Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) was just 11 years old when his mother was killed in a bizarre and terrifying incident and his father (John Wesley Shipp) was falsely convicted of the murder. With his life changed forever by the tragedy, Barry was taken in and raised by Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), the father of Barry’s best friend, Iris (Candice Patton).
Now, Barry has become a brilliant, driven and endearingly geeky CSI investigator, whose determination to uncover the truth about his mother’s strange death leads him to follow up on every unexplained urban legend and scientific advancement that comes along. Barry’s latest obsession is a cutting edge particle accelerator, created by visionary physicist Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) and his S.T.A.R. Labs team members, Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) and Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes), who claim that this invention will bring about unimaginable advancements in power and medicine. However, something goes horribly wrong during the public unveiling, and when the devastating explosion causes a freak storm, many lives are lost and Barry is struck by lightning.
After nine months in a coma, Barry awakens to find his life has changed once again – the accident has given him the power of super speed. Thrilled with his new powers, Barry learns how to control them with the help of Dr. Wells and his team. However, keeping his secret from his best friend Iris (Candice Patton) is proving to be harder than he thought, especially when Joe’s new partner, Eddie Thawne (Rick Cosnett), catches her eye. When another meta-human, Clyde Maron, a man who can control the weather, attacks the city, it’s time to put Barry’s new powers, and himself, to the test. With the help of S.T.A.R. Labs, he is able to master his speed and, with a new suit and a pep talk from Oliver Queen, he decides to set course as the new superhero, The Flash. In the final battle, Detective West learns that Barry is a metahuman, and asks him to not include Iris in his superhero exploits. Unbeknownst to Barry, Dr. Wells can walk, and has a newspaper from 2024 about The Flash disappearing in a crisis.
A downside to having Barry Allen first appear mid-season on Arrow last year is that it made the wait for this premiere excruciatingly long. There’s a lot of weight resting on The Flash; with Arrow having reached a new creative peak in its second season, the hopes are high for a beloved character many fans have been clamoring to see in current live-action. It’s tasked with keeping Arrow’s comic book-TV momentum while simultaneously establishing its own identity, appeasing both Arrow fans and new fans who might not have clicked with Arrow‘s darker tone.
While time will tell exactly how The Flash settles on its identity, the answer right now seems to be “Arrow-lite,” pulling out the elements that made its parent show successful, but polishing the grit and stripping much of the melodrama. The most telling thing about The Flash’s conception is how many parallels there are to where Arrow stood in season 2. In a lot of ways, Barry’s life is sort of a lighter, softer version of Oliver Queen’s; Iris and Joe West are expies of Laurel and Quentin Lance without the drama and vitriol, the S.T.A.R. Labs team is akin to a fully-formed Team Arrow, Barry’s missing time in the coma is an extremely micro-version of Oliver’s lost time on the island, etc. It’s hard to miss these things given how closely this show is tied into Arrow, but in a way, the showrunners can’t be blamed for reinventing and refurbishing their greatest hits from what’s become an extremely successful show.
And yet, with these familiar pieces in place, enough details are tweaked that the directions in which they can be taken are already vastly different. The most obvious is that this is, at this stage, a show about the creation of a fantastic superhero universe. Though the superpowers set-up is common in film, there’s actually been quite the void for a while on live-action TV. The heroes of Arrow, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham, and Constantine either don’t have powers or don’t have superhero suits, and the big superhero predecessor Smallville had its infamous no flights/no tights rule until its end. The Flash is technically the first mainstream TV series in years that fully embraces a body-suited, masked hero with impossible powers. It’s not a different story from the multitudes of superhero stories we’ve seen, but it is the first we’ll be seeing in this new age of mainstream geek culture TV, where ridiculous plots and fast-paced stories are more embraced with effects to match them.
The pilot is generally smart about how it tackles its spin-off status, cushioning Barry’s big scene at the end of Arrow‘s “Three Ghosts” between and spliced together with new material, informing more about Barry and his relationships with those around him. Oliver’s appearance later in the episode is admittedly a bit hammy (“I think that lightning chose you” is a cringe-inducing and so not a line Oliver would say), but it makes sense that he’d appear given where “Three Ghosts” left off. If anything, the appearance of the two together solidifies just how much of a big deal Barry’s existence is; that something so fantastic could exist in the same world as Arrow is insane, but the contrast is purposefully painted with the two key heroes. As Oliver and Barry are two very different people, so are their circumstances, and that Barry can bring a brightness to a world as dark as the one Oliver has violently fought for is as inspirational as Oliver proclaims it is. And that Oliver technically names The Flash (in an extremely scenery-chewing way, as Stephen Amell has pointed out already) is its own “passing the torch” moment of sorts, Barry getting a blessing from Oliver to plunge headfirst into the new life. Though Oliver’s appearance is the only definitive Arrow-link here, though , it’s still hard to say how easy an attachment audiences unfamiliar with Arrow will have to Barry. Between Barry’s flashbacks and rehashing the “wonderkid forensic assistant who’s always late” bits Arrow already did, this pilot makes a hard effort to make sure we know who Barry is. But it’s also so quick to wreck the status quo that one can’t help but wonder if he plays as underdeveloped to those not privvy to his Arrow appearances.
Perhaps that’s moot, because the pilot intentionally moves so quickly—again, just as Arrow has the tendency to do—that even without an attachment to any character, the whirlwind of plot twists and effects sequences keep the adrenaline pumping. Also, Grant Gustin carries just the right amount of spunk and awkwardness without coming off as annoyingly adorkable, and his utter joy at getting powers is a welcome change from self-pitying superheroes. Like Barry’s attitude, this whole pilot is exceptionally optimistic and forward-looking, a tone that’s reflected in its bright color palate and remarkably upbeat score. We get more prominent use of the once WB/CW-staple pop music than we’ve gotten from CW genre shows in years—both a Lady Gaga and an Ingrid Michaelson song, to boot—which, in addition to the casting of former Flash John Wesley Shipp, gives the sense that The Flash is looking as much to its past as its future. This “old-school fun” tone is the same kind that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tried and failed to achieve last year, but The Flash may have already mastered it thanks to a diverse cast and an assortment of intriguing plot threads. It’s still up on today’s level of dense, fast-paced plot-burning action shows, but keeps things direct and purposefully unpretentious. There’s no hiding that this is a superhero action show, and while Arrow took a while to embrace its wackier elements, The Flash gleefully does so, and in fact makes the existence of those wacky elements its entire impetus for existing. Sometimes, we just need a hero that loves what he’s doing and a show that’s fun. In a way, this is Barry spreading his optimism on what was previously seen on Arrow to be a pretty crappy world.
That the world is changing is also at the crux of the first episode. The existence of metahumans is akin to Oliver’s father’s list in season one of Arrow, a clear device to give Barry a reason to go after a specific bad guy every week, even if it doesn’t necessarily play into a larger plot arc. What makes this better than the list—which proved to be as great a flaw as it was an asset on Arrow—is how much it also plays into world-building. Every new metahuman has the potential to bring in something new based on Dr. Wells’ comments, what with dark energy, anti-matter, and whatever other pseudo-science the show wants to throw out spewing from that supercollider. It’s a remarkably clever plot device, one that harkens back to Smallville‘s ingenious reinvention of Kryptonite as a radioactive material that could create powers in humans just as much as it could hurt Superman. There was a lot of foresight in this, which is even more remarkable considering just how early in Arrow season 2 those annoying particle accelerator news reports began.
Each character gets a role to play in this first episode, even if brief, and we learn a tidbit about everyone. While that’s a major reason this pilot often feels overstuffed—Caitlin’s reveal about her dead fiancee, for example, is a dead stop that might have played better in the next episode—it’s a good sign that there are already individual arcs planned for this decent-sized cast. The only two that don’t really get much insight are Eddie Thawne and Cisco, though they do provide fairly clear roles as future antagonist and solid comic relief, respectively. Dr. Wells has a seemingly complete arc in the episode, what with realizing he can help Barry become a hero and not an experiment, but he’s also apparently not a stand-up guy either. The big cliffhanger is all about him and his future-newspaper (good to know we’ll still have print journalism in 10 years!) but it’s so out of left field that there isn’t much to comment on yet. This is a dynamic that we’ll just have to see play out.
The best thing about the cast is how pretty much everyone likes each other, or at the very least doesn’t harbor any bad feelings one way or another. But even without any sort of defined tension, it’s still interesting to see these characters’ relationships play out. The best evidence of this is Barry and his relationship with the Wests, who all get interesting character material to play throughout. Candice Patton is not what one normally sees as the female lead on a superhero show; she has a refreshingly youthful spunk that matches Grant Gustin’s, even if right now their chemistry really does lean more on siblings than potential lovers.
Because of that, the melodrama between the romantic leads is reduced—the Barry/Iris/Eddie love triangle is a little more benign than usual, thus far—and the entire West surrogate family relationship in general is less-treaded territory. Joe West (played by an instantly likeable and way-too-young-to-be-their-dad Jesse L. Martin) learning Barry’s identity right in the first episode is a particularly good example of the different directions The Flash is taking its familiar archetypes. In a pilot full of surprises, that might just be the most surprising development, if only because it breaks so many rules of the superhero paradigm. It puts the detective in a precarious position, but on a meta level, it’s a justification for the rather worn-down “superhero can’t tell his love interest the truth” trope. “Your dad forbids it” isn’t going to last for the entire series, but it’s enough to sustain a different sort of tension from what we’ve seen before. And Joe’s newfound belief in Barry, while triumphant, sets a course for potential drama between them as their investigation continues down the line. It’s nothing as big as the operatic family drama on Arrow, but it’s such a unique and complicated dynamic that the hurdles will still be interesting to see. Again, the best part about the Flash pilot is how optimistic it is, so it’s refreshing to play out some drama between this family without damaging their fondness for one another.
The story of Barry’s parents is the darkest the pilot goes, and even that is a bit optimistic in the hope of proving Barry’s father innocent. The scene between Barry and his father, played by the instantly charming John Wesley Shipp, is tragically beautiful, well-played by Gustin and Shipp. Going along with the fast pace of the pilot, there’s already some progression on this story in addition to the two or three other threads going on. Barry definitively recognizes the killer as an actual person with his powers, and the revelation is sure to spark as many threads as the main metahuman story posed in the pilot. Simply put, there’s a whole lot left to explore, which is a good thing.
As far as the actual heroics of The Flash, there’s really nothing to complain about. Clyde Mardon as the unnamed Weather Wizard is an okay first villain, underdeveloped as expected but providing an easy threat to propell the story. It’s a bit disappointing that his weather powers don’t amount to much more than making wind and fog, but it’s better the show sticks with effects it can do rather than branching too far-out. The Flash suit looks just fine; a teeny bit cheesy and with signature post-2000s leather, but there’s no way to make a Flash costume not look at least slightly ridiculous. The explanation of it being a prototype firesuit is clever, and once Barry gets to play around in the suit, the episode really comes together. There are certainly some rough bits of CGI in the final battle–the climax of which hilariously amounts to “run in the opposite direction,” which is awesome–but it’s all tolerable, and much bigger than is normally expected from a CW production. The superspeed and what Barry does with it meets expectations fairly well, actually. The show doesn’t try to act like these are effects we’ve never seen before, so instead snags a couple of inspired moments (the first bullet-time in the diner) and smartly spends most of its time on character and plot, instead.
There isn’t a ton to heavily analyze about The Flash because it’s so focused on moving things along. As such, the pilot doesn’t exactly say anything profound or new, but it makes a major effort to hook each and every person watching with something. There are lots of moving parts, and they all move as quickly as Barry himself, which admittedly results in the episode feeling less-than-cohesive. But it’s also the most telling sign that The Flash is a winner: like its title character, it’s optimistic that the show will only get better, willing to run at top speed into this brand new world. And optimistically, it will be so entertaining and fun that there won’t be a reason not to keep watching.
Odds & Ends
- I’d be remiss to not mention that David Nutter directed this, a man who has this magic touch when it comes to genre pilots. Nutter has an ability to immediately meld into the pace and tone any given pilot script is going for, so it’s no surprise that his direction sets the stage for what The Flash will look like the best that it could.
- Barry’s CSI-Sherlock thing—the floating text while playing forensic detective—is fine and all, but it seems out of place here. It’s already pretty overused in detective stories now, and for a show already rife with special effects, it’s unnecessary.
- Heavy-handed as the Barry/Oliver scene is, a shiver definitely went down my spine when Oliver remarked at Barry’s superspeed: “Cool.”
- On that note, I like that the lightning bolt logo is really only added because Carlos thinks it’s “cool.” There really isn’t a justification at this stage why a superhero would need a logo, so you know, why not go for the coolness factor?
- I’d honestly forgotten that Caitlin and Cisco appeared on Arrow last season. I don’t remember them doing much aside from giving us a sneak preview, so it didn’t really inform their characters one way or another here.
- While the procedural stuff isn’t too exciting, there are shades of a quirky millenial-esque lens we’re seeing it through. In particular, the deadpan delivery of, “We’ve got a bunch of witnesses here. They all have cell phones…” followed by, obviously, watching the videos everyone took on their cell phones.
- “Does that include twerking?” I want to hate that line, but it just makes me love Iris. A lot.
- “I need you to urinate in this.”
- “Lightning gave me abs?”
- “Why the hell would God need to rob banks?!”