The Flash and the Problems of ‘Niceness’
The CW network has been delivering solid-to-excellent TV versions of the DC universe for a while now. Yes, ok, we could talk till the cows come home about how spectacularly Arrow has gone off the rails.* Or we could natter about how each CW show has varying degrees of that patented CW corniness (which actually works like gangbusters when they get the mix right). But we could also talk about how they got me invested in a superhero soap opera (again, hello Arrow) through smart storytelling and character development. In fact, DC’s cinematic universe would do well to note the care and attention CW’s showrunners pay to character.
Let’s take The Flash as an example. Because the show nailed Barry Allen’s portrayal so superbly it’s easy to overlook all the headaches Allen could cause a slapdash creator. At his most basic surface level, Barry Allen is a nice guy with a tragic backstory. This origin story would appear to come gift-wrapped for film and TV, but the transition to live-action is fraught with potential missteps.
Because here’s the thing; niceness does not equal likeability. Niceness without character growth equals dullness. The occasional quip or wink to the audience is great, but it isn’t enough. You need someone who can radiate decency and project a flawed and rounded human being. Step forward, Grant Gustin:
Casting really deserves a bonus because it’s as if Gustin was born to play The Flash. His Barry is boyish, keen, awkward and curious about the world. He radiates inner decency in a way I haven’t seen since Christopher Reeve era Superman. As I’ve watched the character evolve through multiple seasons I’ve seen him grow as a person, deal with his flaws and not always make the right choice. Yes, he’s adorbs, but underneath the surface charm, Gustin is working like crazy to make Barry a believable and nuanced human being (or, meta-human, in the parlance of the show). The show is also striving to throw challenges in Barry’s way that are not only a test of his powers, but of his moral integrity. Occasionally it can feel like the plot is twisting itself in knots to do so, but the effect is that we feel included in the story. It is as if we are taking the journey with Barry and this makes it much easier to root for him.
When The Flash speeds by I’m always royally entertained. But sometimes, it’s worth dropping out of the speedforce, so we can appreciate the care and attention that goes into such crafting such an excellent show.
*Although having watched the first episode of the current season, I am cautiously optimistic.