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Get with the Program: CBS’ The Flash (1990 – 1991) 

A funny little thing happened in the summer of 1989…a then-up-and-coming director put out a little movie you may have heard of…Batman…you know…with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson?  Yeah well that “little” movie started a huge phenomenon known as “batmania” that has never really gone away.  With the success of the movie, superheroes made a dramatic return to the forefront of pop culture, and you better believe that the executives at all the TV networks were scrambling to get their hands on comic book properties to turn in to new franchises. 

Photo Credit: CBS

One series that was born from this was 1990’s The Flash on CBS. It was dark, visceral, and modeled a lot after Tim Burton’s Batman film (even Danny Elfman who did the score for Batman composed the theme for The Flash while Shirley Walker did the rest of the score for the series, and then she went on to do Batman: The Animated Series…it all comes full circle). Many have called The Flash ahead of it’s time and a show that left us far too soon, and with the recent box office bomb that was The Green Lantern, I’d say this is probably our only chance of seeing a live action DC character that’s not Batman or Superman in the foreseeable future.

Photo Credit: CBS

Barry Allen (John Wesley Shipp) is a police forensic scientist who is struck by lightning in his forensic lab and has chemicals spilled on him (why is every super hero a clumsy scientist who spills radioactive crap on themselves?) and is granted super speed capabilities. After his brother is murdered, Barry goes to his friend Tina (Amanda Pays) at S.T.A.R. labs and has her create his Flash suit and thus a hero is born. Along with Tina and his friend Julio (Alex Desert), the Flash fights not only common thugs and criminals, but also a deadly arsenal of rogues gallery villains.

So one of the first questions any real comic book geek will ask about a live action adaptation of their favorite hero is about the suit. Rest assured, the Flash suit is one of the coolest looking super hero suits I’ve seen not only in TV, but film as well. I did a little research and found out that the suit was actually designed by Stan Winston studios, the same folks that brought you the Terminator endoskeleton and the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. So if you’re thinking this is going to be a low quality embarrassment, think again. One can argue that the look of the show may be a smidge dated, but it never looks cheap. Borrowing a lot aesthetically from Burton’s Batman, the show had almost a cinematic quality to it, especially when The Flash was in action.  If you’re going to copy someone, might as well copy from one of the best comic book movies of all time.

The other component that us comic book nerds tend to dwell on is how closely the live action adaptation sticks to the source material.  For The Flash, it was kind of a mixed bag. For the first handful of episodes Flash battles regular thugs and corrupt politicians. It wasn’t until midway through the show that some of the more popular and familiar super villains made appearances.

Mark Hamill

The most famous of these villains was the Trickster played by Mark Hamill (who would later go on to be the voice of The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series…another connection) who was The Flash’s arch enemy. His performance was over the top and ridiculous but appropriate for the character and was a mixture of the Riddler and the Joker in one explosive package. Most importantly, the character right down to his costume was extremely accurate to the comics.

David Cassidy

Other major villains such as Mirror Master (played by former teenage heartthrob David Cassidy) and Captain Cold made appearances on the show, but they were more modern versions of the characters and didn’t adhere to the comics as much as the Trickster did.

Photo Credit: CBS

As far as the characterization of The Flash, this was the original Barry Allen version and not the young, mouthy Wally West version that a lot of people are familiar with. Still, John Wesley Shipp does an admirable job playing Barry and makes a very convincing Flash when in the suit. The entire cast does a good job of making the show believable without taking themselves too seriously.

So if this show is so great, why did it get canceled after one season? Well there are a few reasons for that. The show was preempted multiple times during it’s run for coverage of the ongoing Gulf War. That along with frequent time slot shifts made it hard for viewers to routinely find and watch the show. The other problem with it was that it was indeed not a cheap show to make. You don’t get Stan Winston quality without shelling out some major money and with the ratings not being the greatest it was hard to justify such a high per-episode price tag. In the end, the show just couldn’t build any momentum and was cancelled after the first season.

With the Flash character being pivotal in the new DC comics relaunch (the ongoing series Flashpoint is supposed to directly tie into DC renumbering all of their comic titles in September) the character has never been more popular than he is right now. It’s a shame the show didn’t last very long but we do have those 22 episodes available on DVD to watch and reminisce about a simpler time for superheroes. Hopefully if The Flash ever does get another new series or a movie they treat it with as much respect as this series got.

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