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'The Flash' Winks At History And Keeps Its Superhero Tone Light

After being struck by lightning, Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) realizes he's gained super speed and takes on the persona of the Flash.
The CW
After being struck by lightning, Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) realizes he's gained super speed and takes on the persona of the Flash.

The most telling feature of the CW's new superhero drama The Flash is the casting of John Wesley Shipp as the tragically and wrongfully imprisoned father of Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), who in the opening hour becomes The Flash.

Shipp played Barry Allen himself in the short-lived CBS version of The Flash almost 25 years ago, and the decision to cast him reflects a refreshingly self-aware fondness, an awareness that a superhero is not really a single character, but an idea that sprung from a particular creator and has since been spun out by countless artists, writers and directors in a bunch of different directions. (Rest assured it is quite intentional and not a natural outcome of TV characters who bounce around for decades and are bound to bump into the same projects; the producers affirmed at press tour this summer that they wanted Shipp from the beginning, for exactly this reason.)

There are lots of ways to approach superhero and superhero-adjacent stories, from the "gray and gritty rain-soaked streets" approach of the Nolan Batman movies and Fox's Gotham to the cartoonish to the actual cartoon. What executive producers Andrew Kreisberg and Greg Berlanti — who also make Arrow for the CW — have settled on here is a kind of family-friendly action-adventure show with a solid sense of humor about itself as well as a strong streak of sentiment about the things that really matter, like loyalty and friendship and telling your dad you love him. (By the way, this is a good moment to point out that if you are not an Arrow viewer and you find yourself during the Flash pilot saying, "Who's the guy with the arrows?", that's the guy from Arrow, where they originally seeded this pilot last season; they share a universe.)

We join the story while Barry is still a plain old non-super forensic scientist, working hand-in-latex-glove with Jesse L. Martin's Detective West, who raised Barry after Papa Allen was jailed for killing Barry's mother, and who is the father of Barry's best friend and the oblivious object of his longing, Iris (Candice Patton). Barry is watching keenly as DC Comics stalwart S.T.A.R. Labs puts its new particle accelerator online under the watchful eye of scientist Harrison Wells (delightfully played by Tom Cavanagh, who cannot be on television too much for this lady). But that night, as the particle accelerator is busy accelerating some particles, in the later words of Wells, there is "an anomaly."

As Barry discovers his powers — as he becomes a superhero of the lanky, skinny-jeaned sort — the dialogue is unafraid of its brushes with, and occasionally its enthusiastic head-dunks into, various vats of corn. It doesn't overdo its efforts to put a scientific sheen on things like bad guys who can control the weather, and when the time is right for someone to say "Run, Barry, run!", he just says it. It's okay. It's superhero storytelling, not calculus.

The irony of how intense arguments can become about different versions of superheroes, in comics or on television or anywhere, is that it's not a zero-sum game: embracing the range of creative possibilities within an idea like "superheroes," let alone with a single character like The Flash, is a positive reflection on the genre, not a condemnation. It's nothing against Gotham that this is more how I like my own superhero stories. I'm just more the type to settle in, put a blanket over me, and thrill to a guy who opens his story with, "You need to believe in the impossible. Can you do that? Good."

I like Gustin, I like Martin, I like Shipp, and I'm crazy about Cavanagh. The character of Iris needs work, as in the pilot she mostly exists to pick the wrong boyfriend and ignore the right one, but on the whole? Pretty good. And for a pilot, particularly this season, "pretty good" is pretty good.

The Flash premieres Tuesday night at 8:00 on The CW.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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