Television’s glut of superhero fantasy is all doom and gloom, apocalyptic and gritty. It’s a bit like the ’90s comic-book scene, which responded to a boom in brilliantly edgy innovation with tediously edgy copycatting. Similarly, TV has responded to a Marvel-ous era of smartly rendered, adult-skewing comic-book movie adaptations with comparable product of varying degrees of pop and quality. Fox’s Gotham is promising; NBC’s Constantine is not; ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still not as good as it should be.
But maybe The Flash can save us from so much mope and mediocrity. The CW’s imagining of DC Comics’ scarlet speedster — from the team behind the network’s Arrow — makes for a refreshing change of pace by running away from antihero chic and nihilistic cool. As Barry Allen, CSI nerd-turned-super-science do-gooder, Grant Gustin embodies and skillfully balances two seemingly different superhero archetypes: the gee-whiz-ain’t-this-cool Peter Parker and the trauma-scarred, childhood-haunted Bruce Wayne. (Barry’s dad — played by former Flash John Wesley Shipp — is in jail for allegedly murdering Barry’s mom. Allegedly!) Barry is heroic for even wanting to be a hero — a moral and inspiring one — and the fun comes from watching him stumble toward such a beautiful thing. Gustin makes you laugh, makes you feel, makes you see the inner Barry Allen no matter how ridiculous the circumstances.
And they can be pretty ridiculous, or rather, familiar. A crook who can control the weather. A scientist who can create a drone replica of himself. A hitman who can transmute into poison gas. The antagonists on The Flash are culled from the comics, but the articulations are bland so far — generic monster-of-the-week stuff you’ve seen on Fringe or The X-Files. It has an engrossing but slow-burning Big Bad in Barry’s mentor, Dr. Wells, whom Tom Cavanagh plays with thinly veiled menace and sly knowingness of the show’s mythology secrets. He’s good, but in general, The Flash needs to amp up its bad-guy game, stat.
Still, the series inspires more hope than fear. It vibrates with big-picture vision and has smart fun with its premise, like locating the Flash’s weakness: accelerated hypoglycemia. He needs to eat 850 tacos to replenish himself. 850! How delightfully specific! More delightful is the show’s best relationship: that between Barry and his stand-in dad and police ally, Joe West, played by Jesse L. Martin in a performance both appealingly flinty and deeply felt. The rest of the supporting cast is good, and the commitment to fleshing out their characters is impressive, though the romance between Joe’s daughter (and Barry’s secret crush) and his partner feels superfluous. With sustained energy and careful modifications, The Flash should be a long-run kick. B+