It is always painful to watch a show you once loved go into an all-too-common downward spiral.
One of the more recent victims of this fall from grace is The Flash, which is currently in the middle of its eighth season on The CW. When the show premiered in 2014 with Grant Gustin as the titular character, it quickly became the network’s highest rated show and one of my personal favorites. Along with Arrow, The Flash launched off a successful franchise of superhero shows that made up a large section of The CW’s programming for almost a decade.
The series also made waves across the general comic book media landscape with the casting of Candice Patton as Iris West. While she wasn’t the first comic book character to be racebent from white to Black, Patton’s success as Iris was undoubtedly influential in the castings of Anna Diop as Starfire in Titans and Zendaya as MJ in the MCU’s Spider-Man franchise. At the show’s peak, The Flash had a decent amount of influence in the comic TV sphere, and it was decently well liked by casual viewers and hardcore fans alike.
It would be unreasonable for anyone to assume that the show’s quality would evade the deterioration that is typical in long-running television series, and indeed The Flash was degrading slowly as the seasons went on. With Arrow taking a sharp nose-dive in quality in the middle of its fourth season, The Flash had a low bar to make it over every year. And for a while, it did. Alas, a TV show can only let its viewers down for so long before they are in a constant state of disappointment, or even worse, apathy.
While Arrow’s fall from grace was something akin to a swan-dive, The Flash’s reads more like the series tripped on their way up a staircase and was never able to regain the footing it once had. The first three seasons of the show are unrecognizable compared to what is on the air now; the show feels like an accidental parody of itself, something that only works if that’s the clear intention of the writers.
At the core of The Flash’s atrophy is one of their best and underutilized characters, the previously mentioned Iris West-Allen. From the get-go, Iris was set up to be a prolific journalist who would eventually end up owning her own media company and collecting at least one Pulitzer on the way there. Four seasons in, Iris had not only not done any of these things, she had quit being a journalist altogether in order to keep Team Flash running while Barry was off getting free therapy in the Speedforce. Candice Patton even said that the show digging deeper into Iris being a journalist was a “lost cause” at a fan convention in 2018. In contrast to Iris’s sidelining, other characters often got to have fully resolved emotional arcs throughout each season, and this in turn made Iris’s presence feel increasingly hollow. Next to Barry, she’s been through the most in the series, but the depth of her trauma is never truly explored. With her emotional journeys effectively abandoned, the promise of her finally getting to be a journalist again near the end of the fourth season was an exciting one, though it ended up being a letdown as well.
Iris’s mistreatment by the writers is tightly intertwined with the more upfront problem of The Flash’s bloated main cast. The last four seasons of the show have featured at least 9 main characters at one time, with the seventh season of the show having a total of 11 (including Danielle Panabaker’s double duty as Caitlin Snow and Killer Frost). Iris’s chances of getting any real emotional development were out the window after Season 5, which was made appallingly clear after every character got a special episode in the front half of Season 6 to process Barry’s impending death except for her, his literal wife. Iris is even snapped at for seemingly not caring about Barry’s death, but that thread goes nowhere, so there was no point in it even happening.
Meanwhile, the newer characters that the show insisted on introducing are allowed to get more emotional development than Iris ever was in her first few seasons, but the execution is often sloppy and sometimes even irritating. The countless retcons of the origin of Killer Frost were never on the priority list of things fans of The Flash wanted to see, yet they are strewn throughout the series, and it’s clear that there was never any care put into them anyway. Killer Frost and Caitlin Snow had the potential to be interesting characters, but their shoddy development being prioritized over that of the show’s female lead is tiresome season after season, and Danielle Panabaker’s cringe-worthy portrayal of the two isn’t able to do either character any favors outside of the script.
The tonal whiplash The Flash gives us season to season isn’t great either. It’s wonderful that so many terrible things have stopped happening to Barry and Iris like they used to in the first few seasons, but the show has become so campy at points that it’s painful. Killer Frost is often used as overcorrection for the darkness of earlier seasons, but a more unfortunate harbinger of this comes in the form of Barry and Iris’s children, Nora (Jessica Parker Kennedy) and Bart (Jordan Fisher). Despite being played by full-grown adults and being established as such within the show, the pair often act as though they are teenagers, not only with their personalities but with their emotional responses to things as well. With the two of them helming the mid-season premiere of Season 8, the show felt more like something that should be airing on Disney Channel rather than The CW. This is no fault of Kennedy or Fisher; they, much like Patton, do very well with the material that they are given, but there is only so much that can be done when that material is mediocre at best.
At the end of the day, it is the structure of each season that makes a show what it is, and the way that showrunner Eric Wallace structures each season just doesn’t work well with the amount of people The Flash has to keep track of. His self-titled “Graphic Novel” structure for each season is interesting, but it also means that major players are put on the backburner for the majority of a story arc that is supposed to be about them. When Iris was trapped with Mirror Master in Season 6, she was barely seen, and the fake version of her that stole her life got more screen time and was able to do the things that fans had begged to see Iris do for years. This season, the first “graphic novel” arc was a five-episode event that brought in some characters from other CW-verse shows, but now we are in “interlude” episodes until the next arc begins.
With the show already overly swollen in the character department, it certainly didn’t need to give us preplanned filler that is outwardly announced. Good filler episodes (or bottle episodes) don’t need to be explained as such, and at worst you finish one and think “Well, that was filler.” Telling the world that you’re writing multiple episodes just to write them makes the season look weaker from an outside perspective, especially because there will be (as cited above) even more interlude episodes after the next major arc this season.
Looking towards the future, the fate of The Flash is up in the air. While Grant Gustin is rumored to have agreed to a deal for a ninth season of the show, Wallace has stated that he is treating the Season 8 finale as a potential series ender, saying he is “very hopeful that there is a Season 9, but [he] has to make sure [he] has closure on all of the character arcs depending on which way it goes.”
Whatever the renewal gods decide, The Flash would be best served if it did get renewed for a 9th and final season by The CW. Looking back at Arrow, a shortened final season would do the series some good, and could potentially bring us back to the glory days of its freshman season. Regardless, The Flash needs to end sometime in the foreseeable future, not just because the fans deserve to be free of it, but because the actors do as well. Candice Patton’s performance as Iris is so often a highlight of the show, and for her to be given so little over eight seasons of the show is hugely disappointing. If the end of the Flash does end up with a 9th season, all we can ask for is some sort of justice for Iris as recompense for her poor treatment across the series that led to its ultimate ruin.
Kathryn Porter is the TV Intern for Paste Magazine. You can find her @kaechops on Twitter
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