TV GEMS: The Flash (1990-1991)

Just before he races back onto the small screen, how does this first attempt at Barry Allen’s alter-ego hold up?

He’s been around since 1940, had many artists and writers, and been a member of the Justice League, yet The Flash has remained somewhat of a B-character for DC Comics. The general public may recognise his signature lightning bolt logo – no doubt thanks to the likes of Sheldon Cooper – but the hero in all his forms – be it Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, Bart Allen or Wally West – has yet to achieve the mainstream impact of your Batmans or Supermans. With no big screen version in sight, the Scarlet Speedster –  originally created by Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert – has seen his live-action “success” limited to television. This year sees Mr. Allen return to the boob tube as Grant Gustin in The CW’s spin-off to Arrow, but go back twenty-four years and what do we find but a short-lived show that gave the Fastest Man Alive his first flesh and blood incarnation.

The kicker? It’s really rather good.

To be sure, 1990’s The Flash has dated visually and has all the cheesy hallmarks you’d expect of a pre-2000s superhero show, but what we have here is a twenty-two episode series that actually does justice to the source material. Producers/writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo are clearly fans, taking the colourfully-effervescent style of the strips and marrying it to a vision of a crime-ridden metropolis straight out of Tim Burton’s Batman (with a dash of Dick Tracy). There’s certainly no doubting the ambition of a show boasting a theme composed by Danny Elfman and an achingly-faithful costume built by the legendary Stan Winston Studios. Though clearly a product of its time, this is surely the best “vintage” attempt to produce a weekly superhero series.

In the feature-length pilot, we’re introduced to crime scene investigator Barry Allen (John Wesley Shipp), who appears to be living an idyllic life in the otherwise-cancerous Central City. His father is a retired and respected cop and his brother Jay (Tim Thomerson) has followed successfully in his footsteps. Barry is also in a relationship with the desirable Iris West (Paul Marshall). But his life gets a little more eventful when a freak accident involving a lightning flash and a batch of chemicals gives him superhuman speed. Shortly after, he loses good old Jay to a crooked gang of nihilists, and with the help of S.T.A.R. Labs scientist Tina McGee (Amanda Pays), Barry takes up the charge of moral crusader to right the city’s wrongs.

Probably the best element of The Flash is the casting and how the performers play off each other. First and foremost, Shipp makes an ideal superhero and is an affable screen presence, even if he’s a bit too cool and buff for the character. He has a good range and isn’t afraid to fully embrace the goofier aspects of the material. Shipp also has great chemistry with the British-born Pays, who turns Ms. McGee into a reliably intelligent heroine (although, we don’t see her doing much work at the highly-important laboratory). I certainly understand why they opted to pursue Tina for the romantic interest, as Barry’s traditional squeeze, Iris, was perhaps the most regrettable misstep of the pilot.

There’s also Swinger‘s Alex Desert as Barry’s lab assistant, Julio. He starts out as a faintly-annoying comedic relief, but as the series wears on, he becomes more interesting as he inches closer to uncovering Barry’s secret. There’s also sterling support from veterans M. Emmett Walsh and Priscilla Pointer as Allen’s parents. You have to wonder if their amusing bickering led to the increased screentime for Clark Kent’s adoptive guardians  in Lois & Clark.

If there’s anything to really fault in The Flash early on, it’s that the title character is really the only comic booky element in the show, with the hero typically battling budget-conscious villains like biker gangs and petty thugs. The stories are reasonably well-written despite this, though. It isn’t until the back half – when ratings began to decline – that the writers brought in some actual supervillains, with Captain Cold (Michael Champion), Mirror Master (David Cassidy) and The Trickster all making appearances. The latter is perhaps the most fondly-remembered considering he was played by Mark Hamill a full two years before he voiced The Joker to legendary effect on Batman: The Animated Series. Hamill’s deliriously over-the-top, near 60s Batman performance is certainly one of the reasons to give this show a shot, and he was definitely the right tonic after a flurry of stereotypical Mafiosos. (Oh, and it’s probably worth pointing-out that a young Bryan Cranston pops-up as a heavy.)

As for the rest? Well, the sped-up effects are obviously showing their age, although there’s the occasional shot that still works like gangbusters. The pulpy nature of the blurring red as The Flash makes his way around Central City still has a nostalgic charm to it, and you have to admire how the producers pulled off so much on a 1990 TV schedule (although the show did cost a then-sizeable $1 million per episode to make). While it’s always obvious that you’re watching an ageing production, the odd dodgy optical doesn’t undo the work of the cinematographers and designers, who really create a living, breathing world here. A lot of the show’s faults are overlooked because it was really trying to be true to the source, and back then, that was a relative novelty.

The Flash is a bold and surprisingly entertaining superhero delight cancelled before its time, and you need only compare it to the likes of Bill Dozier’s Batman, Superboy, Lois & Clark, and perhaps even Smallville to see how great it is for its genre and era. I can only hope the new version brings it some fresh fans. Luckily, 2014’s iteration has already cast John Wesley Shipp and Amanda Pays, so they’re off to a good start…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • According to exec producers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, if the show was picked up for a second season, the premiere would have featured the Trickster, Captain Cold, and Mirror Master teaming-up to take on the Flash.
  • The series is replete with references to the comic books and their creators. In addition to the “Garrick Ave.” reference mentioned in another item, episodes have referenced “The Hotel Infantino” (a nod to Silver Age Flash co-creator Carmine Infantino), “police captain Julius Schwartz” (a nod to Silver Age co-creator Julius Schwartz), “the intersection of Gardner and Fox” (a nod to Golden Age creator Gardner Fox), “Professor Zoom” (a recurring villain in the Silver Age stories), and “Gorilla Grodd” (another recurring Silver Age villain).
  • In one episode, Barry walks past a cinema screening Superman (1978) and Batman (1989).
  • John Wesley Shipp latter did the voice of Professor Zoom, an evil speedster and the Flash’s archenemy, in Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
  • The role of Barry Allen/The Flash was originally written for Richard Burgi. Burgi ended up guest starring as The Deadly Nightshade in one episode.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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