Welcome to 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.
Episode 2, “Out of Control”
Originally aired: September 27, 1990
Tina’s former colleague is the main suspect when the bodies of murdered homeless people mysteriously disappear from crime scenes.
“Out of Control” is an odd second episode, with no transition from the pilot into an already-reshuffled status quo. Iris is suddenly MIA, with the throwaway excuse that she’s off in Paris and “probably not coming back.” Granted, she was a terribly unlikeable character, but her sudden absence finds Barry practically catapulted into Tina’s arms. The will they/won’t they is still played accordingly, thanks to the drama of Tina’s husband (and in this case, another courter entirely) but the already apparent jealousy that’s spawned from fasttracking the relationship rings false.
It’s also hard to determine what Barry and Tina’s “partnership” is supposed to be at this stage; is he helping her in the lab, or is she supposed to be his superhero back-up? Because in this case, Barry and Julio figure out most of the superhero mystery on their own, even with Julio not in the know. That said, Barry and Julio have a much more defined friendship, and they play off of each other very nicely. It will be fun to go through this series with Alex Desert as a regular.
As a single episode, “Out of Control” suffers some of the same problems as the pilot, with a really solid 2/3 of story until it flies a bit off the rails as soon as it becomes a comic book plot. Though skewing a bit too far into “Very Special Episode: Homeless Edition” territory sometimes, much of its dealings with the social issue are surprisingly nuanced. Barry’s compassion for Charlie (Scandal’s Jeff Perry, still yelling and surrounded with about as much murder as Cyrus Beene) feels genuinely heartfelt, in particular. It works because it’s grounded in a lot of guilt; rather than make Barry the embodiment of good deeds to make the audience feel bad, his motivation is much more personal. That Barry goes to his great lengths to help Charlie because he openly feels bad for his advantages tempers the “Very Special Episode” feel, since it pertains specifically to Barry’s character and doesn’t look down on the audience as a result. It’s an example of something we could do to help, but it doesn’t shame its viewers for not doing enough.
Where it fails is the villain. What begins as a mystery showing law enforcement’s—and the general public’s—problematic apathy towards those in poverty, slowly morphs into a totally misinformed metaphor. Cal specifically views the homeless as vermin that must be exterminated, so presumably the mutated Cal represents corporate America’s violent anger towards the lower class, or science’s blatant disregard for seeing them as human, or something. It’s a weird and inorganic shift in tone, boiling down the more complex issue of invisibility and apathy to “rich people are mean,” and that simplistic shift damages what the episode was going for. There’s certainly precedent for dealing with class warfare and wrongfully blaming the poor for society’s problems, but that element is tacked on in an all-too-obvious way, especially after so much care had been putting into making things distinctively not black and white. So when this turns into Cal’s “tragic” story of taking out his pent-up rage towards his poor parents on every homeless person ever, it deflates an otherwise strong episode big time.
Episode 3, “Watching the Detectives”
Originally aired: October 18, 1990
A crooked D.A. discovers the Flash’s civilian identity and uses that information to extort him into becoming his secret accomplice.
A noir homage, defined character arcs, classic secret identity crisis, and continuity references make “Watching the Detectives” great fun, even in light of a rather convoluted (though appropriate for noir) political plot.
Joyce Hyser as Megan Lockhart, the private detective that uncovers Barry’s secret, is the standout of the episode. Hyser plays a completely different vibe from the rest of the show, the key factor to bringing in the noir-style of perpetually sensual acting and breathy speech patterns. Though the cinematography doesn’t change much to match this noir homage, the score does, with a brilliantly jazzy theme that spreads from Hyser’s scenes into the rest of the episode. Lockhart is a fun character, so over-the-top with the noir detective archetype–and cartoon character, really, given all her silly disguises–that she seems more like a comic book character than The Flash himself does. While that would certainly be a fault in many other shows, The Flash is already working with such a tonal mismash that suddenly shifting to a noir style every other scene doesn’t feel that off. In fact, it’s exciting for the show to try being a bit experimental, which it has the capability to do given the otherwise generic cinematography and episodic nature.
The most surprising aspect of “Watching the Detectives” is how it mashes two typical superhero plots in one and makes them work. An entire episode could have been made out of Lockhart’s lengths to discover Flash’s identity–or nowadays, it’d be an ongoing story thread in the background–but instead we have her figuring it out surprisingly early on, and hilariously easily. It’s ambitious to out Barry so early in the series, and more realistic to point out that, as dumb as this show paints the police sometimes, it’s not as hard as one would think to put the pieces together about Barry’s origin. After having watched so many superhero shows after The Flash came and went, there’s an (admittedly unfair) sense that this show won’t surprise me, but it manages to shock not once, but twice–with Lockhart already on the trail right in the teaser, and then Lockhart definitively finding proof of the secret barely halfway in.
That brings us to the second plotline, which has DA Castillo blackmailing Barry into doing his bidding. This plot, where a corrupt person in authority uses the hero’s identity against him, is always great fun the first time it’s brought up in a superhero show. Smallville‘s episode “Rogue,” for example, is one of its best as it plays the formula straight; Arrow‘s episode “Damaged” heads in this direction, then unexpectedly subverts it before any blackmail can happen. But both of those have the authority figure essentially figuring out on their own or by accident; The Flash has Lockhart to bring a new level of character to the storyline. Lockhart’s transformation from unempathetic detective to Flash’s ally does wonders to make the episode tie together emotionally.
Where the episode falters a bit is dealing with Castillo, particularly the inconsistency of his level of villainy. For much of the episode, he’s portrayed as a guy in way over his head–emphasized by his demise at the mob’s hand–but his threats to Barry’s family, by way of throwing a live grenade at his golden retriever, are a level above. His over-the-top villainy sort of makes sense, in that he’s trying extra hard to be a scary bad guy even though he isn’t really. Except, again, he throws a grenade at a dog and threatens Barry’s nephew, a child. There’s no way the guy isn’t absolutely despicable, and unfortunately makes Barry weak for not getting angrier–like the creepy levels of anger he expressed in the pilot–and instead hopelessly going with the plan. In fact, it’s unnerving how much fun Barry appears to be having during the casino sequence; sure, he pulls a fast one on Castillo by donating all the money he collects, but there’s still the threat of grenade-dog and dead-nephew over his head. Much fun as this episode is, the sense of danger gets lost for a while, until Barry pieces together Castillo’s complicated plan.
That aside, “Watching the Detectives” is easily the superior of the two this week, thanks to its willingness to play with the tone. But The Flash has been solid in its first three episodes by not automatically subscribing to a specific villain-of-the-week structure; there are certainly villains each week, but these two episodes feature substantially different ways at attacking the plots. The show seems to be embracing the fact that Flash is not–or was not at that time–as clearly drawn or iconic as the mainstream heroes of the time. There isn’t a specific tone the general audience would expect like they would from Superman or Batman, so Flash can fit in a superhero story, sci-fi genetic horror, or a noir flick. Even without much of a hook for any serialized plot, simply seeing what dynamics the show will play around with next is exciting.
Next Week: “Honor Among Thieves” and “Double Vision.”
Odds & Ends
- I am so incredibly happy that Bellows and Murphy are recurring characters.
- It’s fun that Barry isn’t played as a genius, as evidenced by his silly and terrible jokes comparing scientists to TV judges at the presentation in “Out of Control.”
- Not a huge fan of Amanda Pays in “Out of Control,” where she has a hard time letting go of her stiffness enough to play Tina frightened or emotional. She does, however, work much better in “Watching the Detectives,” which embraces some of her pompousness for comedic effect. She doesn’t make a good damsel, but she totally fits as a scientist.
- So now S.T.A.R. Labs isn’t empty, since Tina apparently has an assistant. Right? I have no idea what’s up with that.
- What was with that weird religious guard guy in “Watching the Detectives?” That was totally out of place, wasn’t it?
- “What are you, king of the hobos?”
- “Can I help you?”
“Not unless you can cut, rinse and blow dry for under 35.”