The Flash ran onto TV screens 20 years ago today
20 years ago today, on September 20, 1990, CBS aired the two hour series premiere of The Flash. The show originally ran on Thursday nights in a very competitive time slot, 8pm. The show starred John Wesley Shipp, best known as Dawson’s dad on Dawson’s Creek, as Barry Allen, police scientist turned super speedster. Also starring was Corbin Bernsen’s wife, Amanda Pays, as Tina McGee.
This new super hero show was directly inspired by the 1989 Batman movie. The same guy that designed the Bat suit for Burton also developed Flash’s suit. Danny Elfman composed the opening music which sounds very similar to his orchestral Batman score. The stories were also similar to Burton’s Batman, at least for the first half of Season 1. Many of those plots involved gangsters, drug dealers and evil corporations, a staple of the first two Burton Batman movies. Also, at the time, thanks to the speedster effects, this was the most expensive show on TV to produce. It cost over $1 million an episode, which is why it was so easy for CBS to pull the plug after poor first season ratings.
I first heard about this show (pre-Internet Age, 1988 or 1989) on a trip to Six Flags Over Atlanta. Warner Brothers/DC owns the park so they were showing a quick 5 minute trailer on monitors all over the park. I was so excited because I had no idea they were even planning it and Flash is my favorite comic book character. So I was completely stoked by the time September, 1990 rolled around.
The Flash would get a prime spot, like most hot new shows, in TV Guide’s Fall Preview. Here is The Flash’s entry in the 1990 Fall Preview issue (you can click it to make it bigger).
Other shows to appear in that issue? Beverly Hills 90210, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Law and Order and Cop Rock. Maybe Shawn over at Branded in the 80s will do one of his TV Guide Fall Preview posts about this issue (hint, hint, Shawn).
The initial ratings for The Flash were low, despite having the aforementioned really high production values and interesting stories. It just couldn’t compete with the ratings juggernauts of Beverly Hills 90210 and The Simpsons. In order to boost ratings a gigantic media blitz was launched to expose the fledgling show to its audience. Articles in newspapers and fan magazines like Starlog and Comics Scene tried desperately to drum up interest in the show.
This worked to an extent but the network needed the show to appeal to the masses. Pretty soon, the more reality based stories gave way to more “super heroic” stories. Many of The Flash’s famed Rogues Gallery started to make appearances (see pic below). David Cassidy would play a surprisingly boring looking Mirror Master. Michael Champion played an interesting version of Captain Cold (albino hitman with a cold gun). But, most famously, Mark Hamill played a very over the top Trickster which would foreshadow his vocal portrayal of The Joker in the Batman animated series. The Trickster even had a female sidekick called Prank which was a precursor to The Joker’s Harley Quinn.
Along with the more name villains, there was also a “blue Flash” clone, a tech wizard called The Ghost, and a lethal crime fighter called The Deadly Nightshade. Hell, in one of the final episodes, The Flash is blasted into an apocalyptic future by a runaway missile where he must face off with the villain that was in the very first episode, his brother’s killer, Nicholas Pike. The Flash was definitely cheesy, but mostly entertaining and fun. And the super speed effects are still pretty good, considering this show was produced in 1990.
For years after it’s cancellation, the show was only available on bootleg VHS tapes bought online or at comic book conventions. I had most of the episodes through a mixture of my own VHS recordings from when the show was originally broadcast and buying/trading for the missing episodes online. Regardless, there was one episode of The Flash that was pre-empted during broadcast and therefore was never available (If I’m not mistaken, it was the third episode, Watching the Detectives). Later in the ’90s, there were three official VHS releases which included the series 2 hour pilot, the two Trickster episodes as well as the two Nightshade episodes. However, now, the entire series is available on one DVD set. And yes, I have it. And I’ve watched it.
I still enjoy the show. I even loaned the set to friends to watch who had never seen it and they enjoyed it. If you enjoy the first two Tim Burton Batman movies, you’ll most definitely enjoy this series. Give it a shot as it hits 20 years old today.
Stay tuned. On Wednesday, I’ll take a look at The Flash TV Special #1. It was a comic book DC released to coincide with the TV series. The stories inside are based entirely within the universe of the TV show.