Flash in the Pan: 1990s ‘Flash’

TV Comics
TV Comics DC

The Flash on The CW is currently enjoying a successful run on the small screen after being spun off from channel’s other superhero franchise show Arrow. The TV show has already delivered two solid seasons and sports an impressive 73 percent rating on Metacritic and has earned a lot of positive buzz. On Rotten Tomatoes, the score is a superpowered 98%. A third season has already been confirmed by the network.

The Flash 2016
Flash by name. Flash by nature.

1990’s The Flash

Things weren’t always so terrific for The Flash. In the 1990, CBS commissioned a very different TV show based on DC’s fastest living hero. This iteration of the Scarlet Speedster was a lot less, can we say, “flashy”. The series only ran for one season before being cancelled; 22 episodes in total. At the time, Warner Brothers was still riding high on the success of Tim Burton’s 1989 summer blockbuster, Batman a year before, so a small screen version of a lesser super like The Flash seemed entirely logical. The show began it’s run on CBS on September 20, 1990.

John Wesley Shipp plays Barry Allen in the 1990 series. Shipp is kind of a clunky choice for the lead character. He’s certainly built like a superhero, but more like a Superman than a Flash. His musclebound physique and rippling pecs seem somewhat out of place here. After all, The Flash is known for his super speed, not his super strength and ability to bench 300 pounds.

Super Suit

The Flash’s super suit actually looks quite good in the box art and photographic stills. In the live action show, however, it’s clear that the suit is padded with foam musculature which was fitted over Shipp’s physique. On camera, the muscle movement can look quite awkward and phony. The mask also appears to be too wide across the bridge of Shipp’s nose, giving him a cross-eyed look.

Another connection to Burton’s Batman was the restrictions the suit put on natural movement. Like the Burton Bat Suit, The Flash outfit was very restrictive, not even allowing Shipp to turn his head very well. According to the actor, the producers only made four suits in total for the entire 22 episode run and could sometimes end up pretty stinky. Each suit cost $100,000 to create and were manufactured by Stan Winston of Predator and Terminator fame.

The Flash exhibits all the traits and tropes you might expect from an early ’90s TV show about a superhero. The special effects aren’t very special at all. The colorful lighting and scene setting are multi-colored extravaganzas which borrow a lot from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman aesthetic as well as Dick Tracy which was released the same year. Weak scripts with weaker dialog were made worse by soap opera levels of acting, thoroughly drained of real human emotion. The lines are delivered with dramatic seriousness and thus, come across as unintentionally hilarious. Just call this series The Flash of Our Lives. (Trivia Fact: Shipp had previously acted on a soap opera.)

The one thing you can’t do with the 1990 TV series is take it very seriously. Despite this, the show was one of the most expensive to produce on U.S. Network television at the time, costing approximately $1.6MM per episode.

You can get a feel for the TV show by watching the trailer below:

I’m not sure if the series was intentionally trying to channel the campiness of the 1960s Batman series or foretell the latter Joel Schumacher Batman Forever and Batman and Robin atrocities. The show did try to bring some genuine value and fun to the series through the introduction of a few colorful villains from the comic books. This include The Trickster who was played by the amazing Mark Hamill,  still on hiatus from playing Luke Skywalker for 32 years.

The Flash and Trickster

Captain Cold was also featured in one episode.

Pilot Episode

In the pilot episode, Barry Allen, a forensic scientist for the Central City Police is struck by lightning and thrown into a bunch of chemicals. The accident changes Barry’s metabolism and allows him to move at superhuman speed. Joining forces with this iteration of The Flash is Christina “Tina” McGee, a technician at S.T.A.R. Labs who builds him his suit from a prototype diving rig that can withstand the pressures of super speed. Tina is armed with a British accent for no apparent reason and the ability to make wide-eyed expressions which are supposed to simulate human emotion.

The pilot focused on The Flash’s much older brother being killed by the head honcho of a motorcycle gang. The Flash ultimately beats up the biker leader, then literally runs rings around him before getting him electrocuted. The following 21 episodes generally see this version of The Flash fighting common criminals, genetics gone wrong as well as various mad scientists. Naturally, the good Red Flash also has to face off against the evil Blue Flash, Pollux, at some point. Why? Because – Superhero trope.

The series did have a few positives going for it. For one thing, the TV show tried to do justice to the original Flash story, universe, and characters. Shipp also looks pretty terrific as a superhero, although as previously stated, he’s probably a little too bulky to play The Flash (or at least his smelly muscle suit is). The main musical theme was composed by the wonderful Danny Elfman, who also composed the score to the original Burton Batman films, further tying this TV series to the 1989 Batman movie. In fact, if you listen to the orchestral album for 1989’s Batman and The Flash theme back-to-back, you’ll have a hard time telling where one ends and the other begins. I highly recommend Music for a Darkened Theatre to prove this statement.

Critical Reception

The Flash was received quite well when it first appeared in 1990, but the cost of each show combined with a lack of audience share must have made a second season a tough decision for CBS. The lack of audience was partly owed to the weird time slot the show was given at 8:30 p.m. This later moved to 9 p.m. which really didn’t help matters. The show’s producers wanted to avoid competing with The Simpsons and The Cosby Show, but this thinking may have unintentionally put The Flash in an unwinnable race.

Outside the U.S., the show was later distributed via Sky TV in the UK, but most non-U.S. viewers probably saw the show via VHS tape where several episodes were combined into three straight-to-tape movies.

Flash suit Justice League of America

It bears mentioning that The Flash would attempt to come to the small screen one more time in a live action Justice League pilot prior to his successful return in the current CW series. You can see how terrible this would have been below.

News Flash Update

It was brought to my attention after publishing this article, that there were a few inside facts I missed mentioning connecting the 1990 version of The Flash to the current 2014-2015 CW one. Michael messaged me to point out a few facts and I think they bear mentioning here:

  1. John Wesley Shipp who played The Flash in 1990 actually plays Barry Allen’s dad in the current TV Show. I think this is simply awesome casting.
  2. Amanda Pays who played Tina McGee in the 1990 show has reprised her role as the good doctor for at least four episodes so far according to IMDB.
  3. And, of course, Mark Hamill actually returned as The Trickster in the current series for two episodes. You’ve got to love that kind of Fan service.


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