Five Way to Fix #TheFlash

I didn’t want to love The Flash. Even after seeing Grant Gustin’s infectious performance on two episodes of mothership Arrow, I greeted the many promos for the show’s debut with a shrug or an eye roll. But I tuned in anyway, and that first season was something no superhero show had been since I was a kid watching OG Wonder Woman Lynda Carter swing her golden lasso: fun. A ridiculous amount of fun, in fact. Season 1 The Flash eschewed all the grimdark portentousness of the DC universe, instead imbuing a science-positive coming of age story with a lightning-fast touch. The writers packed all the thrills and excitement of the show into one simple line: “Run, Barry, run!”

Season 2 had some stumbles, but stayed the course, delivering a solid show with a great villain in Zoom, not to mention the epic crossovers with Arrow. But the season finale saw Barry make a huge mistake in initiating Flashpoint, a move that seemed motivated more by the writers’ manipulations than the character’s personality. Season 3 has had moments that returned to form–the Arrowverse crossover, episodes like “The Present” and “Dead or Alive”–but continues to suffer from some potentially fatal flaws, alienating the audience with inconsistent character motivations, some very retro morals, and angst for the sake of angst.

If it weren’t for the strength of the cast, led by outstanding turns by Gustin, Tom Cavanagh, Jesse L. Martin, and Carlos Valdes, I would have turned out long ago. But I just can’t quit the characters I’ve loved for three seasons. The show still has so much potential and, as we’ve seen with Arrow this year, the writers can still turn things around.

And I’ve got five (humble) suggestions for how to drag this show out of the Speed Force and back to Earth 1…

No more keeping secrets, period. I get it. Secret identities are a superhero show’s bread and butter. But The Flash has washed-rinsed-repeated this particular trope too many times to count. A character learns something that will upset someone else/the group. He/she hides this for several episodes, until the truth is finally forced out. Everyone gets angry. The team splinters. Bad things happen. They come together to learn the valuable lesson that they are stronger as a team when they are honest with each other.

But the lesson never sticks. It’s gotten so absurd that almost every week someone is keeping something vital and life-shattering from someone else, leading the show to go through the same emotional beats over and over again. Imagine the drama that could be wrought from them being upfront and honest with each other. The truth can be terrifying. Loving someone but deeply disagreeing with them can be heart-wrenching. Actually earning one another’s trust and having it stick, having them act as a team and still lose–that’s real drama. Regardless, there are so many other ways to create drama and conflict between the characters. Writers, it’s time to dig another well (but no more Wells’s, please).

Retire the speedster villains. First it was Reverse Flash. Then Zoom. Now Savitar. I think we’ve exhausted the speedster rogues’ gallery. (Alas, I know that’s not really true. But comic books are not TV shows, and you need to change it up, stat.) Doctor Alchemy had a different skill set, but he’s done now. Maybe part of the reason the plots keep recycling is that the villains are too similar and how the heroes defeat them is starting to have a same-y quality. For season 4, please challenge the team in a new way.

Give the supporting characters stronger storylines. Nobody ever does their job on this show, unless, like Cisco and Caitlin, their job is “support The Flash”. We haven’t seen Joe genuinely investigate anything as a detective since season 1. Iris got one episode where she did some investigative reporting this season, but it was coupled with her going against Barry and Joe’s wishes. Julian and Barry have both ceased to be crime scene techs altogether, and I don’t even think Wally has a job. Why does every story have to involve the whole Flash team and take place in Star Labs? Why not give Joe a spotlight episode based on an actual crime? Have Caitlin called somewhere to use her doctoring talents? Have an old friend approach Cisco to design him something amazing and have it go horribly wrong? You have one of the strongest ensembles on TV. Give them more to do.

Stop fridging and stereotyping the female characters. It’s getting kind of gross, to be honest, the way Iris has almost entirely given up her life–and might literally sacrifice it–since she and Barry got together. The writers have never really known how to use her and, while the WestAllen romance has increased her screen time, it’s given rise to such 1950s-esque moments as Joe chiding Barry for not asking his permission before he proposed to Iris, and then Iris chiding Barry for the exact same thing! Because God forbid Iris decide for herself who she wants to marry, or put her job before her relationship, or push back against the helicopter parenting/boyfriending of the two main men in her life. Not to mention the fact that the entire season hinges on Barry’s vision of her being killed, which we have to see over and over, as the various men figure out how to save her. Wouldn’t it be great if, in the end, Iris saves herself.

I’m equally baffled by the Caitlin storyline this year. I don’t think we ever got an explanation why her getting powers means she automatically has to fight this inner evil twin that constantly threatens to overtake her life. Way to promote the idea that women + power = evil, writers. Earth 1 Caitlin has never been evil–why would getting powers make her so? Why is Killer Frost written like a second identity/possessing demon? I understand wanting her to struggle to come to terms with her powers; I don’t understand why that struggle has to be against an ‘evil’ persona, or why she has to restrain herself when Wally is getting training for his new powers (women + power = danger!), or why it’s always a man who manages to bring her back to herself. “I’m scared of this thing inside of me” can be an effective plot, but there’s too much gender-loaded baggage here.

It would also be nice if, you know, the two women on the show were friends. Take a page from Riverdale, The Flash.

Barry needs to stop being such a dick. In the hands of a lesser actor, a lot of people would have tapped out on Barry by now. Grant Gustin is a jewel, and they need to pay him all the money for how he salvages their mediocre, repetitive storylines and selfish version of Barry. The show falls over itself to underline what a great leader Barry is without providing a shred of evidence to prove it. Every time Barry is challenged in the slightest way by someone on the team, he pulls ranks and acts out like a cranky toddler. Every time he’s tried to teach Wally or Jesse or someone about their powers and they make a mistake, he flips out on them and tries to fix everything himself. He regularly goes into “bullying jock” mode when threatened. He is a horrible teacher. He keeps essential, life-threatening secrets from his team. He makes decisions based on personal griefs, which screws things up catastrophically for everyone else, then sulks about it when someone points it out. These are not the actions of a capable leader. They are the reactions of a guy still maturing into adulthood. Which would be fine, if the narrative acknowledged that Barry is still on his journey to adulthood. Yet time and again, we’re told how great Barry is, quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. I mean, the guy proposed to his girlfriend just to change the future! Classic dick move. The only place we really get to see this wise and capable Barry is in the crossovers, when he’s dealing with Oliver/Green Arrow or Supergirl. I wish that Barry was the star of The Flash. Now he’s a guy I would follow anywhere.

Everything I’ve said here come from a place of love. I don’t want to tune out. I want The Flash to be awesome again. I know this is the family show in the Arrowverse, but that doesn’t mean it has to be repetitive, inconsistent, or flirt with sexism. And while we’re at it, how about some serious LGBTQ representation? There are currently three straight couples on the show. And the POCs often get shoved into their own marginalized subplots, away from the main action.

I criticize because I love, The Flash. Because we need a hero with Barry Allen’s spirit and optimism in these troubled times. He’s a speedster, after all–nothing wrong with keeping him on his toes.

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We’re All Still Queer As Folk – With Some New, Tasty Fruits

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The year I spent studying abroad in the UK was a series of firsts. First time on my own, away from the house I’d lived in for 23 years. First time visiting England, still the place I consider to be my spiritual home (needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed). First exposure to people who hadn’t just grown up differently than I did, but who came from a globe-spanning cross-section of countries and nationalities, some of whom I lived in very close quarters with as housemates in one of the international residences on campus. First gay flatmate, in the form of T., a teddy bear of a man from Taiwan who came out to us in halting tones that first night in our cottage. First time living through a mini-cultural revolution.

The historic vote in Ireland, the prominence of Aiden Gillen’s Littlefinger on Game of Thrones, and the viewing of Russell T. Davies’ two new series, Cucumber and Banana, have all intersected in my mind like a synaptic Venn diagram, charting my path from naïve Pollyanna graduate student to proud author of M/M romances. A time-travelling direct line can be plotted from present day to that distant, if dearly held, transformative year to being on the front line of the first LGBTQ-related controversies in the UK, i.e. the premiere of RTD’s Queer As Folk.

A broadcasting miracle on par with the advent of HBO and that classic episode of Maude, the airwaves were full of condemnation and threats in the weeks before the show’s premiere, which pretty much guaranteed that everyone would watch it. The usual accusations of perversion and moral degradation were lobbed at the producers, the actors, and Channel Four in the weeks that followed, as the series became more and more popular. It helped that nothing like it had ever been seen on television before, a boisterous, groovy, and sexually frank depiction of the life and loves of a trio of gay men in Manchester, anchored by the close friendship between voracious Stuart and adorkable Vince. (If you haven’t seen it yet… well, what are you waiting for?)

Every week, T. and I would curl up on my springy cot in front of my crappy little 10-inch, twitching like meth addicts as we waited for our weekly dose of cool. Like Vince, I was mad about Stuart. I loved his aloofness, his bravado; we used to mimic his signature slinky strut as we walked down the street. T., on the other hand, fell hard for the virginal but bold Nathan, and would later become embroiled in an ill-fated and unrequited romance with his own lithe blonde boy-nymph. But the thrill of it wasn’t just watching a great show—though there was that—but the sense that you were watching something unprecedented, revolutionary. It was the televised epitome of Cool Britannia.

I hesitate to call RTD’s return to Manchester and the LGBTQ scene a bookend to his career, because I hope he continues to write great shows for a very long time, but there definitely is a sense of coming home and a return to form with Cucumber and Banana. For a while, RTD was threatening to emigrate to America, but allegedly his efforts there amounted to nothing but frustration. No surprise, if this is the kind of daring, provocative, and addictive show he wants to make. RTD is still breaking new ground in terms of LGBTQ visibility on television, and it has been a treat to watch.

CLIFF (Con O'Neill), DANIEL (James Murray), LANCE (Cyril Nri), HENRY (Vincent Franklin). FREDDIE (Freddie Fox), DEAN (Fisayo Akinade), ADAM (Cel Spellman), CLEO (Julie Hesmondhalgh)

CLIFF (Con O’Neill), DANIEL (James Murray), LANCE (Cyril Nri), HENRY (Vincent Franklin). FREDDIE (Freddie Fox), DEAN (Fisayo Akinade), ADAM (Cel Spellman), CLEO (Julie Hesmondhalgh)

RTD, like many a good M/M author, excels at basing his narrative around an impromptu family of interconnected people, some of whom have known each other for years and some of whom have ended up together through a series of unfortunate events. After breaking up with Lance, his partner of nine years, middle-aged Henry moves in with two much younger co-workers, Freddie and Dean. Recurring characters include Henry’s sister Cleo, a single mum, her son Adam, and a blokey co-worker of Lance’s who he very awkwardly tries to court. Henry is your classic anti-hero; he comes off as a deeply reprehensible human being in the first episode, but as the layers of the onion slowly peel off, you sympathize with him, while never forgetting his inescapable flaws. Lance is more genial and likeable, but is saddled with his own issues, and it’s hard to completely fall under his spell when he breaks it off with Henry for reasons I find very closed-minded (and sort of cruel). Freddie, meanwhile, is both Henry’s object of lust and a classic RTD aloof bisexual dynamo in the Stuart mode, though he, too, is humanized as the drama unfolds. Dean is a young flibbertigibbet who doesn’t stop long enough to take in what’s happening to him, or indulge in some much-needed self-examination. Oh, and he’s something of a pathological liar. But the genius of RTD is that you have great fun in their company, and you can’t wait to see what crazy things happen next.

RTD productions always zoom from scene to scene at a breakneck pace, quips and quails coming at you in expertly edited montages set to propulsive dance tracks. Who can forget Queer As Folk’s use of the song “Sexy Boy” by Air at the beginning of the second episode? I certainly will take the images of Nathan stomping down the school hallway and Stuart’s playful smoulder across the table at a co-worker to my grave. But RTD’s usual chaos and melisma never drowns out the character moments, and he never, ever blurs the uglier sides of his characters. These are flawed, complicated humans who regularly give in to their baser urges and exercise spectacularly poor judgment. And we as viewers are the better for it.

Banana is a companion piece to Cucumber, featuring some of the same characters in minor roles and fleshing out side characters from the mothership. It’s a far more poignant series exploring emotional topics not covered on the main show. Each episode is a vignette, a peek into the romantic life of a side player, more often that not with the aim of tugging on the heart strings. One thing that I find exceptionally appealing about an RTD production is that he always tries to assemble the most diverse cast possible. Though Cucumber revolves mainly around a cast of racially diverse gay/bisexual men, Banana tells stories about people of all sorts of sexual orientations. In both series, there is not a topic or aspect of modern sexual mores that isn’t covered, some more superficially than others. But like Dean, the series doesn’t often stop long enough to say something profound, possibly because, like Freddie, it’s too cynical to assume those kinds of questions have answers.

Sixteen years after the debut of Queer As Folk, Russell T. Davies has brought me back to that special time in my life, once again offering a slice of Manchester life with universal themes, and pushing the boundaries of what aspects of LGBTQ life can be discussed on television. We’re both more seasoned and—ostensibly—mature, but aren’t above getting off on a little slap and tickle.

So check out Cucumber and Banana. They’ll change the way you go grocery shopping forever.