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The Flash Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Now, before I start, let me just say that whilst it may often appear that I'm taking the proverbial out of this show, I did actually thoroughly enjoy it and will definitely return to it in the future. It's just that there is so much to ridicule with The Flash that it is very difficult to resist the temptation to have a pop.

    Released onto TV screens way back in 1990 for just a single season before having the plug rudely pulled on it, The Flash took one of superhero-dom's lesser crusaders from DC's stable and gave him his shot at live-action celebrity in a fairly faithful, and surprisingly lavish, production that gained some considerable following, despite being shunted around the network in differing time-slots due to the coverage of the first Gulf War. Although a major comic-book fan, I never rated The Flash in cartoon form because of his lousy name, lousier costume and, well, lack of variety in abilities. Yeah, he could run really fast, but so could Daley Thompson and he didn't need little wings on the side of his head. But, in all honesty, I probably never gave him much of a chance as I was devoutly enraptured by Batman and Spider-Man who, for me, were just the ultimate in costumed crime-fighters. Thus, I had never even seen an episode of this show until the boxset arrived for review. And, Flash-fans, you'll be pleased to know that the red-blur quickly became a joy to watch and an alarmingly addictive show that had me viewing into the wee small hours - the time, like the star of the show, just whizzing past.

    “I know you mean well, but stick to your test-tubes.”

    Adhering to his comic origins, a freak accident sees police scientist Barry Allen (John Wesley Shipp) struck by a crafty bolt of lightning that results in his being doused with a cocktail of chemicals. His subsequent metabolic mutation makes him the fastest man alive, able to run so fast that he can create his own sonic boom. Even his eye/hand co-ordination is considerably enhanced with him able to perform tricks like manipulating the games in a casino, catching a bullet before it hits its target or even, the bane of every hero's life, doing the housework. When his brother, a fellow cop played by B-movie fave Tim (Trancers) Thomerson, is killed by a crazed biker in the feature-length pilot episode, Barry decides to don a costume and mask and use his new-found powers to get even. The pilot covers a lot of ground in suitably breakneck fashion, providing all the backstory that we need and lending the show a smart foundation with its introduction of all the regular characters. The easy and likeable narrative and the thematic tone adopted effortlessly sets up The Flash's noble heroics and also his dedication to the day-job, nailing all the elements that will become mainstays of the fun-packed series to follow.

    “I gave up believing in miracles when I saw my father's Santa Claus suit.”

    Aided in his crusade by Amanda Pays' badly acted Dr. Tina McGee (sounds like a naff 80's pop starlet, doesn't it?), the only other person who knows his true identity, Barry Allen takes to the streets in a heroic campaign against crime that sees him become the saviour of Central City in much the same way as Batman defending Gotham and Superman wrapping his heart around Metropolis. Picking up leads to bizarre cases, alongside fellow Crime Scene scientist Julio Mendes (Alex Desert), and then following them up in his spare time in a prototype heat-resistant suit designed by Tina, he swiftly makes a name for himself in episodes that see him in action as the Flash roughly every fifteen minutes or so. There is a glorious whiff of nostalgia in the way that the writers and directors handle the material, almost a throwback in style to the go-get-'em attitude of the George Reeves Superman Adventures of yesteryear. And, similarly, The Flash's enemies in the first cluster of episodes tend to be the typical mobsters, hitmen, motorcycle gangs and trigger-happy robbers that many a novice superhero cuts his teeth on. Oh, but there is an inventive early story that sees a mad scientist injecting the homeless with a DNA-serum that has their faces expanding with Rick Baker-influenced air bags and prosthetics, and even a German Shepherd Dog transformed into a raging werewolf-sized beast, that took me quite by surprise.

    “What is noble about running around in a Halloween costume? You should see a psychiatrist!”

    But, as much as the show hinges upon its titular character winning the day, its more effective moments actually come in the form of a steady stream of sight gags, witty dialogue and the ever-winning formula of a group of regulars who become the family that audiences cling to with this type of programme format. We get repeat villains, two bumbling in-house cops called Murphy and Bellows and a gruff Lt. cut from the same mould as Axel Foley's boss, and then, of course, Barry's long-suffering parents. His father, another cop, this time retired, is played by the irascible M. Emmett Walsh, and the pair have some good scenes together, as well as an entire episode devoted to their own joint investigation to find an escaped convict with an grudge against the family. Erring on the humble side, Barry's love life is forever in crisis, a situation that the cool Julio seeks to rectify with an endless series of blind dates. But besides that, his relationship with boffin Tina follows an obvious, and inevitable course, their will they, won't they? romance throughout the entire season a reassuring tease upon which to hang many a comical misadventure. That a dogged lady detective called Megan Lockhart (played by the distinctly unattractive Joyce Hyser) unearths The Flash's real identity, too - and surprisingly early on in the season, I might add - leads poor Barry into a delicate love triangle that lasts right up until the end of the series. But this plot thread is actually very well written and acts as a great alternative to the slam-bang stuff that can often get in the way of the cosy, soap-ish affairs of the heart. Moonlighting's free and casual attitude to love and adventure is a sure influence in this department.

    “I'm living proof of what love can do.”

    “Yeah, well lab fumes can do the same thing.”

    In the role of The Flash, John Wesley Shipp looks the part all right - tall, dark and muscular. But he's smart enough to goof up the character with numerous foibles and faults, making the Barry Allen side of things endlessly affable and with charm to spare. The thing is, he's doing what amounts to a big Mel Gibson routine, his non-costumed alter-ego a complete amalgamation of every Gibson character you've seen larking about and not actually handling a gun. The facial mannerisms, the goofy gesturing and the entire physical attitude is a pot-pouri of Gibbo's comedy schstick, but it's not a problem, however, as it suits the part and helps to keep the tone light and frothy and the tongue wedged firmly in the cheek. Amanda Pays, though, is one of the show's serious downsides. A truly awful actress with that irritating English accent and lips like a special effect - honestly, try not to cringe when you see how they attempt to peel over her teeth whenever she says the name Barry, which she does in virtually every sentence. In fact, you'll be amazed at the sheer number of times The Flash's real first name is dropped into the script. Did the writers think that we may forget it, or something? And another annoying thing is the way that everybody seems to know him - from lowly hobos and restaurateurs to priests and politicians. It's always, “Oh, hi Barry,” and “Barry, how yer doin'?” For a guy who wears a mask when he's not cooped up in his lab, he sure is well-known. The Quincy Effect of having the star meddle in things way beyond the point at which his duty would normally end is wholly evident, as well. I know that it is probably the easiest route to take in such a formula, but it just feels so convenient each time he becomes embroiled in a mystery that the regular cops should be dealing with. But hey, without him sticking his nose in, there'd be no show, would there?

    “You know, Barry, not only are you fast ... but you're nice, as well.”

    Another element that is flawed is, wait for it ... the costume. Come on, you've got to admit that the clobber for The Flash is a little underwhelming. In fact, it's a howler. It may be true to the comics - well apart from the yellow boots, that is (or the helmet he wore in his World War II incarnation) - but it just looks ridiculous. All that bogus muscle-padding, the cowl that looks like a balaclava cut up by a five-year-old and, of course, those terrible little go-faster wings glued onto his ears. Shipp must have dreaded putting it on. The problem with any superhero costume is its inherent absurdity when translated from comic-book to live action. Burton's Batman narrowly avoided this, but still looked daft whenever he ran through the streets. Another red-garbed hero is Daredevil and, once again, his movie-image (and I liked the film a lot) was simply not a patch on his turn-page origin. But here, the saving grace is undoubtedly the jokey, cavalier approach to The Flash's heroics that takes the sting out of the daftness of it all. Besides, he's moving so fast it would be hard to point at him and laugh.

    “Thanks, Red. I needed that.”

    The enormous amount of food that he must consume to keep his accelerated metabolism in top condition is a good element, and there are many cool scenes featuring him speed-feeding. In fact there are tremendous gags revolving around his powers in every episode, from manipulating games in a casino, to entertaining toddlers in a nursery, but the cleverest are often the most mundane of activities that, when speeded up, become hysterical. My favourites have to be Barry pacing impatiently up and down and wearing a scorched hole in a waiting room's carpet and, best of all, the sight of him tossing and turning with lustful thoughts on his mind whilst part-time lover Megan is in the next room. The notions of an X-rated version must surely have cropped up in the writers' discussions many, many times. The special effects can often be pretty good, too. A lot of scenes of Barry zipping around a room, tidying things up are quite clever and effective. Likewise his sudden departure from a shot, leaving others in his red-blurred wake, their hair whipping up in his slipstream. But many of the bigger, broader action scenes are lacking in credibility. Just watch whenever The Flash is engaged in a fist fight to see what I mean. The villains are mostly homicidal and have normally offed a few innocents before he gets to them - the show is surprisingly violent and contains a hefty bodycount - but once The Flash has them at his mercy he tends to just tie them up very rapidly, or run around disarming them until they are exhausted and blinded by the red haze that has enveloped them. It's a little unsatisfying to see the lack of payback that The Flash dishes out - especially when the crooks have often hit very close to home. Thus, the show can be uneven in its depiction of brutality. It's okay for the bad guys to use crossbows, knives and guns and to run people over, blow them up and hang them, but allowing The Flash to hit someone seems to be a big no-no. And, given that there's the odd steamy moment and a few innuendos too, it's puzzling as to who this show was primarily aimed at. Still, it packs plenty of surprises up its scarlet sleeve and throws in the odd curveball now and again to keep everyone happily engrossed.

    “It's like The Flash draws them out of the woodwork.”

    Coming after Tim Burton had resurrected the Bat and proved the popularity of superheroes once again, the show's creators Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo cannily elected to utilise some marvellously familiar facets from DC's better-known avenger in drafting Danny Elfman in to compose a main theme for The Flash and even Shirley Walker to handle the actual music for the show. Walker would go on to produce splendid scores for Batman: The Animated Series, too. They also concocted a brilliantly vivid and atmospheric look and design for Central City, the urban milieu in which The Flash battles crime. Expertly blending together the real-life locations of the streets in which it was filmed with comic-book sets, like laboratories and evil lairs, and then lighting them up in a bright and colourful cartoon three-strip style keeps the show visually captivating. The alleyways may be draped in thick shadow, but you can bet that somewhere there is a garish neon strip illuminating it like an 80's pop video. The residue of the decade that taste forgot permeates much of the show - the fashions, the characterisation, the guest stars - yet not to its detriment. The concept of the overall look appears to follow the Batman pattern of neo-noir. We have forties-era cars trundling about, mobsters on the take and blind news-vendors acting as street informants like they did in all those vintage thrillers, but the cutting edge of technology - as it was at the time - is very much in evidence, too. Computers are used prevalently, high-tech weaponry is often brought to bear against The Flash and there is plentiful use of experimental sciences on both sides of the law. But, once again, it is the visual aesthetic that distinguishes the show. The use of flamboyant wall paintings across many of the sets - usually of eccentrically stylised people very reminiscent of the opening titles of The South Bank Show - is a particularly nice touch, adding background surrealism to Central City. The police station, Barry's lab, the courts, the hospital and even the backroom of a shady survivalist store all have these strange murals. But this is nothing compared to the fantastical roster of colourful characters inhabiting the vibrant playground of The Flash.

    “I can't believe it, Murph. The Flash has gone bad!”

    With a special guest star list that brings in such luminaries as David Cassidy as the Mirror Master, Jason Bernard as a retired superhero from the 50's called Nightshade and Luke Skywalker, himself, putting the ham in Hamill as The Trickster, the show certainly bagged some eclectic names to populate its fast-tag antics. The Trickster, however, is a pure Joker/Riddler hybrid which has Mark Hamill chewing the gaudy scenery as a magician turned maniac with absolute relish. After this portrayal, it can be no surprise that he went on to voice The Joker for the superlative Batman Animated Series. Appearing in two episodes, including the season finale, he even gains a Harley Quinn-esque sidekick in the form of his number one fan, calling herself Prank. This latter half of the series is actually the most fun. It becomes gradually wilder and more outrageous as the writers try to bring in more and more weird and wacky baddies for The Flash to deal with, seemingly jettisoning the half-reality aspect of relatively normal villains for the much more entertaining spontaneity of comic-book-inspired storylines. However, whilst this lunacy is always good fun, the end result is prone to lapsing into farce. Having The Flash tripped up by ball bearings and then glued to the road smacks more of Wiley Coyote than the superheroics we've come to expect. And the fast fun and frolic nature of the show seems to go into overdrive, as if the creators suddenly realised the correct way forward was in the crazy comical approach. Alas, just when they got the format sorted CBS mishandled the show and it sank before another season could be commissioned. Which is a terrible shame as The Flash hit the ground running, juggled a quirky ahead-of-its-time concept and just gained momentum all the way, before slamming head-first into a TV executive stacked brick wall.

    Well, I loved the show. Amanda Pays is a severely bad component, but I admit that even she grew on me to the point where I couldn't imagine the show without her. And, to be honest, there is one terrific episode called Tina, Is That You? in which she spins that whole upper class bitch routine on its head with some cool quips and a personality switch that raised more than just my opinion of her. Overall, this is a great series and certainly a one-off. Well recommended.

    The set comes in a gorgeous gatefold box emblazoned with images from the show and from the comics, too. The discs have a Play All option and contain all 21 episodes plus the feature length pilot.

    Disc 1 contains The Pilot, Out Of Control and Watching The Detectives.

    Disc 2 contains Honour Among Thieves, Double Vision, Sins Of The Father and Child's Play.

    Disc 3 contains Shroud Of Death, Ghost In The Machine, Sight Unseen and Beat The Clock.

    Disc 4 contains The Trickster, Tina Is That You?, Be My Baby and Fast Forward.

    Disc 5 contains Deadly Nightshade, Captain Cold, Twin Streaks and Done With Mirrors.

    Disc 6 contains Good Night Central City, Alpha and The Trial Of The Trickster.