As the starting point for the televised adventures of DC Comics’ scarlet speedster, the pilot for The Flash sits somewhere between workmanlike and overstuffed. Part of the reason is that this series premiere isn’t really the beginning for Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen. That came last year, in a pair of Arrow episodes that introduced the character as a wunderkind police scientist, a ridiculously boyish—this is a CW show, after all—sleuth with a tragic past and a love of all things superhero. This spin-off, then, has to expand upon and recontextualize Barry’s Arrow appearance, which ended with him being struck by a fateful bolt of lightning, into something that is solely his story, while also introducing the rest of the regular cast, setting up the requisite soap opera elements, telling a condensed version of a Flash superhero story, and hinting at more serialized narrative threads. All that, plus Barry’s best friend Oliver Queen might just stop by to wish him luck.
With so much to accomplish and so little time in which to do it, the premiere never stands much chance of telling a unified, coherent story. Instead, the Flash pilot works as a Whitman’s sampler of plot points that can develop into story arcs over the course of the season. There’s Barry’s journey toward becoming this universe’s first true superhero, one that he embarks upon with his tech support allies at S.T.A.R. Labs. There is his nascent to nonexistent romance with Candice Patton’s Iris West, Barry’s comics-approved love interest. There is the unsolved mystery of the murder of Barry’s mother, a crime for which his wrongly accused father (John Wesley Shipp, who played the Flash in the 1990 TV version) remains in prison. There is the looming threat of those who gained powers from the same particle accelerator explosion that gave Barry his super-speed. There are hints of outlandish science-fiction elements that go far beyond anything yet seen on Arrow. There’s even a smattering of police procedural in here, because apparently every show needs at least a smattering of police procedural these days.
Because the Flash premiere gamely attempts to service all these disparate elements and provide some rudimentary character development for its ensemble, it doesn’t work nearly as well as the Arrow pilot as a discrete unit of storytelling. But The Flash shows far more potential here than Arrow did in its early days, and a lot of that comes down to tone. Arrow’s series premiere gained narrative momentum by examining what Oliver Queen’s miraculous return after a five-year disappearance—and the simultaneous arrival of a murderous, anti-corporate vigilante—meant for his loved ones and his city. The show benefited from that relatively tight storytelling focus, but its initial tone was little more than a Dark Knight rehash.
Over its past two seasons, Arrow has become superior television by forging its own identity as something more operatic and far more fun than Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, and The Flash–which shares a sizable chunk of its sibling show’s creative team—carries over that sense of madcap joy found at the heart of so much comic-book storytelling. Indeed, The Flash makes clear that it is a more lighthearted show than Arrow, consciously contrasting Barry’s optimism and remarkable powers with Oliver Queen’s darker, more violent skill set. In selling Barry as a hero, the show also faces the practical challenge of proving that it can pull off the Flash’s super-speed on a relatively limited CW budget. Based on the pilot, the results are encouraging, if only because director David Nutter is smart about knowing when to splurge on special effects and when to strategically shoot around Barry’s superhuman velocities.
Emboldened by Arrow’s popular success, the Flash premiere doesn’t shy away from introducing some of the goofier elements of the Flash mythos; where Oliver took as much as an entire season to embrace his role as hero, Barry does so by the third act. Encouragingly, however, the episode is not entirely bound by the conventions and assumptions of superhero storytelling. The antagonist is a clear analogue for a member of the Flash’s comic book rogues’ gallery—a colorful, fascinating assortment that rivals those of Batman and Spider-Man—but the character does not think like a supervillain. As he reveals in a pivotal confrontation, his sudden acquisition of superhuman abilities has led him to a logical, disturbing conclusion, but it isn’t the one that comic book fans might expect. It’s in moments like that in which The Flash shows Arrow’s willingness to deconstruct, even subvert superhero tropes, and that instinct bodes well for the show’s chances to break new ground in its very crowded genre.
Where The Flash may need the most work is in differentiating itself from its sibling. There are only so many ways a CW show can combine a superhero, a childhood friend turned potential love interest, and the police, but the arrangement of Barry, Iris West, and her father, Detective Joe West, is basically identical to that of Oliver Queen, Laurel Lance, and her father, Detective Quentin Lance; the fact that Law & Order veteran Jesse L. Martin plays Detective West doesn’t exactly help the familiarity of the setup. As the Flash, Barry depends on a support team that isn’t a million miles away from Oliver Queen’s crime-fighting comrades. The question here is whether The Flash can find enough specificity to overwhelm these structural similarities, and a lot of that comes down to characterization and performances; on that score, there are no particular acting standouts in the premiere, but they’re at least serviceable, with plenty of potential to grow into their roles. And, for all its storytelling faults, the Flash pilot is never generic, and it makes plenty of strong choices—just a few too many of them. Crucially, if this pilot demonstrates anything, it’s that The Flash is going to be fun, and that’s just the kind of promise to make to audiences while the show still works out the nuts and bolts of its narrative formula.
Reviews by Scott Von Doviak will appear weekly