Burned out on pop culture’s glut of grim and gritty, glib, and groaning super-hero fantasies? Then tune into The CW on Tuesday for the season 2 premieres of The Flash and iZombie. Neither contributes to the greater cause of minimizing our comic-book clutter, but each finds a winsome point of difference in trying to bring greater humanity to the genre. One does it better than the other; both are worth your time.
The marvelous fun in The Flash lies in an evolving hero (Grant Gustin) who delights well in his sudden-onset superness, and a story that gives us wish-fulfillment escapism tempered with wisdom. Some characters wear the whole “with greater power comes great responsibility” theme like a burden, usually because the lesson is taught via catastrophe. Barry – his mom, killed by a time-traveling murderer; his dad, framed for the crime – knows tragedy, too, and he’s had to work through anger and bitterness and the want for revenge, but he’s not defined that damage and darkness, either. His gift, and the opportunity to be worthy of it, is a blessing he relishes. The Flash skews more Spider-Man than Batman. I like the character better than Spider-Man, actually, because he runs away from the alienated loner/lone-nut archetype that so much superhero fiction tends to romanticize. The Flash isn’t one man – he’s a team, a community, a group project in building a better kind of hero for their gone-haywire society. He’s nothing without the tech support squad of Cisco (Carlos Valdes), Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker), and Martin Stein, played by the delightfully arch Victor Garber, and he’d be less of man without his adopted family, most notably father figure Joe West, played by Jesse L. Martin. And none of them would be anywhere without Gustin, who plays the role with great grace, heart, smarts and humor. He makes everything tired about the superhero thing feel fresh again.
The season 2 premiere reintroduces the premise of the series and restate the themes it favors by teaching Barry a nuanced lesson about rebounding from loss, and how the natural inclination to protect the ones you live by withdrawing from them is a form of stinkin’ thinkin’ self-centered mope that can be costly. Not every story the show tells needs to be life-lessonish, and The Flash can veer cornball and simplistic sometimes. Still, I love the right stuff that The Flash represents. He’s a blazing streak of Tomorrowland in a gloomy, doomy, fury road culture.
When we last saw Barry Allen, the scarlet speedster of Central City was doing battle with a sucktastic singularity of hair-raising terror that defied logic and threatened the fabric of reality itself. No, not Donald Trump. A black hole! Well, a wormhole that became a black hole, actually. Ripped open by season 1 über-villain Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh, who still haunts season 2) in an effort to return to his home timeline. The premiere – entitled “The Man Who Saved Central City” – will explain exactly how The Flash saved Central City … or rather, didn’t. It’s a head-spinning paradox …
Which is fitting, because the whole season promises to be about head-spinning paradox, as exec producers Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg and their writers are boldly venturing into multiverse territory. In addition to fighting the usual mix of meta-human rogues created by the big bang of The Flash’s storytelling universe (a particle accelerator exploded; it’s complicated), Barry will have to battle a mess of morally ambiguous exiles from a parallel earth (the premiere gives you Atom Smasher) and meet his alt-universe analog, Jay Garrick (played by Teddy Sears). This development will no doubt please old fanboys like me, who could go on and on about how the Silver Age Flash – a flashpoint in the development of modern comics — introduced the concept of the multiverse to comics in the sixties, and how the DC Comics universe, such as it was, became incoherent as a result of the concept, and how DC tried to rectify and streamline in the eighties with an event called Crisis of Infinite Earths, and how DC Comics has spent the next 30 years either walking back that correction or implementing it anew.
Like I said, one could go on and on about that. But I won’t! Back on track: I want The Flash be bold, smart, and creative with this concept, but I also hope it doesn’t suck the story into a black hole of absurd sci-fi hoo-ha, either. My hope: That Berlanti and his squad can engineer a story as compelling as the third season of Fringe, which also worked a parallel world premise and did it brilliantly. (Speaking of absurd sci-fi hoo-ha: Maybe I’m under the influence of The Martian, but I do wish The Flash had a bit more hard science to it, specifically in regards to its treatment of speed. The Flash is, after all, the epitome of the science hero archetype, and this version of Barry Allen does have a hard science brain, being a gifted CSI guy. I love the flights of fancy, and I love the weird science. But a shot of grounded sci-fi could flatter the franchise, too. To borrow from Matt Damon: Let’s see show “science the s—“ out of its own premise.)
As much as I like The Flash, I really like iZombie, TV’s best comic book adaptation and most inspired zombie show. Where The Walking Dead and its shambling mind concern themselves with post-catastrophe dehumanization (“Don’t you get it? WE ARE THE WALKING DEAD!”), iZombie entertains with tough-minded yet often gut-busting parables of post-tragedy rehumanization. In case the theme isn’t obvious, well, here’s the name of your protagonist: Liv Moore. (You can laugh at that. So does the show.) Once, Liv (Rose McIver) was an earnest, ambitious do-gooder, a doctor with a savior complex. Then she went to rager, got scratched by a zombie, and became one herself, losing her joy, optimism, and seize-the-day spirit. You know: Dead inside. LIKE A ZOMBIE.
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Liv’s journey is about recovering her humanity, though not necessarily her old self: Old Liv wasn’t flawless, and her regeneration struggle involves reassessing old habits, values and priorities. Her reconstruction is spurred by intimate, empathetic encounters and communion with a diverse and damaged world of Others, WHOM SHE EATS. Here’s how zombiedom works in iZombie: When you eat your braiiiiins (ideally with hot sauce; helps with the flavor), you take on the personalities and worldviews of the dead for as long they remain in your system. (Which, yes, begs questions about zombie biology. Maybe iZombie could use some of The Martian’s bran, too.) In taking on new identities, Liv is provoked to interrogate parts of herself that need it and is challenged to change. I love how iZombie uses its ironic revenant to imagine a better way to live. It earns that “Liv Moore” pun, every week.
Oh, and she solves homicides, too. In the season 2 premiere, Liv, who works as an assistant medical examiner for the Seattle police department (it’s where she scores her brain grub, too), takes on the case (and psyche) of a grumpy old man, a meager Gran Torino type, who gets whacked while fixing his car. Over the course of the episode, as she finds herself suddenly saying racist things, watching WWII documentaries, and overwhelmed by the need for afternoon naps, Liv comes to understand the cost of the man’s relational isolation and his cynicism about society. As it turns out, this learning applies well to her own situation. When we last saw Liv, she had alienated her ex-boyfriend, Major (Robert Buckley), her brother, Evan (Nick Purcha), her mother, Eva (Molly Hagan), her best friend Peyton (Aly Michalka), and even her arch-enemy Blaine (David Anders), with a series of well-meaning decisions that I won’t summarize here; the premiere, heavy on recap exposition, will tell you everything you need to know. Liv must choose: She can keep pushing for reconciliation and restoration in relationship, or she can make like a grumpy old man and retreat. Liv’s arc in her premiere mirrors Barry’s arc in The Flash premiere, albeit with a more nuanced point. She’s well supported in this growing and changing stuff by her only remaining ally, her boss, Ravi (Rahul Kohli).
iZombie isn’t all Liv. Major’s season 1 story line was a cautionary tale about vigilante heroism, and it continues in season 2, as he finds himself now trapped in the role. Blaine – cured, for the moment, of his zombie condition, and not all happy about it – begins rebuilding his criminal career using a clever new job as a front: When you’ve had experience being dead, you’re uniquely positioned to make a good living in the death industry. For now, though, iZombie’s biggest bad is Vaughn Du Clark, a power drink mogul whose façade of corporate do-gooding masks his rank, greedy materialism. In truth, his product is responsible for the zombie outbreak. The new season dials up his role, which is good news, because Steven Weber brings nasty charisma to the part.
The show does so many things well. The performances, the finely drawn characters, the fast, funny banter, the thoughtful consideration of class, the inspired stabs at consumerism and materialism. As Liv, Rose McIver is a strong, appealing center who seems capable of handling every challenge exec producer Rob Thomas and his writers throw at her. Her character is a striking visual creation, with her chalky skin and spider-web hair. She’s strong, but not “kick-ass action heroine” strong; in fact, it seems the writers have been running away from that cliché after briefly indulging it in the early episodes.
iZombie does have room for improvement. Anders has played many villains in his time (Sark!), and Blaine might be his best turn yet, so I hope the writers can feed him inspired material. I dig his new cover identity, but I’m less enthused by the prospect of watching one again try to become the drug kingpin of Seattle. The case-of-the-week procedural plots could be sharper. Liv’s investigations are aided by flashes of memory – belches of recollection from the brains she’s eaten. The triggers usually make sense, but they still feel too arbitrary, too convenient. You’re left wanting rules for the device, even if memory burps, as a rule, pretty much defy logic. You roll with it, I guess. I think the clock’s starting to tick on how much longer the show can keep Detective Clive Babineux (Malcolm Goodwin) in the dark about Liv’s true nature or Seattle’s zombie outbreak without subverting his character. Like The Flash, iZombie doesn’t transcend its genre, and it can’t completely shake genre fatigue. Perhaps they never will. But today, they brim with wit, warmth, and weirdness. Run the race, Flash. Keep the faith, Liv. Stay human, both of you.
The Flash: B