Why In God’s Name Do I Like The Flash?

I like The Flash.  I’ve seen every episode, I’ve enjoyed every episode, and I look forward to the coming episodes. 

Yet each time I am absolutely puzzled as to why.  It’s the sort of show I viscerally despise; its worst elements are so awful you wince.  It’s horrible!  Yet I can’t enough of it.

“Come now, Colin, what’s so horrid about it,”  you ask?  Well, where to begin?  First, there’s the absurd science.  A mad scientist’s experiment goes wrong, sending mysterious radiation throughout a major American (of course) city. The radiation doesn’t cause cancer or fry the population like rats or do any of the things radiation normally does.  What it does do is give selected individuals super powers.  Once a week.  Just in time for the next episode.  The radioactive magic wand gives our hero his abilities right at the start, but others so exposed — near-invariably villainous — mutate right in the nick so as to get into a spectacular special-effects fist-fest with the show’s lead, Barry Allen, aka The Flash.  Our hero (who gets to move at physiologically impossible supersonic speed) wins each time, naturally, and locks the bad guy away in a vigilante underground prison designed, apparently overnight, by the wealthy mad scientist whose evil experiment set off the whole mess, to hold the transgressive “meta-humans.” 

The laughable nature of the mutant selection process underlying this private prison is embodied by one episode in which the villain turns out to be the muscle-bound bully who made Allen’s life hell years ago in elementary school, and still wants to get it on with Allen’s girl. Water under the bridge? Nope. The now super-powered Allen beats him senseless and locks him away ad eternam so he can never ever bully ten-year olds or act fresh with his sweetie-pie again. 

If the science is absurd, and the encounters of good and evil infantile, the political awareness is even more so.  Can we really imagine that the appearance of several super-powered individuals would not get the notice of the Armed Forces and Intelligence Services, who would surely permeate the city en masse till they could find, sequester, and replicate those powers so as to use them on the ground in Iraq, if not Ferguson?  Or that the 24/7 camera and satellite surveillance that tracks one’s every move in the Land of the Free (or is it the Land of CCTV) couldn’t get a time-lapse fix on his location?  Or even that the police at the police station where Allan’s worked for years can’t recognize his, only partially masked, face? 

Absurd.  Silly.  So… why do I like it? 

I can only think of one thing, and it surprises me:  the acting. The star of most superhero films is the special effects.  The Flash has its rich and meaningless share of that, but its principal attraction are its three leads, Barry Allen (played by Grant Gustin), Joe West (Jesse L. Martin),  and Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanaugh).  Their female counterparts are wooden — two dense stumps in a petrified forest — but these three are sublime; so good that even sidekick roles like Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) and Eddie Thawne (Rick Cosnett) flourish alongside into moving and well-drawn characterizations as the show progresses.  Jesse Martin’s police chief persona is a finely drawn portrait of empathy, honor, civic responsibility and simple decency.  Cavanaugh’s Wells is as letter-perfect a picture of today’s visionary boomer techno-entrepreneur as I have seen drawn; one half-expects him to roll his wheelchair up on stage and give a rivetting TED talk.  And Gustin himself presents Barry Allen with a plausible goodness not unworthy of James Stewart. 

It isn’t just that these are exceptionally well drawn portrayals of somewhat vacuous characters, thespian silk purses made of writerly sow’s ears —it’s that they’re thoughtful, three-dimensional, positive characterizations.  The one character eventually shown to be a bad apple wrecks an otherwise fascinating characterization, but even so their company would be welcome in the (equally welcome) complete absence of a plot.  Would that they were playing the leads in a straight drama instead of the CGI piffle they inhabit.  But what they do with that piffle!  The cast of The Flash, like the cast of Star Trek, comport themselves as almost devoid of original sin, yet with enough depth and humanity to make them believable and appealing.  No sociopaths these:  not a House, Dexter, Walter White or Eddie Bauer among them.  We like the show because we like — and respect — these people. 

Cavanaugh, my favorite, gave Season One particular depth.  The tension between his thoughtful, humane exterior and (as the gradually revealed series villain) his Machiavellian designs could not have been better done, though needless to say comic-book plotting requirements gradually reduced this fascinating character to monodimensional absurdity.  The other bad guys were less than laughable, but Cavanaugh’s ambiguity through most of the season was substantive and nuanced enough to lend the entire tale a looming gravitas.  I could not help but think of Jobs or Oppenheimer watching this portrait — parts I hope future casting directors reserve for this superb actor.

The acting is virtually the only virtue of The Flash.  Who may we praise for inspiring these players to lavish such skill on roles so clearly deserving of contempt?  Whoever it is, they’ve managed to raise drivel into drama, and riveting drama at that.  That said, there is one other element of The Flash that’s a pleasure too: the plausibly presented, complete lack, of racism. Again, it’s a tribute to the actors.  Racism is a constant, complex, brooding presence in American life, touching almost everything.  Many another program aiming strenuously to be color-blind does it so cloyingly as to strike a false note throughout; Flash’s multi-racial cast certainly does not present a realistic portrait of the ways things are in America, but — as in Star Trek — here such things are simply put aside, and it is a genuine pleasure to see a world where color counts for nothing.

Is there anything science fiction writers, or writers in general, can learn from The Flash?  From the plots and scripts, nothing; they’re less than a joke, and at season’s end the buffoons at the narrative helm have apparently written two of the strongest leads out of the script entirely.  As with Sliders, I fear we may be witnessing another case of production executives leading possible sublimity into the abysm. 

But from the players themselves, we can learn much about the supreme power of character, and sympathetic character at that.  What is so compelling about these people?  Is it only that there are things that they passionately desire, and that those things are good?  Perhaps that’s enough.  A considerable lesson in this age of dystopia.

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