Of the three comic book-inspired shows that premiered on broadcast television during the current fall season — NBC’s Constantine, Fox’s Gotham, and The CW’s The Flash — I would not have expected The Flash to become my favorite. Smart gamblers would have placed money on Gotham, because of my love for the Batman universe (and for the main cast) or even Constantine (partly because I’ve been revisiting the great Hellblazer series, but mostly because of Matt Ryan’s devastatingly good looks). The Flash was a long shot because, admittedly, I have no familiarity with the source material and I’m always wary of The CW’s programs, but it has come out on top as a bright, optimistic light in a season of dark and dreary comic book adaptations.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with these dark and gritty TV adaptations. Constantine is a story that only works if it’s dark (the biggest problem I had with the pilot is that its aim was to be much darker than its execution let on), and the best thing about Gotham is its dark setting — both literally and figuratively. But four episodes in, Constantine is dreadfully average and unsure of its mood, landing in the confusing realm of “demon procedural.”
Gotham is an even bigger disappointment because of the high note it started on (and because of the talent of its stars, most notably Donal Logue, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Robin Lord Taylor). It’s been stumbling around since Episode 2, struggling to achieve a balance between featuring a crime-of-the-week, chronicling young Bruce Wayne’s road to Batman, and clumsily introducing notable Batman villains (The Atlantic’s David Sims, on this week’s introduction of Harvey Dent/Two-Face: “His portrayal played into all of Gotham’s worst impulses: Everyone seemed to be winking madly at the audience for every second he was onscreen. ‘Harvey Dent! You know, one day he’ll be Two-Face!’ the show, essentially, screamed as Nicholas D’Agosto stalked around flipping a coin about as much as he possibly could”).
The problem, then, is that these two dramas are too often getting swallowed up by the darkness (and by this awkward clinging to the source material that results not in a faithful adaptation but in too much obnoxious winking at the comic books’ audience), so much so that it can suck the actual entertainment out of watching a television program. Enter The Flash, The CW’s fun and flighty take on Barry Allen: The Fastest Man Alive. Much like your average costumed crusader, Allen’s past is characterized by dark tragedy: He witnessed his mother’s death; his father was wrongfully convicted of the murder and remains in jail. Allen is obsessed with the crime, as you would expect, but it doesn’t totally derail his life.
What does derail his life is a bolt of lightning and a nine-month coma. When he wakes up, he has become a “metahuman” with the ability to run really, really fast. Allen, played by the adorable Grant Gustin, is positively endearing. He treats his superpowers the way that any kid would upon discovery: He thinks they’re pretty freakin’ cool. He takes them on a test drive, he’s eager to see just how fast he can run, he sheepishly burns through his sneakers, and he shows off for women (well, one woman, Felicity Smoak, borrowed from Arrow, who shows up in the fourth episode, “Going Rogue,” which is easily the best of the series so far).
When Allen becomes The Flash, he reminds me of the difference between professional baseball players and Little Leaguers. The pros (and therefore the older, more seasoned superheroes) will catch a ball or hit a home run with a shrug — after all, they’ve been doing this forever and it’s all second nature — whereas a kid will always celebrate a good play or a solid hit, remaining enthusiastic throughout the entire season. Six episodes into the season, Allen’s enthusiasm is still there and he’s still finding new ways to play around with his powers (the cool: vibrating his vocal chords to achieve creepy voice-changing effects; and the not-so-cool: the inability to get drunk with his friends).
Allen/The Flash is nice. He’s optimistic. He’s a bright flame, and not just when he zooms off and leaves a trail of sparks behind him. The Flash’s weakness, as pointed out by villain Leonard Snart/Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller!), is that he is more concerned with saving the lives of innocents than with catching whatever bad guy Allen has originally set his sights on.
The Flash places an emphasis on camaraderie throughout the series. Allen has a tight-knit group of (diverse) friends, some of whom know about his powers (Cisco and Caitlin at S.T.A.R. Labs) and some of whom don’t (his best friend/lifelong crush Iris West, who also happens to be the daughter of Allen’s surrogate father, Detective Joe West, brilliantly played by Jesse L. Martin).
Of course, The Flash also follows the typical comic book schtick and has Allen battle new supervillians every week, but, with the exception of last night’s damsel-in-distress misstep, even these battles are relatively lighthearted in comparison with what we’re used to. When Allen wins, he doesn’t hesitate to triumphantly proclaim “I win!” appealingly childishly, reacting more like the young kid reading a Flash comic than the Flash himself — which just works to make the series endlessly entertaining to watch. There’s room on television for these serious but lighthearted stories, these tragic but ultimately optimistic characters, and these compelling but fun plots — and The Flash proves it.