A Casual TV Fan's Guide
The Flash, part two
Rated: N/A :: Air dates: 1990-1991
By Dan Toland
28 February 2008 — It can be difficult to differentiate the level I was able to appreciate a show when I was 16 to the levels on which I can enjoy it now. I was a very small child when The Incredible Hulk went off the primetime airwaves, and while Superboy had been in syndication for a couple of years by the fall of 1990, I had never before been as geeked out by the prospect of an actual comic book character having his own weekly primetime show. It was almost like validation of my hobby, in a way. And when The Flash premiered in September of 1990, I was absolutely hooked from day one. The fact that some of the episodes that we went over last week (other than the pilot) were average at best, and none actually had him doing anything other than arresting mobsters and gang leaders, which were things that they were doing on a dozen other shows, never really slowed me down. It was a live action comic book adaptation — and back then, well before the days of two or three superhero movies per year — that was good enough for me.
Now, however, I'm 30... ish, and I can see that they were playing it safe by not taking any undue risks (other than the initial one of putting a comic book on TV in the first place). The Flash needed to break out of this rut if it was going to be anything other than just another cheesy detective series (albeit one starring a guy who ran at the speed of sound). This week, we can see that the producers saw the same thing.
Yes, that episode is in here.
Shroud of Death
Story: Howard Chaykin and John Francis Moore
Writer: Michael Reaves
The Plot: Law enforcement figures are being murdered. Pieces of a medallion that tie their pasts together are found at their crime scenes all over Central City, pointing to their next target: Barry's boss, Lt. Garfield.
Good Stuff: Usually restricted to shaking his fist and bellowing, "I need that report, Allen," Lt. Garfield gets some character development here.
Julio is not a stupid person, and he's starting to realize that something's been weird with Barry since the accident.
Barry Allen, the Flash, scourge of the criminal underworld, is absolutely terrified of his boss. It's pretty amusing.
Not So Good Stuff: We just had a "revenge against the cops who put the bad guy away" story two episodes ago.
Random Observations: Having saved Garfield's life — twice — this is the point where the Flash begins to go from being an urban legend to being a known and acknowledged — though not really very popular with the cops yet — fact of life in Central City.
Finally, after eight episodes, the writers give in to temptation: "Barry, where have you been?" "Oh, out running around." Ba-dum-bump.
Overall: The episode is perfectly fine, if a little lifeless. It's more interesting for some of the minor character stuff than anything related to the plot.
Ghost in the Machine
Writers: John Francis Moore and Howard Chaykin
Guest starring: Jason Bernard as Desmond Powell / The Nightshade
The Plot: A criminal mastermind wakes from suspended animation, finding himself in the distant futurescape of 1990. The Nightshade, Central City's postwar champion, has to come out of retirement to help the Flash stop him.
Good Stuff: First and foremost, Jason Bernard is outstanding. If you don't recognize his name, chances are pretty good you'd take one look at him and be able to rattle off a few things you've seen him in. (His most high profile roles were as the boss in the Fox sitcom Herman's Head, and the judge in Jim Carrey's Liar Liar. In the late 80s and early 90s, if you needed a middle aged, avuncular African American and you couldn't afford Paul Winfield, you got Jason Bernard.) One thing he has is a very distinctive voice, so when the Nightshade speaks before the credits, and then Dr. Powell speaks soon after, the writers assume you'll place it and don't make the mistake of dragging out a "Who is the Nightshade?" subplot.
And the Nightshade is a lot of fun. He's got the car, the hidden base filled with trophies, the war stories filled with very 1950s pulp villains and plots. One five-minute conversation with Barry, and the history of Central City just fills in by about 50 years. I would totally buy his action figure.
Not So Good Stuff: Not much. The only thing that bothered me is the way they had the computer networks set up; I'm sitting here yelling, "The Internet doesn't work like that!" Of course, in 1990, anyone who even knew what the Internet was would have been barely aware of how it worked.
Random Observations: The Nightshade looks more than a little like Wesley Dodds. Also, you can't watch this episode, and then watch the Batman: The Animated Series episode "The Grey Ghost," which came out a few years later, and not see an influence.
Overall: That's more like it. This is the first episode that really feels connected to its comic book sensibilities. It's a blast. Outstanding.
Story: Gail Morgan Hickman and John Vorhaus
Writer: John Vorhaus
The Plot: An invisible man who quotes Scripture and provides his own narration steals a chemical weapon from STAR Labs capable of killing everyone in Central City.
Good Stuff: Nothing really jumps out.
Not So Good Stuff: Barry can't break into STAR Labs when it's in lockdown mode, because doing so will immediately irradiate the entire building and destroy all living tissue. That sounds like an extraordinarily stupid security measure for a building to have. Unless, of course, you need to come up with a reason why you can't rescue who's inside. It's just sloppy writing.
Random Observations: Up until this episode, you would have been forgiven for thinking that STAR Labs was nothing more than a government-subsidized clubhouse for Tina and Barry. This is the first time we get any indication that any other scientists work there.
Overall: Mediocre in every way. Joyless. Nothing really good, nothing really bad. It's just there.
Beat the Clock
Writer: Jim Trombetta
The Plot: A legendary jazz musician is on death row, scheduled to die at midnight. Barry and Julio have one hour to prove his innocence.
Good Stuff: Alex Desert finally gets a chance to do more than be funny and have plot points explained to him. He has a bigger role in this episode, and he pulls it off.
I'm not a fan of jazz, but the music in this episode is very good.
It sticks to its "one hour" conceit pretty well. Seven minutes in, a clock reads 11:07. It's not perfect throughout the episode, but it makes the effort.
Not So Good Stuff: What the hell performance of Swan Lake is still going on at 11:15 at night? (Schedules are bizarre on this show.)
Random Observations: This episode features Angela Bassett, a year or so before her movie career took off.
Overall: Jim Trombetta (just about) makes up for inflicting "Double Vision" on us. This episode could have been done in almost any cop or detective show; the Flash is incidental to the plot. If that doesn't bother you, this is a very good episode that makes good use of the cast, has some powerful emotional moments and somehow feels at home with the overly stylized set design (the neon, the shadows, the omnipresent murals) that tends to otherwise date the show in the early 90s.
Disc Three has the fantastic "Ghost in the Machine," which almost makes it worth recommending all by itself. It's also got the very good "Beat the Clock," along with a pair of stiffs. You could do worse than this one.
Next is the one you're probably waiting for.
Writers: Howard Chaykin and John Francis Moore
Guest starring: Mark Hamill as James Montgomery Jesse / The Trickster and Joyce Hyser as Megan Lockhart
The Plot: It's the one with the Trickster.
Good Stuff: It's the one with the Trickster!
This, right here, is where Hamill's Joker started. Everything he did in the DCAU can be traced back to this performance. He's obviously having an absolute ball here; Jesse is totally bugfuck — a psychopathic mass murderer with multiple personalities, who takes one look at the Flash and decides he needs his own costume. He's laugh-out-loud funny and menacing. Hamill pulls it off.
Joyce Hyser makes a return appearance as Megan Lockhart (the PI from "Watching the Detectives"), the target of the Trickster's obsession. She's a Lois Lane type (strong, tough, absolutely determined to get into trouble) that the show otherwise lacks.
Officer Murphy shows up to a costume party dressed as the Flash. This has to be seen.
The way the Flash finally takes down Jesse is straight out of the Barry Allen Silver Age playbook. I loved it.
Not So Good Stuff: Barry and Megan start a relationship. I like Megan as a character, but the two actors don't really have that kind of chemistry. And it's just a plot point, but Barry acts like a total tool towards Tina, who's obviously upset about this. He's either clueless (which I don't believe is the case), or he's a dick (which we already know he's not).
Minor Nitpick: If the Trickster rolls something in your direction, it's probably not a good idea to stand still, let it get near you, then wait for it to go off.
Random Observations: Barry's blackouts get a mention for the first time since the pilot.
The episodes air out of order; events in the next one get referred to here.
Jesse's hideout is located on Margo Lane; Margo Lane was the name of the Shadow's girlfriend. (Chaykin wrote DC's The Shadow miniseries in 1985.)
In one scene, Barry is chained upside town and lowered into a tank of water by the Trickster. It's impossible to see this and not think of the BTAS episode "Be a Clown," when Mark Hamill's Joker did the exact same thing. I'm not suggesting one influenced the other (it's a famous escapee routine of Houdini's), but the parallels are there.
Overall: Picture the most awesome guy you can imagine. He's wearing a suit made out of awesome, and in his hand is a briefcase filled to bursting with awesome. He reaches out, and cleaves your skull with nothing more than Pure Awesome. That's this episode. Chaykin and Moore deliver the best, certainly the most famous, episode the series produced. Absolutely superb.
Tina, Is That You?
Story: Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes and David L. Newman
Writer: David L. Newman
The Plot: Tina gets zapped and becomes eeeeeeeeeeeeeevil.
Good Stuff: Like "Beat the Clock," a supporting character gets to have a storyline. Tina finally gets to do something besides give Barry Band-Aids and rattle off technobabble.
Not So Good Stuff: It was a nice thought, anyway. Amanda Pays is being asked to perform a little out of her acting range. She's trying very hard, but she's just not up to it.
Can you really transfer your brain waves to another person, even if you study biofeedback for three years? For that matter, can you study biofeedback for three years? They didn't have that at UMass.
Overall: And... we're back. An episode whose reach exceeds its grasp. It's trying to go someplace it hasn't yet, but it's let down by the limited range of its female lead. It gets points for trying, though.
Be My Baby
Writer: Jule Selbo
The Plot: Barry helps a young runaway mother escape from the father (Bryan Cranston, Hal from Malcolm in the Middle), who happens to be a wanted criminal. In exchange, she takes off and leaves him her baby.
Good Stuff: That baby is pretty damned cute. And Shipp is great in his scenes with her.
I bet you never thought you'd get to see Hal throw a shuriken into someone's neck.
Not So Good Stuff: Cranston's over-the-top style that was so funny on Malcolm is grating when he's a villain of the week.
The music in the episode is cheesy as hell. It's easily the worst in the series. Shirley Walker! Why?
Random Observations: The henchman (Robert Z'Dar of Maniac Cop, and the MST3K episode "Soultaker") has a face as big as a stop sign. Seriously. You know how you and I have a point on the sides of our heads where our faces stop? When he gets to that point, he has more face.
Overall: This is another story, like "Beat the Clock" (only not as good) that really didn't need to have the Flash in it. Your enjoyment of this episode hinges on whether that will ruin it for you. There's some good stuff here; John Wesley Shipp is fantastic. There's also some bad stuff here; most of the guest cast is screechy and overwrought. In the end it balances out to a perfectly serviceable episode that does its job.
Writer: Gail Morgan Hickman
Guest starring: Michael Nader as Nicholas Pike
The Plot: An explosion blasts the Flash 10 years into the future, and in his absence, Central City has been taken over by his brother's murderer, Pike.
Good Stuff: A good job is done depicting a city totally gone to hell. Dirty, crowded, noisy, falling apart — there's a palpable misery that covers everything.
Michael Nader, while still not bringing home any awards, is somewhat better in this episode than he was in the pilot. A lot of that has to do with the character himself; he's gone from an overblown biker thug to a criminal mastermind. Not a shabby career arc. (But he brought an even sillier haircut with him.)
Not So Good Stuff: It's hard to create a believable dystopian future when everything is still covered in pastel neon lights.
It takes a huge suspension of disbelief to imagine that Central City could get this bad with no intervention by state or federal authorities.
Random Observations: This is the first episode in which Barry unmasks onscreen. Assumedly, there was a suit redesign; it doesn't fit his neck as snugly as it did before.
Overall: I had to double check to make sure this wasn't a Chaykin / Moore episode. This is the one I was most looking forward to re-watching; even more so than "The Trickster," this is the episode that I remember really enjoying when I first saw it at age 16. I'm not disappointed. Hickman creates a believable world that uses the Flash's mythology (even though that mythology is only 15 episodes old) and gets there via a plot device that really only works on this show. Great episode.
Disc Four is the best one so far. There's not one but two classic episodes ("The Trickster" and "Fast Forward") and neither of the other two are actually bad. And for a show that can be as inconsistent as this one, that's pretty damn good.
So at this point, the series is really beginning to find its stride. We have yet to actually have two notable episodes in a row, but the ones that are good are very good. Its ability to be consistently entertaining is getting stronger, though, and when we wrap up our look at The Flash next week, we're going to see a run of great episodes that indicates that the producers had finally figured out what their show could do that no other program on network TV could, just in time for CBS to screw it up.