variety, chronicling his ascension from a 25-year-old working on Dawson’s Creek to a 42-year-old with six different TV shows scheduled for the 2015/2016 season (Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, Mysteries of Laura, Supergirl, Blindspot). Back in ’85, he was simply growing up with his sister, father and mother, gradually becoming aware of his homosexuality. He was just getting into comic books, particularly drawn to Barry Allen as The Flash. However, that was the year of DC’s continuity-resetting event known as Crisis on Infinite Earths in which every single character from every possible alternate dimension was essentially gathered together and mowed down until only one version of each character was left standing. Barry Allen didn’t survive, and Berlanti took the news hard, telling KCRW’s Elvis Mitchell, “He died and I remember [reading it and] crying in the comic book shop, and the comic book store owner looked over at me and said, ‘It’s not free.’”
That might seem hopelessly naïve. Comic book companies routinely purge themselves of unwanted characters and continuities and start all over again, nakedly vying for new readers while invariably angering long-time customers. DC Comics just did it in 2011 with the New 52, and Marvel is doing it right now with The Secret Wars. Plus, no one of any importance stays dead in comics forever. Barry Allen eventually came back in 2003 and was used as the key character setting off the events transitioning into the New 52. But back in 1985 something like Crisis on Infinite Earths was mind-blowing, and the death of Barry Allen was devastating. It turned Berlanti into a superfan, “I fell in love with the character. [Crisis on Infinite Earths] was the ultimate sacrifice.“ He circled back and read older Barry Allen Flash comics, and his fandom survived into adulthood when the first picture he downloaded on his first iPhone was of The Flash.
There was another long-time character killed off in Crisis on Infinite Earths, Supergirl. Like Barry Allen, she didn’t come back for over 20 years. She now has her own show which is being produced by Greg Berlanti, and it has already become a social media hit (or at least topic of debate) months before its network debut. However, that’s a show WB TV pitched to Berlanti. Making The Flash, on the other hand, is far more of an example of a man fulfilling a lifelong dream, “[The Flash] didn’t have the strength or the power necessarily of the other heroes at the time, but he had the heart of a hero. I was so emotionally connected to him.”
That emotional connection is what Berlanti, along with co-creators Andrew Kreisberg and Geoff Johns, have transferred to The Flash. Or at least I know I feel very emotionally connected to the show. My heart broke at the sight of Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen standing over his mom and tearfully declaring, “It’s me. It’s Barry,” in the the season finale.
Yes, you might be suffering time travel paradox whiplash at this point. For example, [season 1 spoiler alert] in that scene I just said broke my heart we are watching an adult Barry Allen who has traveled back in time and is attempting to protect his mother (who obviously wouldn’t recognize him since the Barry she knows is just a little kid) from a vengeful time traveler from even further in the future who succeeded in killing Barry’s mom in the original timeline but then was unable to return to the future so he assumed someone else’s identity and laid low for years before engineering the accident which gave Barry his powers in the first place. Oh, yeah, also, that guy pretended to be Barry’s mentor for pretty much the entire season.
And now cue the Austin Powers joke about confusing time travel logic:
However, at the core of that time travel dilemma is the deeply emotionally resonant story of a boy trying to save his parents, each of whom suffered a tragic injustice, the mom murdered for no reason, the father falsely imprisoned. Bruce Wayne commits his entire life to honoring the memory of his slain parents as does Spider-Man with his Uncle Ben. Barry Allen actually has the chance to prevent his parents from ever experiencing their tragedy. It’s one of those juicy sci-fi moral dilemmas: Would you change something in your past if you could, regardless of the cost?
This is a culmination of a journey which pre-dates The Flash. We first met Barry as an adorkable lab geek at roughly the halfway point of Arrow’s second season. We watched him stand up to broody Oliver Queen, rooted for his nascent romance with Felicity, and were left on the edge of our seats when he was struck by lightning and left comatose before disappearing from our screens until the first episode of his own show. Those who hadn’t been following casting notices were scouring the internet for answers when Caitlin Snow and Cisco Ramon showed up in a later Arrow season 2 episode and referenced some girl named Iris being at Barry’s bedside every day of his coma. We were stunned when The Flash pilot trailer released by the CW at the 2014 network upfronts looked almost on par with actual comic book movies.
The anticipation was already monumental when the lucky folks at San Diego Comic-Con in July were treated to a screening of The Flash pilot months before its network debut. Meredith Borders reasoned in her review for BirthMoviesDeath, “There’s no denying that this is a CW show, and I know there are some of you who can’t abide the teen-friendly CW style. But The Flash has a warmth and a joy to it so often missing from the modern, grim superhero landscape. It’s bright and beautiful, and Grant Gustin plays Barry Allen with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that is impossible to dislike […] What I loved best about the episode, what struck me much deeper than the mysteries and the effects and the love triangle, is simply the way it feels. It feels warm. It feels fun. It feels bright and quick and lighthearted. It feels like The Flash, who’s never really been a brooding, self-serious hero. It’s the right show for this character, and I suspect it’s the right show for me, too.”
Like Arrow and Smallville before it, The Flash was an instant hit, its pilot turning into the most-watched telecast in The CW’s history. Those ratings have predictably come down over the year, but the show is still the new crown jewel of The CW’s line-up, frequently beating ABC’s far pricier Agents of SHIELD in the 18-49 demo, even SHIELD’s legitimately awesome 2-hour season finale.
At the time of The Flash’s premiere, critics like Maureen Ryan published thoughtful essays praising the producers for “knowing that great visuals and exciting adventures aren’t enough: They get that these stories need emotional weight and relationships worth investing in to truly take flight.” Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post argued The Flash (and Jane the Virgin) should be the beginning of TV’s rediscovery of niceness, “demonstrating that the conflicts produced by good intentions are just as gripping as the misdeeds of people who conceal their worst selves rather than conquering them.” Now that the first season is over, Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen has picked The Flash as the best new show of the year, and The AV Club and Collider have each published first-season retrospectives applauding the show for bringing fun back to live-action superheroes.
Everyone points to the fun tone (aided immensely by Blake Neely’s infectious musical score), the impressive special effects often realized with help from feature film people slumming it because they love the character, the rate at which the show cycles through its storylines, and the strong performances from most of the leads, with special praise reserved for Grant Gustin, Jesse L. Martin and Tom Cavanagh. On the downside, Iris West has been a constant source of criticism, oddly fitting into modern TV’s wet blanket syndrome (although now that she’s in on Barry’s secret…), and despite their great enjoyment of the show the AV Club wanted to make sure we all realize where The Flash stands in relation to TV’s truly great dramas:
It’s very easy to oversell The Flash, so let’s be clear here. The Flash isn’t The Americans, or Mad Men, or Game Of Thrones, and though it’s every bit as delightful as its network-mate Jane The Virgin, it’s not as inventive or as skillful. The show isn’t especially complex emotionally or narratively, and while it hasn’t produced an awful episode, even its best weeks have glaring weak spots […]The plotting can be a little sloppy, and the overall premise a little too niche to recommend to a general audience.
This calls to mind a recent exchange I observed in the comments section of an article about The Flash. One reader left a basic “I love this show!” comment causing another to reply, “I let my kids watch it, but I don’t see what an adult could get out of watching it. Why would anyone over the age of 15 watch The Flash?” Someone else jumped in and pointed to Martin and Cavanagh’s performances and the season-long mystery surrounding Harrison Wells as evidence for material which can appeal to older audiences, but somebody else badmouthed all of the internet shipper-baiting (for either a Barry/Iris pairing or Barry/Caitlin pairing) and so on and so on.
The suitability of The Flash to anyone above a certain age is something I have personally grappled with. When one episode featured a bee-themed villain speaking only in bee-related puns it was very much so in keeping with the Silver Age Flash comics Greg Berlanti loved, but it made me feel like I was watching a kids show. Then Barry fought a giant psychic gorilla for an entire episode, albeit a gorilla who is one of Barry’s biggest enemies in the comics, but, still, a giant psychic gorilla! At times like that The Flash reminds you that its main goal is to simply be fun and entertaining.
If you long for something a little more adult there’s always Daredevil and SHIELD, but those shows aren’t nearly as suitable for little kids. I recently used Hulu to show my 7-year-old nephew and 3-year-old niece an episode of The Flash, and it was invigorating to see how quickly they were sucked in. They ran in place, pretending they were zooming around Central City, much as little kids seeing the Christopher Reeves Superman movies fashioned make-shift capes and “flew” around their loving rooms and back yards.
If the fundamental goal of the superhero narrative is to capture the imaginations of little kids, then The Flash gets that part right, converting an entire generation of new fans, not just via Barry’s heroics but also in the endlessly amusing ways he uses his speed to work around the more mundane parts of the day. However, The Flash’s true super power is the realization that the best special effects are emotional. Barry Allen can look down at his mom and cry and it breaks our heart. He can go to a karaoke bar and break out into “Summer Lovin” with a very drunk work Caitlin and we’ll laugh. He can hang out with his own Scoobie gang, Caitlin and Cisco, at a bar where they realize his super powered constitution means he pretty much can’t get drunk anymore and leave us wishing we could be at the bar with them. Heck, Cisco often gets to be the audience surrogate, over-joyed at how cool everything is and making the same types of pop culture references many of us would (like Terminator and Back to the Future coming to mind to help explain time travel).
All of this is by design. Berlanti told KCRW, “In the comics, The Flash wore his heart on his sleeve. He couldn’t believe that he had these abilities. He tried to make a relationship work with Iris. In its light-heartedness, it was revolutionary […] Our hope was that we would craft a show that had that same kind of emotional accessibility and fun.” Mission accomplished.