‘The Flash’ Is a Police Procedural in Superhero Spandex, and That’s a Good Thing

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The Flash opens with what has, since the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, become standard operating procedure for comic book adaptations: an origin story. Only this time, we’re learning it as it’s told by Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) — the Flash — to somebody else. This is important, because what seems to be one of the driving elements of this series is that — unlike Spider-Man, or Superman, or Batman — Barry Allen doesn’t know why or how he became the Flash. And, in a shocking bit of TV-writing restraint, neither do we.

What we do know is that, when Allen was a child, he awoke one night to a ball of lightning swimming through his house, eventually killing his mother. The police, of course, did not believe this story and instead locked Allen’s father in prison, leaving him alone and without his parents.

Part of what works so well about this pilot is that it doesn’t present itself simply as a stepping stone to a bigger superhero mythology. By what we think is the end of the origin story, Allen has yet to even become the Flash, and we’re thrown into the action as if it’s just another police procedural. We find ourselves at the scene of a bank robbery-turned-homicide, where the slow-moving-but-brilliant forensics assistant Barry Allen quickly analyzes tire tracks and “fecal excrement” to crack the case. (Not only is he late to a crime scene, he also fails to chase down a mugger. Oh, Barry Allen! As a normal person, your body is so slow, but your mind is so fast!)

As a forensics assistant, Allen works closely with his foster father Detective Joe West — played by none other than Jesse L. Martin, i.e. Detective Ed Green on nine seasons of Law & Order. The police lingo is still strong in Martin, and the ease with which he plays the fatherly cop adds some much needed gravitas to a show that could very easily become cheap, hammy, and entirely unbelievable. (In a happy instance of self-awareness, the show’s narration actually begins by asking viewers to suspend their disbelief.)

West has a daughter, too, named Iris (Candice Patton), and she is not only Allen’s foster sister but is also, kind of grossly, his potential love interest. She is omnipresent and pleasant but largely inconsequential to the plot, always there but not doing much other than needing saved. The one thing she manages to do is convince Allen to go to S.T.A.R. Labs (acronym-titled organizations are so in), where Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh, a welcome presence in any TV show) is activating his physics-world changing particle accelerator. Things go awry and the accelerator explodes, of course, and it’s this event that transforms the show from a simple procedural to a simple procedural with superheroes. Allen is struck by lighting — or rather, as someone later says, “chosen” by lightning — and put into a coma for 9 months, only to be reborn as the Flash as Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” blares in the background.

But, not really. First, we meet Wells’ assistants, the “uptight” Dr. Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) and the “quirky” Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes). From within the ruins of S.T.A.R. Labs they explain to Allen what happened to him: “You were struck by lightning, dude.” Allen replies, looking into a mirror, “Lightning gave me abs?” (Here the writers are saying: It’s nonsense, but isn’t it hot nonsense!? Ugh, fine.) There is also some science that is just technical-sounding enough to seem plausible, but is also too simple to bother analyzing. (Basically, his cells do stuff — move, heal — fast.)

Then there is the obligatory hero-learns-new-moves sequence, which is usually the best part of any superhero movie. This is probably the only aspect of the origin story trope that is regrettably shortened for the TV format, but seeing as Allen’s main superpower is essentially moving fast, there’s not much for him to learn other than how to steer and stop. Still, kind of a missed opportunity for a dose of comedy.

But Allen doesn’t even have time for joking — or for shaming Iris for dating her dad’s partner — because a new spree of crimes intersects with his life in a meaningful way. A man has been robbing banks in neighborhoods all over Central City, and each robbery corresponds with a freakishly intense storm — a fact that everybody other than Allen sees as coincidental. This is because Allen, upon talking to Wells after discovering his super speed, has become privy to the fact that there may be others who were affected by the particle accelerator’s explosion.

Do you see what is coming next? The storm-causing criminal is the same criminal from the first crime! Only now he has super powers, so the police can’t stop him. This is the first time the Flash is tested as a hero, and it ends up bringing the show back onto itself in a way that, if done by a duller show, would seem contrived. Hell, after all is said and done, there’s even a potentially series-altering twist. But somehow, and perhaps it’s in the acting, here these things seem perfectly natural and completely unforced.

With The Flash, the CW has managed to do what it did with Smallville and Arrow: create compelling TV that happens to be about a superhero. (Or, sorry, as Wells says, “meta-human.”) Unlike other comic book-themed TV shows, The Flash does not rely on the synergy of outside properties to be interesting. There is some CW-verse crossover — I won’t say how — but it’s done briefly, almost as a way for the writers to say, “Hey, we know these show exist, and they are related to us, somehow, but that doesn’t mean we need to reference them every episode.” And yes, there are easter eggs for those who want to find them. (I am not the biggest follower of the Flash, and still there was an obvious “this is something important” that showed up in the S.T.A.R. Lab’s ruins.) But the show is not serving them up by the dozen.

The Flash has been around since 1940, but he’s always played second fiddle to Batman and Superman — hell, even the Green Lantern. Maybe that’s both a blessing and a curse for the Flash, which is familiar and beloved but not über popular: It doesn’t have those well-worn crutches to keep fans coming back, but it also doesn’t have that obligation. And so that’s why there is hope for The Flash, with all its excellently executed tropes and cliché characters: Based on the pilot, there is a real admiration for Barry Allen and his story, as well as the stories of the people around him. And if the comic book movies of the past decade have taught us anything, it’s that strong characters beat cookie-cutter superheroes any day of the week.