However strange the claim may sound midst this age of superfluity, The Flash might just be the first TV show that truly feels like a comic book. Commentators have leapt to connect its outsized popularity – that People's Choice Award for Best New Drama or 97% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes (Mad Men's first season scored 87%) – to levels of fun otherwise missing from the breed, which seems a none-too-suble and altogether wrongheaded dig at brand Marvel. While the snark and self-importance of those properties orbiting the Avengers can curdle when viewed in succession, they are not really attempting anything other than light entertainment. Still, truth be told, neither are they quite so focused upon an unapologetic embrace of superheroics.

Profoundly aware it endures as the cracked beer koozy of Stan Lee's merch table, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. soldiers on as mordant cross between Alias and Newhart. Daredevil filtered the grittiest moments of its source material through a brutal grindhouse aesthetic. Meanwhile, DC's own hall of televised justice has traditionally strained to separate their most iconic crusaders from their capes by shoving familiar characters into strange genres: YA soap (Smallville), rom-com (Lois & Clark), historical fiction (Gotham). Even Arrow, the partner series that first introduced Grant Gustin as an adenoidal forensics specialist Barry Allen soon to become the Scarlet Speedster, has never been entirely comfortable with costumes, code names, or metahuman events. For all the nods to DC lore, Arrow's guiding ethos reads like a self-help seminar for the post-clubbing bro while the show design best resembles a Lifetime sitcom about CrossFit trainers.

The Flash – and, well, "the Flash" – doesn't require anything so complicated as an ethos. There are motives but not motivations. Good people do good things, bad people do bad things, and you shan't spend long pondering the distinction: enemies' voices are deeper, their skin rougher, their names alliterative, their outfits more ruthlessly accessorized or, well, absent. (Captain Cold! The The Weather Wizard! Gorilla Grodd!) Narration, odd for a series so unconcerned with inner lives, replicates tweener free writes in caption-able bursts. Cheerily expository dialogue appears ready-made for word balloons. The reasons explaining each new impossibility are presented without shame and greeted without much surprise while the merest breath of the super shines revelatory. It's as if the WWE spun off a children's science show in which the physical laws of the universe were devised by the wrestlers themselves – a triumphant celebration of learning that never rewards actual knowledge.

To recovering fanboys, which we'll just guess accounts for an outsized swath of the critical community, the unabashed ease of slipping on spandex has to excite long-muted triggers. The start of every episode so perfectly limns the sensations of pre-fab trashiness as to remind us why we first read comic books. And, each progressive moment should remind us why we stopped. Because comic books are usually awful.


Admittedly, more intriguing interpretations would alter the character unrecognizably. Despite a pervasive brand awareness, there are reasons why the general public knows next to nothing about the Flash. As charter member of the Super Friends' endless cartoon iterations, he managed an ambient cultural resonance without accumulating any of the baggage otherwise heaped upon a Hall of Justice split between legends (Superman, Batman) and punchlines (Aquaman, Green Lantern). An iconic costume borne from streamlined utility helps, of course, as does a moniker hinting seminal power-pop combo or tech launch while still perhaps ripped from the headlines – underscoring the point, blog coverage spends most of the first season calling him 'The Streak'.

Mostly, though, speed thrills. As a species, we've all always wanted more. The Olympics' credo ranks faster first, and the ancient Greeks never warned sprinters about the sort of sun-singing, world-hoisting threats as bothered the highest and strongest. We still ennoble the fastest man alive, and, by any practical measure, Usain Bolt's acceleration appears magical set against his fellow man. It's so self-evident a power as to require no distinct personality or creation myth, which may explain why The Flash has traditionally enjoyed neither.

Jay Garrick, the WW2-era Flash mach one, received his speed after accidentally gulping hard water. Fifteen years later, while flipping through a fave comic featuring the original Flash, Barry Allen was doused in chemicals after lightening struck his lab. (He then dons the identity of his fictional hero to help police battle world's slowest criminal Turtle Man – comics, again, awful.) Our televised variant ran afoul of a particle accelerator. To be fair, as episodes progress, we learn the supposed accident was most likely intended to produce exactly these consequences, but, as secret origins go, this isn't exactly a rocket ship from Krypton or family stroll down Crime Alley.

In part, this is due to the nature of super-speed. Compared to say, flight, the powers can be believably replicated on the cheap, but the effects suffer from the same diminished novelty. Slow-mo longago lost the wow factor, and Matrix-stylee bullet speed feels impossibly dated. When our hero enters into mortal combat versus his arch-enemy – the, sigh, Reverse Flash – the resulting clash is rendered as either indecipherable blur or slap-fight 'tween joggers.

If we take the ability at face value, there's essentially nothing the possessor cannot accomplish, which doesn't suggest compelling narratives. Such storytelling difficulties proved the death knell of an earlier stab at a live-action Flash series, thrown onto CBS during the height of 1990 Batmania and remembered today solely for Mark Hamill's gibbering Trickster and a molded-latex costume considered ridiculous even amidst an age that regularly cloaked heroes in rubberized Edwardian fetish garb. (Hamill resumed his old role for a memorable guest spot last year while the original Barry Allen – John Wesley Shipp – plays unjustly-imprisoned/wryly-patient father to his old character's latest incarnation.)

For all its flaws, the current show has managed to hack a solution of how to wring suspense from the travails of a policeman granted the powers of a god. This Flash wears a costume more befitting a Radio Shack shakerboarder, and, as this Barry Allen, Grant Gustin resembles a cross between Colin Hanks and a young greyhound, though breeding for aerodynamics evidently sacrificed some dollop of likability. Each successive problem, large or small, sparks a flurry of whining pleas for mentored wisdom. If you wanna make the fastest man alive mortal, why not have his secret identity embody all the fecklessness of Our Flimsiest Generation?


Just as we've been given a Barry Allen both younger and lesser – an approachably aspirational mocktail of male virtues splitting the difference between middle-aged and prepubescent – his home, too, has been thoroughly downsized and upscaled. Formerly spelling the working class charms of a solidly Midwestern rust belt hub, Central City now seems the sort of techie playground far more likely to house a particle accelerator than bad area of town – a tastefully-urban starter city that seemed eerily familiar even before we noticed said particle accelerator was housed in the South Waterfront. At last, a justification for the tram.Although The Flash, like most every U.S.-set program, films on the vast open-air sets of Vancouver, BC, its producers utilized mid-Tilikum-construction aerial footage of Portland for every bird's-eye establishing shot. In context, this makes a certain sense. Just as Metropolis and Gotham famously symbolize the Yankees/Mets dialectic about public perceptions of Manhattan, DC's fictitious cities have always laid clues about their actual antecedents.Ever after Oliver Queen grew out his goatee and eschewed trick production to hunt miscreants beneath the Space Needle, we've assumed Green Arrow's Star City to serve as that universe's Seattle (obliquely confirmed by longitudinal Easter Eggs).

Since Flash grew from guest spots on Arrow, Central City really should be located within the region, but Arrow exploited its geographical vagaries to B-roll through skylines from Houston to Frankfurt. Flash, meanwhile, has planted its conceptual flag: Central City Police Department maps depict an all-too-familiar five quadrants.Whether a winking nod to altered continuity or cinematic grace note, the similarity between our town's expressly-cultivated public image and the series failings hits rather too close to home. This is, after all, a hero who defeats his foes through relentless cardio. In those dreary stretches when characters don't talk their way through the weekly crimestopping solution like the world's prettiest science fair team, the minor embarrassments of supposed private lives are over-articulated in excruciating detail with the studied faux-awkwardness of post-grad dating blogs. Fleshing out a marketable future over a historic skeleton ignores vital experiences. Coming of age shouldn't feel heroic.Throughout near all the last century, DC's champions were always grown-ass men – lantern-jawed veterans of bearing and dignity – and, when Marvel struck gold by empowering teenage angst, DC doubled down on the stolid virtues of uncomplicated maturity. If kids wanted to read about kids, they could read Kid Flash. A callow teen hailing from nearby Keystone City (the dullish exburb housing the area prison; Salem, let's say), Wally West was a cheerily human attempt at imposing unbearable responsibilities upon a hormonal cipher.

A young Barry Allen makes a curious kind of hero. He's square absent any of the redeeming factors ordinarily associated with stalwart archetypes. He exudes the moral certainty of old but seems somehow obligated to dither along with his peers. Born to the age of anti-heroes, he feels a bit petulantly misplaced – still obliged to follow society's rules, however ignoble. "I'm a millennial," he explains to his foster-father when suddenly moving back home. "That's what we do."

He’s not the hero Portland needs right now, but the one it deserves. Because The Flash isn’t a hero. He’s a logo. An avatar. A winning streak.