ENTERTAINMENT
10/07/2014 02:24 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2014

What 'The Flash' Gets Right About Superheroes (And Why It Can Thank 'Arrow')

CW

It would be awful if "The Flash" were a drag, right? If the CW show, which debuts 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday and is based on the famous DC Comics character, lacked energy and vigor, viewers would end up struggling with a huge disconnect, given the abilities and name of the title character.

Happily, "The Flash" does not lack for energetic appeal. Its sprightly first hour is one of the most solidly entertaining pilots of the fall season, and it did the most important thing that first episodes must do: It made me eager to see what comes next. (As it happens, the only other excellent broadcast network drama pilot in an otherwise pallid crop also airs on the CW. Keep an eye out for the endearing "Jane the Virgin," which arrives Monday.)

If you've seen Season 2 of "Arrow," you're already aware that Grant Gustin, who had a great guest arc on that program last fall, was the perfect choice to play Barry Allen, a fresh-faced crime-lab scientist from Central City whose optimistic demeanor disguises a tragic past. Allen's mother died in mysterious circumstances when he was 11, and his father was falsely imprisoned for the crime. All these years later, Allen's still searching for the real killer, even as he adjusts to the fallout from an accident that left him with exceptional new abilities.

The brisk and engaging "Flash" pilot has a number of things in its favor. It has an immediate grasp of the kind of tone and pace that will serve this character well, and the appealing cast assembled around Gustin, particularly Tom Cavanagh as S.T.A.R. Labs entrepreneur Harrison Wells and Jesse L. Martin as Allen family friend Joe West, bodes well for "The Flash."

Another element that works is the fact that two-thirds of the creative team behind "Arrow," which enters its third season Wednesday, created the TV version of "The Flash." Given how good "Arrow" has gotten over the course of its two seasons, I'm optimistic that executive producers Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg will be able to get "The Flash" up to speed quickly (sorry, but it's not possible to write a Barry Allen story without employing a few puns).

One of the most enjoyable things about the past year or so has been hearing from viewers who have caught up with "Arrow" and enjoyed its emergence as one of television's most dependably entertaining and visually kinetic shows. Both seasons of "Arrow" will be on Netflix as of Wednesday, so if you're not familiar with the adventures of playboy-turned-crime fighter Oliver Queen, soon you'll have no excuse not to dive in.

With any luck, "The Flash," which has a lighter and more colorful look than the other CW superhero show, will end up being every bit as diverting as "Arrow." But the good news is, even as they stand now, there's something deeper going on in both programs. Neither "The Flash" nor the "Arrow" ignores the moral and emotional difficulties that their characters face: In truth, these challenges are what end up powering the storytelling.

It's one thing to have exceptional abilities and powers, but it's quite another to come to terms with pain, loss, loneliness and suffering. Barry Allen lost his mother and endured the sight of his father spending years in prison (in a nice touch, his father on the show is played by John Wesley Shipp, who played Allen in a previous "Flash" TV show). Oliver Queen is still coming to terms with the psychological scars of his five-year exile from home, the loss of his father and continuing family turmoil. Both shows are really about characters trying to find their place in the world -- men whose abilities sometimes give their lives meaning but don't necessarily help them form meaningful connections.

As dyed-in-the-wool comic-book fans, Kreisberg, Berlanti and "Arrow" executive producer Marc Guggenheim know that great visuals and exciting adventures aren't enough: They get that these stories need emotional weight and relationships worth investing in to truly take flight.

A couple of months ago, I spoke to Berlanti and Kreisberg about the challenges ahead for both "Arrow" and "The Flash." In Part 1 of the interview, they talked about "Arrow's" Hong Kong story line and the various characters and DC villains we'll be seeing in "The Flash" (they also discussed the gay characters we'll see in the new show). In Part 2, which is below, they talk about the differences between the two programs and how they have approached building the world of Barry Allen and expanding the saga of Oliver Queen.

Barry has these powers, and obviously Oliver studied all these forms of combat and archery and so forth, but he doesn't really have a power as such, not in the same way. Does that make "The Flash" a bit different?

Kreisberg: Yeah. Oliver in the pilot was as much the Green Arrow as he'll ever be, expertise-wise. The show is really an exploration of the evolution of his morality. But with "Flash," you have somebody who was just an ordinary guy leading his ordinary life, when suddenly he had these amazing abilities thrust upon him.

So much of the beginning of "Flash" is Barry discovering his powers, learning what he can do. Sometimes that's terrifying, sometimes that's humorous, and then he's also learning that, as powerful as he is, [there are things he can't do]. Sometimes he can be more heroic then he thought and then sometimes he's not able to save somebody. So it's a very different kind of superhero. And yet in a way, I think it's probably more relatable, because I think people can see themselves in Barry -- "What would I do? What kinds of decisions I would have to make?" I think Oliver is sort of ...

"I am a billionaire playboy with great abs."

Kreisberg: [laughs] Yeah, like you say, Oliver is a billionaire and he was a castaway and he's trained as an assassin. He's amazing and we love him and obviously the audience has connected with him, but there is something distancing about him. One of the great things about Barry and one of the amazing things about Grant is, he really pulls you in and you really feel for him. Because when Oliver walks into battle you're not really concerned for him, you're more worried about who he's going up against. With Barry, even though he has this ability, you're always worried for him.

Berlanti: We talked a lot about how "The Flash" is going to be different and how is it going to be similar. One thing we always talk about is how Oliver had an upbringing [and then he was changed] on that island. Beneath a pessimistic exterior, I believe, is this hopeful person, but it's just buried down so deep. The journey of the series is his journey back to that person.

Barry had this horrible thing happen to him as a kid, and yet he seems affable -- on the surface, he's optimistic, but I think beneath that there's a rage, there's an anger, there's a darker person. He's kind of a pessimist disguised as an optimist and Oliver is the opposite.

What did you learn in the first two seasons of "Arrow" that will help you hone "Arrow" and will help you make "The Flash"? What are the dos and don'ts that you feel like you've learned?

Kreisberg: As much success as "Arrow" had, creatively we feel like we had some stumbling moments and some learning curves, especially in Season 1. As the season progressed, especially in the back half of Season 1, we really started to figure out how to mix the personal stories with the crime stories, with the right amount of DC Comics, with the right amount of humor. And certainly Emily [Bett Rickards, who plays Felicity] emerging as she did really helped with that.

Now we really feel like while breaking "Arrow's" stories is always hard, it's no longer difficult, if that makes sense. And it's actually been really strange to work on "Flash," because in a lot of ways it's actually much more like writing some of the earlier shows that Greg and I have worked on, like "Everwood" and "Eli Stone." There's a lot more of that sort of emotional heart and humor to it.

Those elements are kind of baked in already.

Kreisberg: Yeah. And I think the hardest part of "Arrow" was finding that balance, and I think we have found it earlier on [with "Flash"]. We love the characters and that's really where our hearts lie. [Character] stuff is always hard work, but the hardest thing is really been figuring out how to actually make "Flash," the production aspect of it. "Flash" is so different from "Arrow" in the way it's made -- there are so many more visual effects. So as much as we've learned on how to make "Arrow" work, a lot of it has actually not been helpful in creating the a model for "Flash."

Berlanti: Every show is different to make, regardless of the genre. No matter where you're starting at, in terms of how strong the pilot is or how much improvement needs to happen, there's always the riddle of, "How are we going to do this every week and what works about this show and what doesn't work about it?" One big thing we learned is, get the best actors you can. Because to save money, to have that production value that audiences require at this point, there are going to be a lot of times you need great actors to make everything better, and that will save your butt.

My consistent critique of "Arrow" is that I always want more of the core trio of Diggle, Oliver and Felicity, but I understood in Season 2 that you had to fill out the world. But at the end of the season, when they were down to the core trio again at certain points, that was excellent.

Kreisberg: We did that really consciously, because Season 2 was about expanding the world and experimenting and obviously we brought on new characters. But we had always intended [to bring it back to the roots of the trio]. Oliver says, "It started with the three of us, it's time we got back to that." That was our mantra in the writers' room. I think that's why those last few episodes were so strong, and this season we're very conscious of that. And a lot of these early episodes are focused on the big three, and with the addition of Roy to that team.

The dynamic of S.T.A.R. Labs on "The Flash" is different, obviously, because [lead scientist] Harrison Wells is a darker character -– he's almost like a dark mentor. There are shady things happening there and we don't know the whole story there yet.

Berlanti: Harrison works on a couple of different levels. There's obviously the uber-mythology and what his role is in that. But then, within the show, it's kind of like a boy in search of his lost dad. Barry's father is in prison; he had his surrogate dad, [Joe West], who raised him, who is kind of his blue-collar father. And then he has this man who he wants to emulate and who wanted to be this is brilliant scientist. "Searching for Bobby Fischer" comes up when we talk about the dynamics of all these different sort of fathers in his life.

And there is a way that Wells is a real [key to the show]. Despite what other agenda he may or may not have, he's fully integrated into this squad. Part of the show is making science fun, it was always important for us to have kind of a "Big Bang Theory" crew around Barry that were his Scooby gang from the start.

How much of the "Flash" is going to be the search for his mother's murderer and how much is going to be a weekly procedural? It seems like if you let Barry just do his job, it could be "CSI: Barry Allen." How are you balancing those elements?

Kreisberg: As we have with "Arrow," there's the villain of the week, but there's the ongoing personal stories. Joss Whedon has taught us to have a Big Bad, so for "Flash" there will be a villain of the week, but then there's the ongoing story of finding on what happened that night, getting his father out of prison, and as the Big Bad's plans are slowly revealed, there is the deeper mystery of what's happening within the city.

Berlanti: One thing that's different is Joe didn't believe Barry all those years and that's expressed in the pilot, but [as the season progresses,] he does. He's a cop and he's going to want to figure out, as Barry does, what happened [to Barry's mom] that night. There are different people that get involved in the mysteries.

So the journey for Barry in this first season is just adjusting to what's been thrust upon him?

Berlanti: I think it's just like [the situation with] Oliver -- there are always multiple journeys. There's the overarching mystery of what happened that night as a kid. There are his abilities now. There is the changing world that's out there right now. There are things he's going to discover about that world. There's also the birth of The Flash [as a crime-fighter] in that world, and we activate [Joe's daughter and Barry's friend Iris West] that way. She's not just a love interest on the show or just a best friend. We all know she became a journalist in the comic book and [the show] is very much her origin story too. There are lots of fun elements that way.

When you've done the team-ups on "Arrow," like with the Suicide Squad, for example, it was really fun. Are you going to try to do with "Flash" or is it not the right time for that yet?

Kreisberg: Well, we're adding Ronnie Raymond. We will be seeing other DC Comics people. I think that for those kinds of things on "Arrow," we waited until Season 2 to do that, to where hopefully they didn't feel like gimmicks, they felt like it was the right time for those things to happen.

And even when we do stuff like that, [it has to be character-based]. When the Suicide Squad shows up, or Argus or Amanda Waller, those stories are really about Dig. It's always important for us to say, "This is a Dig episode," just as we say, "What's Oliver going through? What's Dig going through?" "Why is it important to tell this story?" And the icing on the cake is the Suicide Squad.

And that episode with the Birds of Prey really was about Laurel. The [description] of that was, "How does Laurel get her groove back after having lost her job?" Truthfully it's one of the first times we sat down and were less concerned with what Oliver was going through that week and really much more concerned with what Laurel was going through, because that was really her episode. It was really an episode for her and Sara. So since its early days on "Flash," every episode is revolving around what's Barry going through. Those kinds of meta team-ups are better served once our characters are fully in place.

Is "Arrow" different this season because he's kind of accepted as a hero? What's the overall character journey for Oliver?

Kreisberg: For him this season it's "Can I be Oliver Queen and the Arrow? Am I Oliver Queen or am I the Arrow?" When we pick up the season, it's really about -- for so many years they've been struggling for victory and now they have it. And sometimes victory is not as easy as fighting the war. [Executive producer] Marc Guggenheim, our other partner on "Arrow," likes to say that everything's coming up "Arrow" right now.

When we pick up, it's six months [after the Season 2 finale and] crime is down. [Quentin] Lance, who has taken a new position in the police department, has disbanded the anti-vigilante task force. Things are going really well, and of course, just when things are starting to go really well, we have to throw our characters into the wood chipper again. But Oliver's starting to feel like maybe there's a life for him beyond the hood. What he's struggling with in the first episode and is what he's going to be doing with the entire season is "Which one am I and who am I?" The theme of identity crops up in all of the characters over the course of the season.

Berlanti: One thing we always said is he had to lose his humanity to survive on the island and now in Hong Kong. Can a person, when they've gone to those places, can they regain their humanity piece by piece? And last year [Oliver's quest] was, "I'm not going to kill." And now I think it's can he ever be normal again? Can he ever have a regular life? Is that even possible for someone like him and all the things that go along with that -- family, love, a relationship? Dig says to him in the beginning of the year, "This is the best it's going to get. So you can't do it now, when?" That will be a big question, one we've seen many other heroes struggle with -- is it an either/or thing? "If I'm the Arrow, do I get to have any of those other normal people things or do I have to hang up the hood?"

"The Flash" airs 8 p.m. ET Tuesday. "Arrow" returns 8 p.m. ET Wednesday.

Ryan McGee and I have discussed "Arrow" many times (sometimes with the "Arrow" producers mentioned above) on the Talking TV podcast. You can find all of those podcasts here.


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