Wednesday, October 07, 2015

My complicated relationship with The Flash

I have a complicated relationship with CW's The Flash. You see, I watched most of its first season with dedication because it appeared to be doing something interesting. Ha, surprise, turns out it wasn't doing that thing—it was doing something far less interesting. It left me wondering why I felt the way I did in that previous post but stopped feeling that way when the show went in a different direction. I'm good at recognizing when someone is telling a story that's not the one I would and respecting the story they want to tell.

But The Flash didn't go in a different direction so much as it fell apart after I stopped trying to fill in its gaps. Thus what our complicated relationship really is: I try to make The Flash make sense and it can't decide if it wants to make sense. That would be a great deal easier to accept and move on if it would commit to being nonsensical. Instead it lurches and stumbles, because all its gears are mismatched, but it thinks it's not broken.

I don't know why I'm writing another blog post about a broken show. Maybe it's the curse of recognizing something's potential and wondering why it stubbornly refuses to use it. Yes, it's probably that.

To be fair, the writers were surprised by the show's success and were caught unprepared. (From the articles/interviews I've read, there was a solid plot for about thirteen episodes and then they had to scramble when the full season was greenlit.) This is not to suggest that you can't pants your way through a narrative, but you have to set aside more time to revise and tidy up something when you don't know what you're going to do next. You end up with pacing issues and inconsistencies—and television is a lot less forgiving because when you get to the season finale, you can't go back and fix things. The other episodes have already aired.

Some characters, like Eddie, benefitted from the extra opportunity to shine. Others, like Joe, seemed to spin themselves in circles. (Seriously, Joe becomes worse at due process and respecting other people's agency.) There were moments when the show did things that were interesting or responsive—but they always came across as tagged on. It viewed like a rush job—like the cameras needed to roll—instead of a season that served a greater story arc.

Up to the reveal of Harrison Wells as Eobard Thawne, alternate fan theories about his identity scanned. They better explained visual consistencies happening on the show. (The fan theories were also more interesting.) After the reveal, the plot got sloppy—fast. The question of why does he look like Harrison Wells was answered with technology that appeared on Fringe. Then the writers wrote themselves into a corner with a paradox by erasing a character from existence who was the driving force of the backstory plot. But then... he's not gone because Cavanagh is a series regular for season two?

It's time travel! Parallel Worlds! Alternate Timelines! And none of those easy answers address how someone can be erased from existence without having any impact on the world/plot/characters. It's not a matter of do the producers have an answer—it's never been that, because they've always come up with one—it's a matter of their answers continually don't make sense when I think about them. In our social media dominated world of TV viewing, where the shows are discussed at length between episodes, asking the viewer to Not Think About It isn't a sustainable approach.

The Flash could really benefit from doing the deep-think about where it's going more than a season at a time, and the problematic underpinnings of its narrative. The show is bad with how it writes anyone who isn't a hetro-male. (It's not great with class or race or gender.) It's bad with respecting the agency of anyone who isn't the protagonist. (Its attempt in the season two premiere to give Iris more agency negated Barry's agency.) It's bad with understanding how consequences work. (You can't erase someone out of existence and have them still exist.) It's super bad at understanding why these problems persist.

They persist because season one of The Flash tells the viewers things to appease their concerns then fails to follow through with real change. Example? When the show told us Iris was upset about being lied to so it could tick that box and go back to everything being all right between her and the rest of Team Flash by the end of the episode. Could this patchjob approach to character development get addressed and resolved in season two? Sure, but it means spending season two fixing season one, instead of the forward motion that the show wants to pursue. (There was a speech with a toast and Team Flash made a pact. It was that kind of sweetly optomistic The Flash gets when it really hits its stride.)

So why did I keep watching? Because Tom Cavanagh played two different characters (three if you want to count the brief feature of actual Harrison Wells in one episode) with more apparent ease than most of the CW can play one. (The exception being Rose McIver on iZombie, who is amazing.) Harrison Wells was consistently the best part of The Flash, because he was the only character with any semblance of depth. Watching Cavanagh, you could believe Wells had an internal life; he was off doing things—probably crimes—when he wasn't on screen.

Here was the genesis of that comic book relationship of the archnemesis, the antagonist who respects the protagonist (even admires him a little) and pushes him to grow and become better. An antagonist who has a different approach and perspective, but the viewer can recognize legitimate motivations to all of the character's actions. That was neat. It was a thing worth tuning in for. It was a welcome alternative to watching a show where moral complexity means you like to eat people as part of your grimdark aesthetic. (I do not demonize Hannibal. That show stared into the abyss long enough to demonize itself.)

The problem was The Flash couldn't decide if Wells/Thawne was an exercise in empathy—someone with a character arc—or just a Bad Guy tricking the Good Guy. One episode would get the complex morality right—like when we saw Wells somehow complete the process that made Barry become the Flash—and then the next episode would undo it. The season finale undid it within the same episode.

Why would Wells/Thawne want Barry dead after telling us repeatedly that Wells/Thawne's goal was to get home? Why go out of his way to kill someone he no longer hated and felt a sense of paternal pride for? I know the easy answer is because Wells/Thawne only views the world through the lens of whether or not others and their actions benefit him. So he says whatever he needs to because he's soooooo evil. But that's not internally consistent behaviour with the character arc the show kept trying to insist he had.

Then we get season two's premiere. A video message from Wells delivers a confession to the murder of Barry's mother. It's the most emotionally impactful minute of the episode. (Maybe just for me.) I'd love to interpret this as some gift of kindness—the swell of sentimental music implies the show knows Barry's third dad loves him best. (Victor Garber is more like Barry's benevolent science uncle.) This won't make you happy, Wells says, but I'm going to give you what you want.

I don't even know what to do with that, because it's the same problem as the season finale. It's easier to torment Barry by not giving him what he wants, by forever keeping that out of his reach. It requires no effort from Wells to do so. It would be the crueler thing to do. But Wells makes the makes the effort. He even warns Barry it won't help in the long run. "I'm not the thing you hate," Wells says. "We were never enemies."

How even—but no, there was textual—WHUT. Ok. Ok. There's a video message from someone who was erased from existence? Was he taken from another timeline and we'll find out there were two of him lurking around the corners of season one—one smirking Bad Wells/Thawne and one helpful Good Wells/Thawne? Are we, the viewer, experiencing a shift to a new timeline that Barry fell into post-Singularity that is identical except for Wells/Thawne not being erased from existence? Are these character inconsistencies deliberate to indicate a bigger plot— oh, for fuck's sake this is beyond ridiculous.

Do you see? Because The Flash season one is the TV equivalent of publishing a messy first draft, it creates an additional frustration of never knowing which of its internal inconstancies it will decide were intentional. Manifesting something in season two that fixes season one is still bad writing. It's still a lack of consequences. If nothing sticks, nothing happens. It can always un-happen should it turn out to be an unpopular decision.

This is why I feel like I have to tap out of watching The Flash. It's not that it turned out to be a bad show—it might've always been one—but that I'm not a viewer who can just Not Think About It. I do think about it—and trying to make sense of it eats up time. It's an exercise in futility. I could be putting that thought into something that is going to give back.

So here's what we're going to, The Flash. I'm going to give you two more episodes to make a decision about what you're doing and commit to doing it. If this isn't back on track—and not just showing the potential that it might one day find its way—by episode three of season two, you go on that list with Doctor Who and Arrow of things I had to stop watching because I grew out of them.

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