‘The Flash’ Review: Pilot
That simple two-word exchange between Barry Allen and Oliver Queen sums up the joys of the pilot episode of 'The Flash.' The second straight DC Comics adaptation by The CW, the new series gets so many things right that it puts other small-screen comic yarns to shame. What truly makes this pilot episode stand out from the myriad of comic book-inspired television shows lies in its light touch. That’s not to say that 'The Flash' is a frivolous show by any metric. But the show realizes there’s more than one way to tell a superhero story, and that dour realism only takes you so far in the world of the fantastical.
That’s not to say that one is inherently better than the other. But there’s room for the Christopher Nolan approach as well as the James Gunn approach on the big screen, so why can’t there be similar shades of storytelling on the small screen, as well? It all starts with Grant Gustin, who may not be every comic fan’s vision of Barry Allen, but is instantly winning all the same as an earnest young man who isn’t afraid to demonstrate joy at the opportunity fate/freak lighting storm has delivered him. “Lighting...gave me abs?” he exclaims upon waking up from a nine-month coma, the kind of observation rooted in character instead of snark. If most superhero tales are weighed down with portent, 'The Flash' is lifted up by possibility.
Now, this being the pilot (you can read our early review here), that means there’s plenty of possibility for darkness on the horizon. (Just look at that cliffhanger, which we’ll get to presently.) But just as 'Guardians of the Galaxy' proves that humor and heroism are not antagonists, so does this pilot suggest that not every superhero television program needs to shy away from its colorful, comic roots in order to justify its existence. Rather than cover up those roots, 'The Flash' leans into them, both in terms of overt DC Comics references (such as Ferris Air Testing Facility, a nod to Carol Ferris from the 'Green Lantern' books, and the “Grodd” sign in the S.T.A.R. Labs basement) but also in terms of color palette and overall nimble storytelling. Rather than try to justify a plot about a guy who controls the weather fighting a guy who can run faster than the speed of sound, this pilot just pushes those two together and has fun with it.
That lack of pretension goes a long way towards making the audience buy what the show is selling. Yes, special effects have come a LONG way since the early days of 'Smallville' (a show to which many will undoubtedly compare 'The Flash'), but it goes far beyond selling the reality of a tornado onscreen. This pilot establishes a world in which earnest sentiment rubs shoulders with optimism, both of which fight cynicism more than whatever "freak of the week" that S.T.A.R. Labs’ particle cloud will unleash on a weekly basis. Are parts of 'The Flash' corny as hell? Absolutely! But Grant and company (especially Danielle Panabaker and Carlos Valdes as S.T.A.R. Labs employees Dr. Caitlin Snow and Carlos Valdes, helping Allen learn to fight evil) sell this earnestness in every scene. And quite frankly, after watching so many DC Comics-based entertainment strive for bleakness, 'The Flash' is a bracing blast of light.
It helps that the show understands the keys to creating the world upon which weekly stories can be told. Yes, we’ve got a season-long mystery to unravel. (And yes, I promise we’re getting to that newspaper!) But teasing that out for 22 episodes won’t make a good season of television. That’s a delay tactic posing as longterm planning. Instead, crafting standalone hours that form a whole is what will keep fans coming back week after week. And while the pieces 'The Flash' employs are hardly unique, there’s a good reason for this character-based architecture. Allen, as established in the crossover episodes in season 2 of 'Arrow,' works as a Central City crime scene investigator. This gives him frontline access to crimes as well as a grizzled-but-well-meaning-officer Joe West (Jesse Martin). Barry is in love with West’s daughter Iris (Candice Patton), but she’s dating a hotshot new detective Eddie Thawne (Rock Cosnett), who may or may not actually be a huge jerk/potential adversary for Barry down the line. West raised Allen after his father Henry was accused and convicted of killing Barry’s mother Nora (Michelle Harrison) 14 years ago. What we see in flashback, however, is an incident very similar to what happens in Barry’s office during the explosion at present-day S.T.A.R. Labs. The head of that facility, Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) serves as both Professor X and (maybe) Magneto, leading Allen to realize his potential as well as fulfill his fate in the wake of the explosion.
Got all that? Good.
Like most pilots, the one for 'The Flash' invests a lot of time in world-building. But unlike 'Gotham,' which goes over well-worn territory, this pilot does a great job in sketching everything in quickly for those that may have a vague sense of who The Flash is, but don’t have as much exposure to the character’s backstory. You could argue that all of these characters get short shrift, but that’s fine; the pilot needs to establish this version of Barry Allen, and that’s it. The fact that 'The Flash' understands the components it needs in order to support an entire season of television is encouraging, even if it doesn’t deploy all of those resources fully in this episode. (It took a while for Felicity Smoak to become Felicity Smoak, after all.) A show like 'Angel' only started to take off once the writers supplied its titular hero with a worthy crew around him. On 'The Flash,' Allen already has the infrastructure in place. We just need to get to know them in the weeks to come.
Okay, let’s get to that newspaper now. While I’ll continue to stress that teasing out future events at the expense of current action is deadly, it was still pretty freakin’ awesome to see the program tease one of the biggest storylines in DC Comics’ history: 'Crisis On Infinite Earths.' While I don’t think for a second 'The Flash' is going to actually depict the 1985 crossover series, it’s impossible not to get a little jazzed by the show referencing such iconic elements in its small-screen narratives. Both 'Flash Missing: Vanishes In Crisis' and 'Red Skies Vanish' seem to overtly reference this crossover, and while I doubt we’ll get a show on The CW that deals with multiverses and characters such as The Anti-Monitor, I love the ambition married to a rigorous television story structure. Toss in the fact that we’ll undoubtedly learn that present-day S.T.A.R. Labs will be (or already has been) involved with the death of Nora Allen, and you have quite the tale potentially unfolding at 8 p.m. each Tuesday night.
A few bullets about tonight’s episode:
- I’ll freely confess up front that I am a casual fan of comic books, and while a few overt references caught my eye, I’m sure many of you caught much more and will continue to do so as I cover the show on a weekly basis. I’ll promise not to be authoritative if you promise not to point out everything I miss in derisive manner.
- While I loved the shoutout to Gorilla Grodd, I can’t decide if 'The Flash' actually depicting that villain onscreen would be the greatest or worst thing in the history of The CW.
- I’m not a fan of the “keep information about your superhero secret from the love interest” storyline, but at least Joe already knows Barry’s secret. So that’s a start, I guess.
- "Why is it shaped like a lighting bolt?” “So it’s not boring.” I love this exchange between Caitlin and Cisco. “So it’s not boring” is a great justification for just about anything a TV show wants to put onscreen, in my books. Compare/contrast this with the 'Smallville' resistance to putting Superman in his costume, and I’ll take this any day. We know The Flash has a lightning bolt in his costume. Hiding it in the name of “realism” would be offensive and wrong-minded.
- Looking over The Flash’s rogue’s gallery doesn’t give me too much hope for future Big Bads, but maybe 'The Flash' has a take on Captain Boomerang that will blow my mind. Who knows? (Ed. note: Captain Boomerang will def. be appearing on 'The Flash')