Tuesday, January 20, 2015

“The Flash” (1990 TV show): short series, big impact

The freshman CW hit show The Flash has me reflecting more than usual on a show from the past.

My freshman year of college, I had a subscription to TV Guide but no TV. No matter, because there was only one show I wouldn’t miss: The Flash on CBS.

I remember finding it funny how TV Guide had to reword the marketing of its original ad when it reran the premiere:

This was a year after Tim Burton’s juggernaut Batman, and its aesthetic was forced on the Flash, a character who had never been grim—in fact quite the opposite. So the show struck a divided tone—gritty, often dark Flash sequences, cheeky and at times cheesy Barry Allen scenes. (Part of the cheese was simply a symptom of the times—it was the fashion era of baggy pants. Please Allen, don’t hurt ‘em.)

I loved how the Flash pilot copied Batman with a scene in which something (the Batwing in Batman, a bolt of lightning in Flash) turned the moon into the emblem of the title hero:

The show was canceled after one season, though the factors were cost and competition more than quality...this TV Guide review aside:

My commitment to this show began with a commitment to the character who, as it happens, had “died” five years earlier. In the landmark 1985 comic book maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths, Barry Allen nobly sacrificed himself to save multiple worlds. In comics, deaths are typically temporary, but this one would last a notable 23 years.

So in 1990, Barry Allen was a memory in print but a, well, flash of fresh air on TV. He was the first live-action DC hero whose show felt like a movie rather than a TV show (see Superboy, Wonder Woman, Batman).

It turned out that the original pitch for the show that became The Flash was called Unlimited Powers and featured four heroes. It would have been an eclectic assortment with no comic book precedent: the Flash, Green Arrow’s daughter, Dr. Occult, and Blok (from the Legion of Super-Heroes). Deemed too expensive if not too odd, the Flash (as he does) broke away from the pack and the other three characters were ditched.

It was a thrill when, in 2009, I reached out to its star, John Wesley Shipp, on Facebook, and he reached back. He seems every bit as cool in real life as his character was on the show.

The Flash, for all intents, was a two-actor show: Shipp and Amanda Pays as scientist/friend/guide/inevitable love interest Tina McGee. A third actor, Alex Desert, was included in the opening credits, and others (mostly cops) recurred in small roles, but most of the show revolved around Barry and Tina. (A 2009 interview with both actors at a conthe first one Pays attended.) In the current TV incarnation of the Flash, his behind-the-scenes team (Harrison Wells, Caitlin Snow, and Cisco Ramon) alone is bigger than that. Castwise, The Flash ‘90 seems so simple in our era of shows with, commonly, at least six regulars who appear roughly equally.

90 is the first filmed DC entertainment with an “Oracle” figure. Oracle herself (Barbara Gordon as information broker/Big Sister Is Watching, after the Joker crippled her in a 1988 story) debuted in 1989, a year before The Flash. Tina was that show’s Oracle, and a variation of her has since appeared in Smallville (Chloe Sullivan), Arrow (Felicity Smoak), and Flash 14 (Caitlin Snow). All are tech guru-esses, all have some degree of romantic chemistry with the lead hero. (In the case of Caitlin, I may be inferring a storyline that will not come to pass.)

Tina McGee made her debut appearance on Flash 
14 in the “mid-season finale” (a transparently manipulative term/concept that, of course, didn’t exist in 1990). This was especially interesting because Tina was again played by Amanda Pays—but it was not the same Tina from the previous show. It couldn’t be—she knew Barry Allen, and Grant Gustin is no John Wesley Shipp. (I mean that literally—not as a dig.)

Is this the first instance of the same actor portraying two versions of the same character? It’s definitely the first instance of one actor portraying a character of the same name on two separate shows of the same name…followed closely by Mark Hamill as the Trickster, which was announced 12/8/14, the day before the mid-season finale. (The day after would have made more sense to me.) 

Flash 90 was an attempt—now ubiquitous—to do filmed superheroes “realistically.” A prime example: no spandex. The way the show explained why Barry wore a costume—and where the costume came from—both struck me as pretty close to realistic, or at least believable. He wore a costume (and specifically requested that it have a mask and gloves) to protect his identity when seeking revenge—or justice—for the murder of his brother. The costume was a prototype developed for cosmonauts (red, get it?), designed to withstand pressure and friction.

While most everyone is binge-watching critically acclaimed contemporary shows such as Homeland, Game of Thrones, and Orange Is the New Black, I’m reverse-flashing to Maroon Is the New Red.

Episode-specific observations (some I recalled from original viewing, some new):

“Watching the Detectives” features a cameo by Frankie Thorn, whom I interviewed for her appearance in the “We Didn’t Start the Fire” video by Billy Joel, though at the time, I did not know/remember she had been in that Flash episode.
(See below for a similar discovery in “Done With Mirrors.”) 

In the same episode, Tina name-drops Carter Hall…AKA Hawkman. That was the only time, and he never appeared on The Flash in the flesh. (It was also the only time another DC character who did not appear was mentioned within show continuity.)

Also in the same episode is what might be my all-time favorite scene from the series, in which a crooked DA, who used a shady method to learn the Flash’s secret identity, tries to bribe Barry. When Barry plays dumb, the DA threatens him with an armed grenade. The DA says “In your short career, you’ve already made enemies in all the wrong places, Barry. If your identity was made public, everyone you love would be in danger from everything in Central City. Your family, your friends, your dog…here boy! Fetch! Four-second fuse. Three…two…”

I don’t believe the scene is on YouTube so here are screenshots showing how Barry let go of a glass, flashed to the grenade, reinserted the pin (which in real life, I believe, would not stop the grenade from exploding), set the grenade on his desk, and caught the glass, which had fallen only an inch or two:

“Honor Among Thieves” contains an inadvertent nod to the future Dynamic Duo of the CW: Flash and Arrow.

In the climactic scene, the Flash uses a bow and arrow to trap a villain.

(Another Arrow connection: on Flash ‘90, David Cassidy played Mirror Master; his daughter Katie plays Laurel Lance on Arrow.)

In “Double Vision,” a flashily-dressed pimp(like) character, upon seeing the Flash for the first time, says “Hey! Red Suit! One cool drag, man!” This sure feels like a reference to a classic moment in Superman: The Movie (1978) in which a flashily-dressed pimp character, upon seeing Superman for the first time, says, “Say, Jim…woo! That’s a bad outfit! Woo!”

Speaking of Superman, part 2: In “Child’s Play,” in a scene I vividly remembered from 25 years ago, Barry walks his dog past a movie theater showing a particularly apt double feature (which presumably situates Barry in a world where his usual comrades are fictional):

When his dog tries to go into the theater, Barry says “Hey, don’t we get enough of that?” 

Speaking of Superman, part 3: In “Captain Cold,” Barry jokingly refers to a pushy female reporter as “Lois Lane.” 

In “Ghost in the Machine,” Nightshade, a hero who was active in the 1950s and had since retired, cautions Barry, “Thirty-five years from now, who will remember the Flash?” It struck a chord then, in those pre-Internet days. It’s funny now in a meta way: 25 years after the show and that line, the Flash has been revived on TV. This series will definitely last longer than one season. Maybe not ten seasons, proving Nightshade’s “35 years” prophecy wrong, but this Flash shows no signs of slowing down.

Nightshade also says Barry hadn’t heard of him because the world was not on “video” during his mask-wearing years. Quaint as that is, the same episode also refers to “data networks,” “online,” and (to my great surprise) “the net,” which even four years later was still a mystery to many.

In “Fast Forward,” they flash a Flash figure, from the 1984 Super Powers line. At the time, it was the only Flash action figure that had been produced. (See corrective note in Xums comment below.)

Similar to Frankie Thorn appearing “Watching the Detectives,” another woman from my girl in the video series also guested on Flash (in “Done With Mirrors”): Signy Coleman, from two Huey Lewis and the News videos.

In the series finale (which, in those days, was not marketed as the “series finale”), the Trickster returns and acquires a sidekick named Prank.

This episode aired in May 1991. In September 1992, on Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn debuted. She was a sexy, crazy, female criminal who was obsessed with the Joker…just as Prank was a sexy, crazy, female criminal obsessed with the Trickster. What makes this worth pointing out is that both the Trickster and the Joker were played by Mark Hamill.

Only a week after Flash 14 premiered, Warner Bros. announced a significant five-year slate of movies based on DC Comics superheroes, including the Flash. He will be played by Ezra Miller, which made waves for two reasons: one, Ezra Miller is not Grant Gustin, who had just started in the role and two, Barry Allen (nor any of the other Flashes in comics) is not gay but Miller is. (This was not a controversy, merely a conversation point.)

However, Miller is not the first openly gay actor to play a straight superhero. In fact, he’s not even the first openly gay actor to play the Flash. Though private about his private life, including his sexuality, John Wesley Shipp (according to numerous reports) is gay.

About the time Flash 
90 aired, I began collecting various series of magazine advertisements, including the then-famous Absolut Vodka campaign. (I wasn’t a drinker but I liked some of the ads.)

My friend Traci, who had a TV and generously let me watch Flash in her room, made me this (with an assist from her roommate Lauren):

And four years later, my Flash fixation (Flashation?) was still present enough that the graduation gifts my good friends Justin and his tolerant girlfriend-now-wife Deb bought me were all Flash-related:

I still have that figurine.

In sum, I loved Flash 
90 then, and still love it now. I really like Flash 14 now, and I don’t have a Cosmic Treadmill to verify this, but I think I’ll still like it in 2038.

Of the 22 episodes, I recommend these 16 (yes, hardly narrowed down!) and most highly recommend those in bold:

“Watching the Detectives”

“Honor Among Thieves”
“Double Vision”
“Sins of the Father”
“Shroud of Death”
“Ghost in the Machine”
“Sight Unseen”
“Beat the Clock”
“The Trickster”
“Deadly Nightshade”
“Captain Cold”

“Done with Mirrors”
“Good Night, Central City”
“Alpha” (mainly due to cool use of Flash’s power in climax)
“The Trial of the Trickster”


Tia said...

I'm pretty sure it's Cisco who is the tech guru of the team not Caitlin.

Also there is no romantic chemistry between Barry and Caitlin. Her being a woman does not automatically make her a love interest.

Aside from that interesting article.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thanks Tia. I would call both Caitlin and Cisco tech gurus, but different kinds - Caitlin an "information broker" (which I referred her as earlier) and Cisco an engineer.

There was an episode - and I can't remember which - where it seemed like they were setting up potential chemistry between Barry and Caitlin. I thought they were doing it to complicate things just before Ronnie came back.

Xum Yukinori said...

Great article, Marc.

The Flash 2014 episode in question is "Things You Can't Outrun" (which featured "the Mist"). I believe the hint of attraction was due to the episode drawing a lot of parallels between Barry and Caitlin's fiance Ronnie Raymond -- which also brought to mind the "I'm not your husband, Tina" line from the 1990 Flash pilot. In fact, a similar line was uttered by Barry to Caitlin in the Flash 2014 episode, "Flash vs. Arrow."

Speaking of similarities between shows, the scene from the second episode of the 2014 Flash, where Barry does the job of the lab's broken centrifuge, is very similar to a scene done in the 1991 Flash episode "Angel of Death" (both Barrys even smack the side of the unresponsive machine...).

And a little clarification bordering on the nitpicky: The action figure shown in "Flash Forward" was actually from the 1989 "DC Comics Super Heroes" line from Toy Biz (the second Flash action figure released), and NOT the 1984 Super Powers figure from Kenner. I have both figures and the head and body sculpt of the Toy Biz figure matches what is on your screen-capture.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thanks Xum, and mucho impressed at your recall, attention to detail, and additional observations!

hobbyfan said...


One big reason why the 1990 Flash bombed was what was airing opposite it----The Cosby Show. Enough said.

Producers Danny Bilson & Paul DeMeo mined the DCU again a couple of years later for the first Human Target series, and, yep, that bombed, too.

"T.V. Barnum" said...

They edited together "made for video" movies for VHS/Laserdisc.

The two "Trickster" episodes were cut together as "Flash II : Revenge of The Trickster" (VHS only domestically, but a laserdisc in English with Japanese Subs in Japan) and "Flash III:DEadly Nightshade", From the two "Nightshade" episodes only released overseas on VHS.

The show was not seen domestically until The Scifi Channel aired it in the late 1990's.

bonesfan said...

This is a really great article!!! I'm really happy they decided to use MR. Shipp as Barry's Dad and now JAY GARRICK. The 1990 series was ahead of it's time and really fun to watch - I was very upset when they cancelled it>

Unknown said...

There was one episode where Caitlyn was drunk and showed some feelings for Barry

Unknown said...

They constantly moved the show around...it was hard to even know what day or time it would be on sometimes