Did a short-lived TV program ruin a great comic?

February 1, 2010

Itís possible that the Flash TV show affected the comics

By Avi Green

In the past few years, particularly since Identity Crisis, the Flash is among many DC properties thatís suffered very badly from mishandling and misuse.

Eerily enough though, as I may have figured out recently, that misuse may be traceable as early as the short-lived Flash television series starring John Wesley Shipp, later a co-star on Dawsonís Creek, in the title role. Indeed, it very well may have served as a precursor to some, if not all, of the problems Geoff Johns and company at DC have heaped upon it today.

The series, which had about 22 episodes filmed during 1990-91, was clearly ďinspiredĒ by Tim Burtonís Batman movie the year before, even if itís done more according to TV standards than what a silver screen production could offer.

I recently found and watched 2-3 episodes of it on You Tube, including the pilot (To view it, here's parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve). Iíll say in fairness that Shipp is a pretty good performer, and Amanda Pays looks so surprisingly like Iris West Allen, you have to wonder why they named her character here after Tina McGee, the scientist whom Wally West had an affair with at the beginning of the second volumeís run in 1987, instead of that of Barry Allenís wife (that honor goes to another girl here with black hair). But beyond that, there is decidedly little else Iím willing to recommend this rendition of the famous comic book.

Certainly there seems to be a lot going for this production of yesteryear. But by the time I was done watching the pilot, and seeing the brother Barry Allen is given here perish at the hands of the ex-cop who was his former partner turned gang leaderÖI couldnít help feel more than a bit insulted.

Yep, you read that right, and thatís one of the main problems Iíve got here when I ponder the problems facing the Scarlet Speedster since the turn of the century Ė it suffers from more than a bit of darkness, the death-as-motivation being just one of the problems. Barry, as depicted here, is a scientist for the Central City police department who has several other family members whoíve also been police officers, his brother included. The cityís been terrorized by a motorcycle gang led by a former policeman whoíd been the partner of Jay Allen (one of the likely nods this series had to the comics cast like Jay Garrick). A very vicious villain this ex-cop is too, I might add, with scars on his face, who even arms himself with a diver's knife, and whose gang has caused at least several deaths; at the start, we see them bombing a police car, and I do believe thereís some patrolmen in it. Later on, during the showdown at the city prison, we hear the cops stationed outside note how the joint has serial killers imprisoned there too (shudder).

So not only do they rob and loot, theyíre even willing to stoop to murder and death. Iím going to be quite honest here, but thatís just one example of how this series sadly could not escape darkness, and owes more than a bit to the Batman movie directed by Tim Burton from the previous year. Clearly, that was a considerable influence on this appalling botch; even the theme music sounds very reminiscent of the 1989 movie. (That shouldnít be too surprising, considering the composer was none other than Danny Elfman.)

There were at least 3 villains appearing here too taken from the comics Ė Mirror Master, Trickster, and Captain Cold, and the latter was depicted here as an assassin for hire. When I saw how the pilot was written, and, when I realized what they had done to what was once the character of Leonard Snart, a criminal who robbed banks and jewelry stores for the sport of it, but stopped short of actually killing innocents, I was no longer amused. Is this Captain Cold they based this character on, or is it Mr. Freeze from Batmanís roguesí gallery? (And yes, I know that in the episode in question, it started off with "Cold" slaying some gangsters on rival turf, but that's still no excuse.)

See, this is exactly the problem with various crime series for many years now Ė they rely too much on plots involving murder and even rape Ė and donít seem content to try plots focusing on robberies, kidnappings, hijackings, counterfeiting rackets, and aggravated assaults. Law & Order plus its spinoffs (Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent) are leading perpetrators of this problem. Why does virtually every story in those series occillate around a murder, yet almost none of them, if at all, ever have a story where the foremost investigation is about a robbery?

Now itís not like the Flash television series was solely focused upon those kind of plots (and in fairness, even the comics werenít without their own share of more violent scenarios). Even so, it was a far cry from the comics, where murder was not the leading crisis in Central City. Thus, we have a series where the hero is motivated by the death of his brother, apparently because if he werenít, nobody would care. Iím not saying this should be done totally in synch with the comics, for heavenís sake, Iím not that kind of a purist! But with the way the Flash has been going downhill lately, and Geoff Johns has been maiming Barry Allenís background - twisting and warping it to fit todayís political correctness Ė thatís why I find producersí Paul DeMeo and Danny Bilsonís rendition here an insult to the intellect. Is this the Flash this TV show is based upon, or is it Batman?

Since Geoff Johns got his foot in the door at DC Comics a decade ago, some, if not all, of the stories heíd written in the Flash strangely bring to mind what this TV series had to offer as well, or even went farther, featuring disturbing violence you wouldnít have seen on TV even today. More precisely, this series, I fear, was an influence on Johns approach to the Flash years later, if only because of how police investigations into murder cases took a role there, and the series began taking on a tone less imaginative than what it had before. Could he have gotten any ďinspirationĒ from DeMeo and Bilsonís rendition? It wouldnít surprise me if he did. This was after all someone whoíd been a colleague of Richard Donner, who did several movies, the 1978 Superman film included, for the same studio that produced the Flash TV show, Warner Brothers, whose parent in Time Warner has owned DC Comics for many years now. But where Johns seems to draw his ideas is more from Lethal Weapon, one of the most violence-filled action franchises in movie history.

There may have been a time when I wouldíve thought it a shame this series didnít find success. Today, because I feel that this TV program influenced the would-be writers who got their hands on a once-great comic book, thatís why I really canít care less that it got canceled. Maybe if it hadnít been for how things have turned out in the time since, I wouldnít have been so bothered. But with the direction Johns has been taking things, thatís why I find this more alienating than enjoyable.

A better approach mightíve been if theyíd tried to emulate the approach of The A-Team. Alas, they didnít. And to make matters worse, in 2006, when DC was forcibly attempting to replace Wally West with Bart Allen, in the main role, and DeMeo and Bilson were given the job of writing the Flash based on ďname valueĒ only, they basically repeated what was in the TV series more than a bit, with a female scientist acting as advisor to Bart and even a whole gang running rampant around Keystone.

Iíve noticed at times that Warner themselves, beyond Superman and Batman, have not made much of an effort to adapt other DC characters to the big/small screen. But more troubling is that the ones whose viewpoint doesnít have much grit may be the first ones to be put on the back burner, because they supposedly canít figure out what to do, or how to translate them to live action. I suspect that the real problem they have is how to translate a concept with an optimistic tone to live action, and even if it isnít overly campy, they still dislike it. Thatís the main problem with the leftist crowd in Hollywood, I suspect, or any politically correct crowd, that they think darkness is the only way they can do adaptations of source materials like these. All these years, theyíve not only managed (theoretically), theyíve even concentrated carefully on how to handle a dark, bleak view of the world, so much that they canít think how to do the same with brightness and optimism.

To make matters worse, it appears that the Dark Knight movies have impacted even Spider-Man and any upcoming Superman movie for the worse. According to some of the latest news, thatís what Marvel Studios has in mind for Spidey, and now, theyíre going to reboot the whole franchise after rejecting Sam Raimiís proposal for making another sequel that would feature the Vulture. This has led not only to Raimiís departure from the projects, but also the leading members of the cast, like Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. Not that Iím complaining by now, though. Iíve grown so tired of the idea of adapting comics into live action movies, seeing how theyíve had more of a bad influence since 2000 on the source material than a good one, that it really doesnít make much difference. I wonít be surprised if their planned reboot tanks (in fact, I rather hope it does). Besides, Iíve got a feeling that by now, coming so rather short a time after the previous 3, the audience would find it silly to start all over again from scratch.

And in case I didnít mention, at the end of the Flash TV pilot episode, when the main villain is defeated, it looks like heís still alive even after he may have been electrocuted. (I donít get it, didnít he get zapped by that current?) In other words, justice not done! Iíll be quite clear here, but I was disappointed they didnít at least send him to the grave where he belonged for his murder of Jay Allen. Considering that Barry signaled he was Jayís brother, and even if the scum assumed he was just another policeman, he could probably have put 2 and 2 together later on in prison, thatís why I found that a rather dumbfounding moment. It's an example of weak writing for the finale.

If Johns got his inspiration in any way from DeMeo and Bilson's rendition on TV, I'm even more disgusted than ever. Because he allowed an approach that's more detrimental to what makes a bright/optimistic story work well get the better of him. As for DeMeo and Bilson, it's worth noting that their original attempt to translate Human Target for TV didn't work out well either, suggesting they really don't comprehend any of the material they were meddling with any more than the people who've come after them, like Geoff Johns. Yes, they did have success with the Rocketeer movie, as well as with Viper and The Sentinel, TV series that used comic book allusions but weren't actually based on any. But as far as DC and Marvel comics are concerned, I don't think they have anything it takes to make them work out well.

I suppose it's fair to note what some of the performers here did later on. DeMeo and Bilson went on to write the screenplay for the Rocketeer, and to create Viper and the Sentinel TV series, which were fairly more successful. Shipp, as mentioned, later became a co-star on Dawson's Creek for 4 of its 6 seasons. Pays went on to guest star in various TV series like 7th Heaven, and Mark Hamill, who guested as the Trickster here went on the most interesting venture of all: he began playing voice roles for various cartoons based upon DC's output like Batman, the Justice League, among others. And who knows, maybe they all found much better stuff than how this short-lived item turned out.

Copyright 2010 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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