The geek-chic genre has been slowly forcing its way into the cultural mainstream in the past few years. Once the domain of pasty teens who compensated for a lack of female attention by building up ‘impressive’ comic-book collections, the phenomenal success of The Big Bang Theory has ensured that geeking-out is now for everyone and not just the forgotten few.
Naturally, most networks have sought to cash-in on this burgeoning trend with shows aimed specifically at geek culture – most obviously, Scorpion and HBO’s Silicon Valley. The CW has fared best in this genre with comic-book adaptation Arrow proving a resounding success, rewarding those of us who endured ten long, melodramatic years of Smallville.
That same network is responsible for The Flash (Tuesday, Sky 1, 8pm), another DC adaptation spun-off from the Arrow series that seems to be tailor-made for the geeks of this world with its proudly sci-fi bent and super-nerdy protagonist.
Clearly aping the most recent Spiderman films, this uneven pilot zips through a potted origin story that introduces Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), a brilliant but socially awkward forensic genius working for the Central City Police Department whose obsession with his mother’s strange murder makes him an outcast among his peers.
After an archetypical lab accident, which involves a malfunctioning particle accelerator and a fortuitously timed lightening storm, leaves him in a coma for nine months, Barry wakes to discover he can move at superhuman speeds and resolves to use his new powers to save the less fortunate.
The similarities with Marvel’s Spidey-friend don’t end there, though, with Grant Gustin also looking the spitting image of Peter Parker, and while his gawky persona is a major divergence from the source comics, it’s a move that works in the show’s favour.
Many of today’s popular heroes resemble the arrogant jocks we geeks despised during our school days, but by reworking Barry into a humble underdog who lacks the self-belief to become a hero the writers have given their show a unique niche and made their hero more relatable.
Gustin, too, is excellently cast in the role, feeling sweetly endearing in his attempts to cope with the literal shock to his lifestyle, as well as showcasing his emotional range in a weepy heart-to-heart with his wrongly-incarcerated father.
However, it’s nigh-on impossible to ignore the sense that we’ve seen this plot before. Barry’s confidence is shaken by a first failed attempt to tackle a villain, Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) and a cameoing Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) build him back up with rousing speeches, and The Flash arrives back just in time to save the day. It’s predictably paint-by-numbers, readily ticking off every origin-story-trope going and sapping all the drama out of the plot.
To a certain extent this is understandable in a pilot, with the writers almost duty-bound to follow the origin story as detailed in the comics, but more worrying is its failure to get to grips with its supporting characters.
Chad Rock barely registers as evil “metahuman” Clyde Mardon, aka Weather Wizard, with his crimes and silly god-complex lacking motivation; he really exists for the purpose of giving The Flash someone to defeat, and the show will need to find more formidable foes if it is to progress.
The rest of the cast are also frustratingly one-dimensional, with writers Andrew Kreisberg & Geoff Johns committing the cardinal sin of having their characters vocalize their feelings and backstories rather than hinting them in the visuals.
Still, there’s a lot of potential in the relationships established here to suggest the series can capture the same soapy character drama that works so well in Arrow. Barry’s sparky chemistry with Danielle Panabaker’s frosty Caitlin Snow and his fractious relationship with surrogate father Detective Joe West (Jesse Martin), also father to Barry’s impossibly attractive love interest Iris, both show particular promise.
The biggest plus from last night’s episode was the quality of the special effects, The worry with sci-fi shows like this is that they’re reliant on expensive CGI that often can’t match the standards seen on the big screen, but director David Nutter does great work here making The Flash’s super-speedy powers look both cool and realistic with some clever use of speed-ramping.
It may not be the perfect start, but then, what pilot is? What’s more important is that there’s plenty of potential in this nascent series, from Gustin’s warm performance to the surprisingly well-realised effects, to suggest that The Flash can keep pace with every other heavy-hitter in this busy genre.
Yet more good news in what is fast-becoming the season of the geek.
Click here to watch the trailer for The Flash