bright doesn’t have to mean flimsy

My husband and I are finally caught up on both Arrow and The Flash, which means I can finally make the post I’ve been drafting in my head for a while. The following contains mild spoilers for both shows, as well as Daredevil. It also contains a fair bit of complaining about how much The Flash disappointed me, so if you really love it and don’t want to see someone dissect its flaws, you may not want to click through.

I feel conflicted about my reactions to these shows, because I’m on the record as saying that I’m getting tired of grim ‘n gritty as a narrative aesthetic, and being “gritty” doesn’t automatically make you more worthy than the cheerful option. And yet . . . as much as I wanted to like The Flash, as much as I cheered the advent of a superhero show that was bright and cheerful, it felt to me like the pursuit of brightness and cheerfulness too often resulted in a flimsy story. It’s possible to be perky and substantive! Really it is! But this is not that show.

Part of the problem was an issue of mundane craft: my god, it was frequently so badly written. The Flash is supposed to be populated with a number of highly intelligent characters — but most of them demonstrate their “intelligence” by spouting incredibly painful technobabble and inventing improbable gadgets during the commercial break. They do not reason intelligently. In fact, the story often requires them to act stupidly, because otherwise the plot won’t go. The episode with the shapeshifter made me want to throw something through my TV: even after the characters knew what they were dealing with, none of them thought to take even the most basic security precautions to verify the identity of the person in front of them. When Cisco used his drink as a Reverse Flash detector, my husband and I both said “That’s good thinking!” Then we looked at one other and said, “We shouldn’t be saying that in a tone of surprise.” Of course, thirty seconds later Cisco ran into the Pipeline so he could be conveniently trapped inside it with Joe. Because that was what the plot needed. Also: seriously? You guys decide to play around with changing the past, and Cisco — Mr. “I have seen popular media and the rest of you have not” — doesn’t have an immediate aneurysm at the thought of the possible paradoxes that might result? Even if he thought about it and ended up deciding it wasn’t really a danger because shutupjustpretendthismakessanysense, I want to see him address it.

Which is not to say that Arrow always has good writing. It doesn’t, and in particular the beginning of the first season was pretty weak. The only reason I kept watching was because I’d been told it got better when some character named Felicity showed up. Felicity? Is a “smart character” who actually behaves intelligently. She figures things out. She does the technobabble thing, but not all the time; she also solves problems in ways that actually make sense. It’s one thing to have your characters make bad decisions because of their flaws and psychological hangups and so forth. It’s another to have them just not think of doing the intelligent thing, when we’re supposed to believe that they’re smart.

But that’s the smaller of my two complaints.

My bigger one is that, while I don’t believe handling complex themes and ethical issues requires one to tell a story with a grim aesthetic . . . both Arrow and Daredevil do a substantially better job on that front. I could forgive stupid technobabble if The Flash explored how to navigate problems while still being a good, upbeat person. Alas, not so much.

Let’s start with the women. In the first season of Arrow — because I don’t think it’s fair to draw from all three seasons, against one of The Flash — female characters I recall being around on a regular basis include Thea, Moira, Laurel, Shado, and Felicity. (There may be others, but those five are an ongoing part of the story for sure.) I will not claim I liked all of those characters: Thea felt like the obligatory Delinquent Younger Sister, and Laurel was a pretty unconvincing excuse for a love interest. But there were five of them, and they all played important roles in one way or another, with their brains (Felicity) or their brawn (Shado) or their political connections (Moira). In Daredevil you have even fewer episodes to work with — but you still have Karen, Claire, Vanessa, Elena, and Madam Gao. And as I’ve said before, Karen is clearly a protagonist in the story, rather than a sidekick or love interest for the main hero.

In The Flash? We have Caitlin and Iris. (Plus Felicity as a guest star.) Caitlin exists almost entirely to facilitate Barry doing stuff (except when she gets her Boyfriend Plotline), and Iris exists almost entirely to be a romantic volleyball between Barry and Eddie. The whole business with her investigating the Flash is a narrative dead-end: I’m glad Iris figured it out, but she didn’t do so on the basis of of her investigation. (Also, apparently she has never been shocked with static electricity in her life.) It felt like make-work, a plot to keep Iris busy while the other characters did something useful.

And can I just say how much I DO NOT LOVE Joe’s behavior towards her? The show often seemed to think his proprietary attitude toward his daughter’s romantic life was endearing, but I am so very, very over the trope of fathers policing their daughters’ sexual lives. The guard-dog approach to potential boyfriends is creepy, not cute — and I just about wanted to punch Joe’s teeth out the other side of his skull when we got the scene of Eddie asking for his blessing before proposing to Iris. Not only does that approach piss me off (because it reinforces the idea that Joe is the gatekeeper to Iris), but Joe does everything he can to cock-block Eddie. Why? Because he’s certain his daughter will accept, and it will be a mistake, and a few years down the road she’ll be regretting ever having said yes because she really loves Barry, but she’ll be locked into that marriage because she won’t want to break her promise. And instead of, y’know, treating his daughter like a goddamned adult and talking to her about this, he’d rather try to save her from her own decisions. Like she’s still four or something.

Which Iris calls out! Yay! . . . and then five minutes later, it’s entirely forgotten. She yells at her father for infantilizing her, then gets over it in the next scene. She yells at Barry for lying to her about the most important thing in his life, then gets over it in the next scene. I can’t chalk this up to “their relationship overcomes the problem,” because I can look at Daredevil to see that approach done well. Foggy yells at Matt for not just a scene but an entire episode — and the fallout from that lasts even longer, as they tiptoe their way back toward something like a functional dynamic.

“Bright” doesn’t have to mean dismissing problems as if they don’t matter. It means that the problems are overcome, instead destroying everything forever.

Getting over stuff too fast is a problem elsewhere, too. It took until the penultimate episode of the season for anybody to mention that locking metahumans up in solitary confinement from now until kingdom come without benefit of trial is, y’know, not okay — and then it’s a minor secondary character, who’s more focused on the risk of prosecution than the fundamental immorality of the thing in the first place. Joe’s the only one who even seems to give her points a second thought, and — say it with me — he gets over it in the next scene. It feels like the writers said “all right, we’ve checked that box off the list” and went on with their business, never noticing that you need to do more than just check it off. Arrow started in a worse place (with Oliver murdering people, instead of just imprisoning them), but it not only pointed out the problematic nature of that, it actually did something about it: after people point out to him that, hey, he’s a serial killer, Oliver changes his behavior. Right now I’ve got no reason to think the heroes on The Flash won’t go right back to using the Pipeline the minute they have someone else to put in it. Because this is the cheerful show! The first rule of Basement Gitmo is, you don’t talk about Basement Gitmo!

I wanted the show to be better than this. People in Central City know metahumans are running around, even if they don’t know why; I wanted to see Barry argue that the Star Labs group needed to work with local law enforcement to develop a containment facility that could imprison such dangerous people after they got a fair trial. I wanted to see the characters respect one another, rather than taking away their decisions “to protect them.” I wanted female characters I gave a damn about, who weren’t guest stars from a different show. I wanted Cisco and Caitlin to be smart rather than “smart.” I wanted the driving incident of the show not to be a fridged mother. I wanted there to be things here I could admire.

Having ranted about all of that . . . there were parts of the finale I really, really liked. Barry acknowledging that Joe is his father, every bit as much as whatshisface in the prison is. Barry not playing roulette with the cosmos by rewriting the past. Somebody finally pointing out to Eddie that oh my god a holographic image IS NOT PROOF OF THE FUTURE — sorry, that’s me ranting again. I liked how Eddie stepped up after that, though I wish he hadn’t died. But those are spots of enjoyment in a sea of beating my head against the nearest surface.

I hope it gets better. (Arrow did.) I’d like to be able to enjoy this show on a regular basis, rather than sporadically every episode or two. But I don’t think I’m going to be watching season two, unless and until I hear people saying “man, it’s way stronger than it used to be!” I saw a blog post online months ago that opened by saying The Flash was a fundamentally better show than Arrow simply because it wasn’t angsty . . . but for me, that isn’t enough. Not remotely — especially when it contains material that ought to cause angst, but instead gets trivialized and tossed aside. If you just want to be perky, then don’t bring that kind of weight to the table. If you bring it, then carry it with grace, dignity, and compassion: show me such things are possible.

It can be done. But so far, The Flash isn’t doing it.

2 Responses to “bright doesn’t have to mean flimsy”

  1. Jaws

    Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker) has an honors BA in English from UCLA that she earned at 19 (which is probably more impressive than anyone in the writer’s room). My big objection to the unaired/screener version of the pilot was that IT SHOWED that she knew precisely how ludicrous the technobabble was in comparison to the plotline. They cleaned a lot of it up for the version that was broadcast, but one can almost see her cringe at least once every other week along the lines of “Really? I’m a physicist and I speak this stupidly?”

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