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 6, “Sins of the Father”
Originally aired: November 8, 1990
A bank robber escapes from prison. He goes back to Central City to get his money and revenge on the cop who busted him, Henry Allen, Barry’s father.
“Sins of the Father” is something of an apology for “Honor Among Thieves,” it seems, and that’s a good thing. It hits many of the same beats, with a much better integrated main plot and satisfying use of its spotlight character, Henry Allen.
Daddy issues are abound here, but instead of some haphazard professor dad-surrogate, we deal with Barry’s father directly, and as a character. That’s what works best about this episode–as much as it’s about Barry coping with threats on his family and making his father proud, it’s also about Henry’s own frustrations with age. Henry is fleshed out seriously as a character, not just a cipher for Barry’s issues. That should be a given, but making parents merely fodder for tragic backstories rather than actual characters is a common trap for superhero stories to fall into. Compare this to the current The Flash, actually, where so far Barry’s parents have only been exactly that: devices in his tragic backstory and a goal for Barry to pursue. We know absolutely nothing about Henry or Nora Allen other than their involvement in the mysterious origin story murder. That will hopefully change as that show progresses–especially with John Wesley Shipp on their roster, too–but until then, classic Flash has the one-up.
No one can argue with the greatness of M. Emmet Walsh, either. It’d have been a tragedy if this episode didn’t thoroughly explore his character. Henry is a lot like Barry, in the sense that the man has a serious inferiority complex; unlike Barry’s need for parental approval, Henry is simply afraid of being an old man. The episode has Henry do some really, really stupid things, but Walsh’s performance never lets Henry himself come off as an idiot. He’s stubborn and a bit boneheaded, but he’s fully aware of the dangers. And the episode absolutely does not let him off the hook, making even his most triumphant moments peppered with devastating consequences, particularly the death of his friend. Walsh gets some wonderful moments as Henry steadily slinks into depression, and it yields a satisfying arc for him in the episode.
Barry gets some validation that’s much more satisfying than “Honor Among Thieves,” too. The climax of the episode is the result of Barry handing his dad a gun and inviting him to go after Hicks, Henry’s nemesis, together. At first this appears to be a plan for Barry to yank his dad out of depression by getting him action on the field with the help of The Flash. But it becomes clear that Barry actually, legitimately just wants to beat the living hell out of the man that’s terrorized them. It’s a shocking turn for the episode, but still one that’s very poignant: Barry and Henry finally find common ground in their anger and frustration, and Henry sees how Barry can face the same problems as a cop as he did, crime lab or not. They don’t just hug it out and go fishing together. They realize they’ve both seen the dirtiest, darkest parts of Central City and have had to confront them head-on. Barry and his father have both gazed into the abyss, but now that they’re doing it together, it might not gaze back anymore.
Episode 7, “Child’s Play”
Originally aired: November 15, 1990
A 1960s drug icon who faked his own death and went into hiding reasserts himself by unleashing a new addictive designer drug on the world.
“Child’s Play” is my personal favorite episode of the show thus far, despite the fact that it doesn’t have nearly as much depth as its previous installment. This is an episode built on sheer fun and weirdness, appropriate considering it’s an episode featuring two children in major roles. Making precocious homeless orphans befriend superheroes is very, very easily a set-up for disaster, and everything about this episode would point to that being the case. But the strange, whimsical tone with just enough tinges of darkness make all this work. That, and really smart casting in the main kid.
Jonathan Brandis as street urchin Terry is a highlight of the episode, which aired right around the time his career would be breaking out with the It miniseries and The Neverending Story II in the next few months. Brandis was the type of actor who never quite became a household name, but was definitely a face you’d recognize just for the sheer volume of roles he had across film and television. Brandis tragically committed suicide in 2003, and his role in this episode is one of many examples of why that was such a big loss. Terry admittedly isn’t much different from the typical “wise beyond their years street smart kid” Brandis excelled at, but he’s exactly why this episode works. Terry is incredibly annoying and frustratingly precocious on paper, but Brandis has a knack for making the adult-speak sound totally real, but still retaining the sense of tragedy in his character. It’s horrifying that a 13-year-old is so aware of the horrors of Central City’s underbelly, but he’s also just really damn cool, sort of a proto-John Connor from Terminator 2.
This might be the first time a villain on The Flash has really worked, too. Don’t get me wrong, Jimmie Skaggs as Beauregarde Lesko is the epitome of over-the-top, not helped by the odd choice of animated effects for the “Blue Paradise” drug and terrible visuals on his high. But this entire episode is so off-the-wall and generally funny, so this otherwise stupid and silly villain fits in just right. And what’s not to love, really? This is a group of insane, evil drug-addled hippies with a plan to “spread his gospel to share his dreams and nightmares,” supported by an equally over-the-top electric guitar motif that’s also sometimes supplemented by a sitar. The music on The Flash is always…unsubtle, to say the least, but “Child’s Play” makes damn sure you’re aware of what you’re supposed to be feeling. Normally that’s a very, very bad thing, but the loud boisterousness fits into an episode where The Flash plays superspeed guitar or gets so stoned he phases through a wall. What in the world?!
There isn’t much to say about the episode, really, since there isn’t all that much to it. The children are funny, but there’s still enough tragedy in Terry’s responsibility and forced growing up that it’s satisfying when he and his sister find a good home. The Flash works as a heroic figure when he’s allowed to come face-to-face with children and show off his powers, and he also works as an intimidating one when he’s saving them. And all the action is cheesy and silly, but never feels out of place in context. The Flash couldn’t do an episode like this every week, but like “Watching the Detectives,” it’s refreshing in how well it handles other genres and tones.
Episode 8, “Shroud of Death”
Originally aired: November 29, 1990
Barry puts together bits of metal found at crime scenes and discovers that they form a neo-fascist group’s medallion, with Lt. Garfield as the group’s next target.
“Shroud of Death” is the weakest of this trio of episodes, and it’s a good example of how spoiled we are on TV now. This has all the workings of a good episode–a major fleshing out of a supporting character, a potentially rich villain, potentially new directions for both Tina and Julio–but it squanders most of it, if only because of the rules of TV in 1990.
The Flash is barely a serialized show by 1990s standards, which means there’s going to always be a need to go back to the status quo even in the face of solid character development. This is most evident in what unfolds with Julio, as we see him intelligently put the pieces together about Barry and discern that he’s The Flash. It’s really fun to see Julio’s various reactions, actually, and it’s the best material Alex Desert–who’s generally fun to watch–has gotten. So it’s a really big disappointment when the show backtracks in the last two minutes, even though it’s only a disappointment because this is 2014. Compared to Arrow and our current iteration of The Flash, where things move briskly and character revelations stick, this is a failure. But in 1990, this is totally normal, and how Barry gets out of it is what we’re meant to hone in on. In this case, he just goes at hyperspeed to run in his Flash costume and get back in the same place before Julio turns around, a simple but clever solution to the identity problem. Consider that even Smallville dragged out its identity reveals for years–Lana Lang wasn’t 100% in on the secret until freakin’ season 7, so it’s not any surprise Julio doesn’t shake up the status quo in episode 8. In that respect, it’s totally fine because it gets things back to normal again, but it’s a stark contrast to how important identity reveals and major plot upheavals are today. It actually makes shows that had to function without those gamechanging plot twists more admirable for still managing to tell compelling stories.
That said, “Shroud of Death” isn’t a great example, as it’s only marginally compelling at certain points. It’s shocking when Mavis is shot, and Lt. Garfield gets some good rage-filled moments like his “I quit!” bit on the rooftop. But the way women are treated in this episode is also a product of the time, unfortunately. It’s not that overtly bad or anything, and in fact there’s merit in featuring a female villain operating on her own accord. One major problem with Angel as a villain, though, is that Lora Zane just isn’t very good in the role; her “I’m dead inside” line is cheesy enough as it is, but she hams it up to the worst levels. And Barry’s comment about her eyes being filled with hate just doesn’t work when Zane mostly fails at choosing if she’s supposed to be overly-emotional and rage-filled or emotionless and cold. Her entire character revolves around anger over the death of her daddy and carrying his legacy–which is, again, not necessarily a problematic trait, but doesn’t help to make a weak actress and character any stronger.
The other women are the major problems, though. Tina has managed to only be the damsel in distress once so far, which is quite a feat, sadly. And while this episode doesn’t break that rule, it still has her almost literally asking Barry permission for her to take a job elsewhere. The intention is probably to have her trying to draw out Barry’s feelings for her, but it definitely doesn’t play off like that. Instead, she’s naggy about getting an answer out of Barry, which she apparently needs to make the decision (to which she says no, because of Barry, I guess?) and it doesn’t exactly play up their sexual tension. It’s a boring and mostly pointless storyline for Tina, and doesn’t really yield anything at all. Mavis, on the other hand, is a really delightful character with an entertaining chemistry between she and Lt. Garfield. The problem is, just like so many comic books, she’s seriously injured and nearly killed simply to prompt drama and development out of one of the male characters. She lives through it, which lessens the blow quite a bit, but it’s still a sad truth that her entire conception was to give Garfield tragic fuel to provide drama rather than be a character. That’s frustrating, but also a reminder of the rising awareness of the treatment of female characters in the media that’s come about in the last ten or so years. “Shroud of Death” isn’t a terrible offender, but it’s definitely a product of 1990, and it hasn’t aged well as a result.
Next Week: Three more before we can fully jump into the delight of Flash’s real rogues gallery, but still some gimmicky comic book stuff to tide us over until then with “Ghost in the Machine,” “Sight Unseen,” and “Beat the Clock.”
Odds & Ends
- Really odd music cues in “Sins of the Father” for Hicks. There’s a western twang whenever he’s onscreen, but he’s not exactly a western-type villain. He’s just kind of a generic evil guy, who honestly doesn’t live up to the evil-level they hype him up to be.
- Weird uses for superspeed this week: Drilling an eight-ball into a pool table as an intimidation tactic (what?) and super pole vaulting (double what?)
- Apparently Barry was the first Allen to go through college. Solid character tidbit.
- Henry asks why The Flash doesn’t show his face, and while normally we’d have the hero coyly saying “Maybe he’s protecting his family” or whatever, Barry’s response is simply…”Maybe he will.” What could that mean?
- The murdered reporter in “Child’s Play” was famous for what sounds like an “Arkham expose.” Except the subtitles on Amazon spell it “Arcam,” but I’m going to pretend that’s a typo.
- Then again…”Child’s Play” also features Batman and Superman playing in theaters, with a cheeky line from Barry about “getting enough of that stuff.” So apparently this DC Comics show that’s based heavily on a DC Comics movie does not actually take place in the same universe as that DC Comics movie. I know they weren’t expecting a crossover, but…this is still kind of a comic book show faux pas, isn’t it?
- So, the blue crystal meth from Breaking Bad is totally based off the Blue Paradise from The Flash, right?
- “I don’t need a babysitter, especially you!” – Sounds like it’d come right out of “Child’s Play,” but this is actually from “Sins of the Father.”
- “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” *EXPLOSION*
- “Send me to jail. Save me from another bleeding heart!”
- “Never disturb me when I’m laughing!”
- “I don’t have a mommy.”
“Oh, that’s sad.”
“Isn’t it? I’d feel better if you gave me $100.”