Flash of Two Networks
By Philip Schweier
June 25, 2015 - 11:23
been a comic book fan a long time, so back in 1991, I was pleased to learn they
were making a Flash TV series, but having been burned so many times, I was
skeptical at the same time. I was confident that the writers, producers and
stars would do their best, but often a TV show is at the mercy of the network,
especially when it comes to important factors such as budget and time slot.
The series launched with a great deal of ambition, but like many
genre shows, it was expensive to produce. According to John Wesley Shipp, who
starred as the Scarlet Speedster, the show was budgeted at $6.5 million, the
most expensive show Warner Brothers had ever produced for television up to that
point. Expectations were high, leading to a backlot premier, and a tremendous
amount of press.
The Flash TV series debuted on CBS in 1990
The series debuted September 20, 1990, pitted against The Cosby Show and
The Simpsons, both at the peak of their popularity. Shipp believes CBS
may have been too confident. “That was a tough time slot, but still, in our
debut, we held our own. We obviously didn’t win the time slot, but a new show
coming in, the president of CBS said, ‘If you guys continue to do those kinds
of numbers, we’re satisfied.’ ”
In retrospect, it’s easy to make comparisons to Tim Burton’s Batman and
Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy films. Both movies created this other world
in which such characters exist, and CBS’s The Flash seemed intent on
following the same path, complete with music by Danny Elfman.
TV shows from any given era are often a reflection of the sensibilities of the
period. Perhaps the original Flash appears dated and a little goofy, but its
pedigree is pure. Several scripts were written by comic creator Howard Chaykin,
who has at times expressed a disdain for super-heroes, and often attempts to
give his heroes real-world sensibilities.
The series producers, Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, struggled for several years
to bring Dave Steven’s creation The Rocketeer to the big screen. While its
box office returns were somewhat lackluster at the time, the film is regarded
fondly by its many fans, and they treated the Flash with the same respect.
According to Shipp, the initial concept was that it would be a
gritty crime show and the one ‘real’ element would be speed. “But as it went
on,” he says, “not only in storyline but in look, suddenly I was watching
dailies and at one point particularly, it was getting very bright, very
colorful – too much, I thought. It should be kept grittier and darker with more
of an adult sensibility, but there again, when your ratings aren’t as high as
you might want them to be, other people come in with a bunch of ideas about how
to fix that.”
John Wesley Shipp
Maintaining an even pace with two primetime powerhouses every week proved
difficult for the freshman series. The network compounded that by preempting
the series twice, first on account of the World Series, then because of the
start of the first Gulf War. With ratings dwindling, CBS decided to move The
Flash from 8-9:00 Thursday to 8:30-9:30. Finally The Flash was moved off Thursdays entirely.
Shipp claims what was disturbing was the comic book fans were writing and
calling and saying, “Where are you? We can’t find you.” Obviously, if a show’s
core audience can’t find it, then there’s very little hope. “We were an
industry hit,” the actor argues. “I had two or three TV Guide covers. I
was on Jay Leno twice. He loved the show. The president of CBS was saying ‘This
is our hit.’ But it was very poorly managed.”
After only a single season of 21 episodes, the race for ratings reached the
finish line, with The Flash in last
It amazes me to think that 25 years have passed since the series ran. Watching
it on DVD, it does not feel terribly dated. Okay, some of the fashions perhaps,
and familiar actors are much younger. But there isn’t that extraordinary sense
of distance seen in other revivals, such as the quarter-century gap between
George Reeves’ Adventures of Superman and Christopher Reeve’s Superman
– The Movie.
So when the CW announced a new Flash TV series, I couldn’t help but once again
be skeptical. How could the new series’ producers, Greg Berlanti and Marc
Guggenheim, achieve what Bilson and DeMeo could not?
To begin with, Berlanti and Guggenheim intended to build upon the
success of Arrow, their television version of DC’s Green Arrow by tying
the two shows together. Also, television has evolved, both narratively and
technologically. Special effects for genre-related shows are much more affordable,
and storytelling on television has evolved away from the one-and-done format of
the early ‘90s.
Grant Gustin, as the Flash, with Stephen Amell as Green Arrow
One of the charms of the new Flash TV series is its respect for its audience;
not just the current crop of comic book fans, but older fans like myself who
recall what has come before. Despite the fact that the earlier series lasted
only one season, Berlanti and Guggenheim acknowledge the Flash’s TV history by
including respectful nods to the original series.
Shipp, who played the original Barry Allen, now plays Barry Allen’s father.
While he may not appear in each episode, it’s a pivotal role, providing an
emotional compass for the “new” Barry, Grant Gustin. The father/son bond
between the two is evident in every scene they share.
Amanda Pays co-starred as STAR Labs scientist Tina McGee on the
1991 series. Her scientific and technical expertise served the same function as
the staff of STAR Labs on the current series, lending support to Barry’s
activities as the Flash. Since then, Pays has reprised her role as a former
colleague of STAR Labs founder Harrison Wells. In her initial appearance, she
came across as bitchy and not at all likeable, but as the curtain was pulled
back to reveal Wells true nature, her resentment toward him was more understandable.
Mark Hamill was already famous for his role as Luke Skywalker when he took on
the role of the villainous Trickster in two episodes of the first Flash TV
series. His over-the-top Joker-like persona may have led him to winning the
role of the Clown Prince of Crime on the animated Batman series of the early
1990s. On the CW version, he reprised the same character, having been in prison
all these years, and now passing the torch of crime on to a new generation of
Another original cast member to appear on the new show is Vito
D’Ambrosio, who played a supporting role as Officer Tony Bellows. Since then,
Bellows has ascended the ranks of Central City public service. D’Ambrosio
portrayed Mayor Anthony Bellows in the same Trickster episode.
With such ties to the earlier show, the question arises: Why is one Flash
series succeeding where another failed? Such a puzzle can only be resolved if
the playing field were even, and they have not been. The earlier series was at
the mercy of an entertainment corporation whose greatest concern was the bottom
line. Perhaps the same can be said of the new series, but it helps that CW is
owned by the same corporate parent as DC Entertainment. Rebranding the comic
book publisher into a general entertainment company further streamlines the
general cost of doing business, and increases the profit margin.
Generational nods aside, Berlanti and Guggenheim have crafted an overall story
arc, introducing supporting roles, antagonists and peripheral characters that
continually move the plot threads forward. Everyone involved in the show, from
in front of the camera, behind the camera, and in the back office, has
contributed a certain amount of fertility to the show’s direction.
CW’s Flash series is headed for a
second season, something the earlier show was denied. Granted, the two Flash
shows have been on different networks, at different times, which have different
agendas. To their respective networks, Bilson and DeMeo may have had less of a
track record than Berlanti and Guggenheim.
As long as the Flash continues to turn a respectful profit, we can look forward
to more. As for the feature film currently scheduled for release in 2018, only
time will tell. Once more, I can’t help but be skeptical, but I’ve been wrong
*John Wesley Shipp's comments are taken from a panel at Dragon Con, 2007
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