Welcome to our first installment of Friday TV Flashback Reviews–a new part of our TV Flashback series, where we’ll be doing more in-depth, episodic looks at shows from the past! With CW’s The Flash now airing, we’ll be looking back at the 1990 iteration of Barry Allen from beginning to end every Flashback Friday. Check out our review of the current The Flash pilot here!
Episode 1, “Pilot”
Originally aired: September 20, 1990
For a chunk of today’s audience of CW’s The Flash, the most iconic iteration of the scarlet speedster is probably from the Justice League animated series, where Wally West provided both comic relief and some of the best moments in superhero media. But the producers of our current live-action iteration are fully aware that they aren’t producing the first live-action TV show with Flash at the center, as evidenced by some inspired casting. 1990 saw the first iteration of a primetime TV show about Barry Allen called The Flash, a one-season wonder that, while perhaps not as ingrained in public consciousness as other superhero shows, has certainly left its mark on the character.
I hadn’t seen a single episode of the show until now, so the fresh eyes should provide a good measurement of how well the show really holds up, without nostalgia goggles. So far, the results are positive: there’s plenty of 90s cheese and a few missteps, but overall, the 90-minute pilot movie holds up exceptionally well. In fact, the pilot is structured so well that it could function just fine as a standalone TV movie, even if it never went to series. Part of that is because everything about The Flash in its debut strives to match its successful big-budget film predecessors, which at the time were essentially only comprised of Superman and Batman (a stark contrast from the overstuffed superhero film genre nowadays.) With the Superman film series already having been run into the ground, it was the more recent Tim Burton iteration of Batman–which had only come out a year prior–on everyone’s minds. And boy, does it show.
In fact, this version The Flash at this stage already has more in common with Arrow’s genesis than the actual spin-off/remake of the scarlet speedster. Both came on the heels of successful and influential Batman films, and drew inspiration from them for their reimaginings. Like Arrow took on the grounded, gritty, and violent tone of Nolan’s Dark Knight series, The Flash mirrors the strange, moody whimsy of Burton’s Batman proudly. Now, Oliver Queen and Bruce Wayne have fairly similar stories behind them, but Flash is a profoundly different superhero from Batman. It results in a tonal mishmash in The Flash, at least in its pilot, but one that that still works in the same sense that Batman’s zanier aspects didn’t take away from its seriousness. The darker lighting mixed with neon pinks and oranges, flamboyant costumes, wide open sets, and a loud, nigh-cartoonish Danny Elfman-esque score in The Flash are ripped straight from Batman‘s ridiculous juxtaposition. But that juxtaposition serves to highlight the contradiction that is The Flash as a character, a bright red muscle-suited blur that somehow exists in this dystopian version of Central City.
Visually this pilot is certainly dated, what with its grainy and generic cinematography and, to say nothing of all the horrendous baggy clothes. But the pacing and characters don’t feel as such, necessarily. While perhaps not as slam-bang fast as action shows are nowadays, the pilot never slacks, every scene introducing a new character, fleshing out an integral relationship, or exploring Barry’s powers. The dialogue is exceptionally snappy and well-delivered, with a slew of clever one-liners (many listed in the “odds and ends”) that are more hit than miss. The comedy also lands more often than not, as it should in a Flash series, even if it hasn’t quite pinpointed if it wants the humor to be silly, cheeky, or adult.
It doesn’t feel fresh, per se, but it’s much in line with what we’d expect from the typical structure of a first superhero film up until the late 2000s. And even then, the main difference in superhero films today is how much more jam-packed and fast-paced they are. The archetypes we still see today are present in The Flash: Barry Allen has flaws and things he needs to overcome, and after gaining superpowers and losing a loved one, he learns how to overcome those flaws. There are love interests providing personal drama, parents giving helpful advice, secret identity escapades, and a villain with ties to the hero and that represents the very reason the hero was created.
John Wesley Shipp is exceptional in the role of Barry, even if his bulky stature isn’t what most would expect for a character usually portrayed with a smaller frame. But Shipp’s biggest superpower is just how darn likeable he is; he plays the emotions naturally, and while he’s not perfect, he seems like a good guy you want to root for. The key characters and relationships are all introduced through Barry, a simple mechanism that allows this pilot to be functional without feeling tedious. We meet a whole slew of important characters, and with the pilot playing out more like a movie than a TV show, there isn’t an obvious gameplan for who the central characters will be. Amanda Pays and Alex Desert are the only series regulars from here on out, but you’d never guess it from the pilot, which gives integral roles to Paula Marshall as Iris West, Tim Tomerson as Jay Allen, and M. Emmet Walsh and Priscilla Pointer as Barry’s parents, as well. Desert gets some fun scenes with Barry as his partner Julio, and the two share a friendly chemistry, but he’s generally overshadowed by the other recurring characters at this point.
Amanda Pays as Tina McGee is still the breakout, though, mostly for being such a different kind of female lead. While there’s no hiding the intentional chemistry between she and Barry, it’s not remotely the focus, especially with Iris and Tina’s dead husband as the big walls. While Pays is occasionally a bit stiff, she balances a solid amount of detachment with enough spark for the incoming will they/won’t they material. The show takes a different route with Iris, Barry’s comics-inspired love interest, and it’s unclear how we’re supposed to feel about her. Despite the lengthy scenes between Iris and Barry, she’s largely pointless outside of crafting a wall for a potential Barry/Tina relationship, and Shipp and Marshall don’t have much of any chemistry. There’s a sense that Iris just isn’t all that into Barry—she barely seems to like him in most of their scenes—and it’s not a great start to her character. Conversely, though, it’s pleasing that Iris isn’t the one begging for marriage to a scared man, which is how these things usually play out (even if she does unfortunately come dangerously close to being “the shrew” at points.) Also worth noting is that neither Tina nor Iris are set up as a damsel in distress throughout this entire pilot, which is unfortunately a pretty big accomplishment for superhero media.
Jay’s existence in and of itself is interesting, in that it fits with today’s trend of reinventing and condensing the supporting cast. Jay Allen is an obvious analogue for Jay Garrick, the first Flash in the comics and Barry’s predecessor (not unlike Arrow shaped Mia Dearden into Oliver’s sister, Thea Dearden Queen.) The age gap between Tomerson and Shipp is a bit odd, but they sell their bond well enough for the death to be tragic. The death is obvious for anyone who knows superhero tales’ penchant for tragic sacrifice, but the relationship is built up enough (and it takes so long to get there) that the show builds false hope that he could survive.
The Dark Riders are rather weak villains, and there’s little to say about them. They’re certainly functional, and they’re clearly the product of the pilot’s tonal mishmash—a motorcycle gang is grounded and relatively realistic, but a giant army of renegades run by a vengeful, scarred former policeman who models himself after Genghis Khan is a bit much. Props for tying Pike into the main characters, and even attempting to flesh out his mook (Lila), but this might be a case where the show would have been better off minimizing the villains’ use and spending more time with the much more entertaining protagonists.
That said, Barry’s arc in the pilot admittedly isn’t perfect. The problems with his family are more often implied than shown; it’s insinuated many times that that his role in the crime lab and not a beat cop like his brother have caused his family to be overprotective (excusing the fact that Shipp is built like a tank.) There are points suggesting Barry harbors an inferiority complex—the pre-CSI audience doesn’t think forensic investigation is cool yet, so Barry is publicly insulted by the media for not being a “real” detective. After he gets randomly struck by lightning and doused in chemicals—which we can forgive the total out-of-the-blueness of since it gets things moving—he wants to get rid of the powers, even though he specifically wanted to be seen as a stronger person. But it’s all overshadowed by the third factor in his transformation: Jay’s death, which is what prompts him to accept the responsibility.
One could argue that Barry’s quest for justice is what brings his sense of responsibility to the forefront, both as the new firstborn and as a protector, and it’s likely that this is what they were going for. It’s inventive for the show to not stick to a single motivation for Barry becoming the Flash, but it only throws out little nuggets of possible motivation that don’t particularly play out or tie together to their fullest, or contradict the previous motivations. The “real detective” bit plays out okay by letting Barry and his partner Julio use crime lab to identify Pike as the villain, but the last thirty minutes are focused on making Flash intimidating in spite of the silly suit, and he plays less like an avenging superhero and more like a vengeful vigilante. Perhaps because Flash’s motivation for being a hero isn’t as iconic as “avenging the murder of his parents,” or “with great power comes great responsibility,” it’s hard to nail down why Barry becomes The Flash, the superhero. It’s more true-to-life, perhaps, but is a problem when his final battle is so pointedly angry and vengeful, and it’s too specific and dark to represent overcoming his inferiority and accepting responsibility.
The interrogation scene, for example, almost seems like a rip-off of The Dark Knight, but somehow 20 years earlier—we even have Barry yelling “Where is he?!” in full-on Bale Batman voice. There’s also a point when Barry coldly says in that scene, “Take off her clothes. Send her to the crime lab,”—which is creepy on way too many levels. The upside to this is that John Wesley Shipp is so darn good at making Flash intimidating, which is quite a feat. But the downside, and this pilot’s big flaw, is that it ends on that note. Barry’s big triumph has him attempting to straight-up murder his brother’s killer in full revenge-filled violence mode, and that’s how the superhero is created. All the “I am vengeance” stuff works with Batman because grief and trauma are part of his very existence; it feels fabricated on Flash, especially given how much the pilot builds up Barry as a level-headed and charismatic everyman. Shipp is charismatic enough that it doesn’t feel like that dark of an ending, and it doesn’t stop us from rooting for the guy. But The Flash isn’t really a “superhero” yet, so making his first outing one of him on a grief-filled revenge kick blunts the ending.
And yet, while those are problems hamper the pilot considerably, they only coalesce in the last thirty minutes. The actual Flash stuff is the weakest part, but it’s to be expected considering time needed to be spent on the characters, even if at the cost of a more satisfying villain and plot. And The Flash is aces when it comes to the characters. The first hour is a highly enjoyable surprise, well-paced and well-acted throughout. Even without much of a hook at the end, the dynamics are rife with space to explore, particularly this odd pseudo-triangle between Barry, Tina, and Iris. More importantly, I want to come back to hang out with Barry Allen some more. It’s easy to build a world around a central character, but it’s surprisingly hard for superhero TV shows to make their good guy so immediately charming but still give him enough flaws to be interesting. Barry’s motivation for putting on the hood may be a little wonky, but you can’t help but fall in love with the guy and want to see what he does next. That, frankly, is enough to keep me coming back next time.
Next Week: We dive into the crime detective formula with “Out of Control” and “Watching the Detectives.”
Odds & Ends
- Welcome to The Flash! Now that we’ve got the lengthy introduction to the show out of the way, things ought to be much more concise from here on out. We’ll be reviewing the classic series with fresh eyes every Friday in clusters of 2-4 episodes each week until our current Flash series goes on hiatus. This show is available for purchase on Amazon Prime, the WB Studios YouTube, and on DVD—so follow along if you can!
- A ton of the sillier comedy is derived from Earl the dog, but it all lands. Hopefully Earl sticks around throughout the series.
- The special effects aren’t amazing, but they aren’t as terrible as one might expect. The lightning strike and the practical effects as Barry crashes into the beach are solid.
- Still confused that Tina is the only person who works at S.T.A.R. Labs. Does she mean just that location? Just that one room? It’s really odd.
- Even though it’s still 90s comic book science, the show deals with the real-world implications of superspeed nicely. In addition to the speed destroying clothing and lighting shoes on fire, Barry’s apartment-cleaning backfire, where his speed tornado tears up everything he just cleaned, is exceptionally clever. Smallville made lots of accomplishments with superspeed effects and the science of some powers over a decade later, but didn’t even touch on the implications this pilot goes in-depth about.
- I sincerely hope Linda Park is a recurring character. It’s a rare case of a character being awful and clearly made for the audience to hate, but it’s kind of fun seeing her say blunt things to the characters.
- The Flash suit is silly with its painted-on abs and oddly fuzzy-looking texture, but man is the full suit lightyears better than the prototype, pre-hood and logo. Jay’s death scene is almost ruined just because of how Barry looks in the early suit.
- The energy sapping side-effect of Barry’s power never fully makes sense, and is clearly a cheap way to put him in danger in place of Kryptonite. Hopefully they don’t overuse this easy out.
- “Ginseng? Isn’t that some kind of aphrodisiac?”
- “You’ve been exposed to highly volatile and explosive chemicals. You’ve suffered abraisions, lacerations, and head trauma.”
“Oh, in other words cuts, bruises and a headache.”
- “I can’t believe I’m still hungry.” – The line itself isn’t funny, but Shipp’s deadpan delivery of it as he stares at the multitude of food scraps that would clear kill a person sells it.
- “You don’t fire a gun without a bullet in the chamber.”
“I have a bullet.”
- “How would you act if you got hit by lightning?”
“Oh, I’d probably go out and buy weird boots.”
- “He was as red as blood, wasn’t he? And fast. Like a flash.”
- “I realize having an unhappy childhood really led you to all of this, but that’s really no excuse.”
- “Did you see the red ghost?”
“Sure did, Bellows, and I’m Marie Antoinette.”
- “I couldn’t run like your dad, but I’ll be there in a flash.”