Thursday, February 13, 2014

Flash Acting: John Wesley Shipp

It's been a good week for DC Comics on television as Fox's Gotham has cast it's young James Gordon, Alfred, The Penguin and more while CW's Flash just announced that former television Barry Allen/Scarlet Speedster John Wesley Shipp would be joining in an unspecified but important role.  If you'll recall, CBS ran an awesome adaptation of The Flash back in 1990 which only ran for one season when it collided with the deadly combination of juggernauts The Simpsons and The Cosby Show on Thursday nights.  I don't watch much television now but grew up on 80's and 90's fare like The Flash, Knight Rider, Miami Vice, Home Improvement, Lois and Clark:  The New Adventures of Superman and The Magnificent Seven so to see the star of one of my favorite shows getting some recognition in a new adaptation is a treat.

In the mid 80's, writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo were working on a film adaptation of The Rocketeer with creator Dave Stevens while also pitching a superhero television show to CBS that would have involved The Flash, Green Arrow's daughter, Dr. Occult and Legionnaire Blok.  Set in a future where superheroes are outlawed, Unlimited Powers would have been just a little too much for audiences used to the campy Batman series with Adam West or the more serious but still two man show, The Incredible Hulk.  After a change of management, a show based on a single character was developed and The Flash was off and running.  Produced by CBS and Warner Brothers for a cool $6.5 million, The Flash would be one of if not the most expensive pilots ever produced by the two studios hoping to ride the cape-tails of 1989's massive hit, Batman.  Out of over 60 hopefuls, stage and small screen actor John Wesley Shipp was selected to don the red boots and hood.

Born in Norfolk, Virginia, Shipp was a theatrical youth who sang and played the piano, dropped out of drama school and headed to New York.  By the late 1980's, Shipp had appeared on several soap operas and picked up a Daytime Emmy Award.  As Barry Allen, Shipp brings a determined yet nice guy charm as well as a strong physique to the role.  The signature costume was molded over his own musculature (sweet traps!) and the suits cost in the neighborhood of $100,000 for the season.  Described as like wearing two wetsuits, the Flash costume didn't breathe and would soak up sweat causing Shipp to easily lose 6 pounds a day.

After the pilot was picked up, production ramped up on the Warner Brothers back lot and the 22 episodes were shot on a grueling 9 day schedule over 9 months.  Influenced by Batman and The Rocketeer, The Flash doesn't overly ape either property but instead takes the best bits from each to make an enjoyable blend of action and drama with some light humor and superhero excitement set in a stylized yet grungy pulp world.  The big, Batman/40's style orchestral soundtrack punctuates the action and gives the show a grander feel.  While not exactly a documentary, the creators and actors built their own reality within the show's universe where Allen's family dynamics and simmering romantic subplots share time with special effects driven superheroics.  The pilot finds police scientist Allen on the revenge trail after his older brother and stalwart police officer, Jay, is killed.  After a bolt of lightning sends Allen into a shelf full of chemicals, the once cerebral Allen is now also super fast.  With the help of STAR labs scientist Tina McGee (Amanda Pays), Allen dons a suit that can withstand the tremendous pressure and wind of his newly acquired speed and sets out to catch the crooks who greased his big bro.

As the show progressed, comic book style villains emerged in the forms of The Trickster, Captain Cold and Mirror Master.  Ally The Nightshade and his violent counterpart The Deadly Nightshade would add additional pulp flavor to the series and were some of my favorite episodes.  One of most memorable bits from the show was Allen's constant need to feed in order to keep his metabolism up.  Whether it was giant bowls of cereal, stacks of pizza or a vending machine's worth of candy bars, Barry Allen just Gotta Eat!

CBS decided to slot their expensive new show on Thursday nights against NBC's family favorite, The Cosby Show.  Fox then decided to get into the fight and moved animated champ The Simpson's to Thursday as well.  Having already spent millions on advertising, CBS didn't flinch and was now going head to head with two of TV's biggest performers.  Ratings for The Flash were good but the show couldn't fight off the Cosby or Simpson clans.  The Flash was then moved to the odd spot of 8:30PM to avoid the fierce competition but things did not improve.  The subsequent move to 9:00PM did little as well.  All in all, The Flash averaged over 9 million viewers for the season compared to The Simpson's 13 and The Cosby Show's 17.  Given the series' stiff $1.5 million per episode cost, The Flash would not sprint into a second season.

It will be interesting to see what direction the new Flash show will run and how Shipp will be used.  I didn't get into Smallville much with it's freak of the week redundancy and Arrow just seems to be about it's star running around shirtless in a dark and serious manner.  It's nice to see Shipp's inclusion in the new show that will hopefully be a nice wink to the fans and provide a little generational continuity between characters since unlike Marvel, DC heroes tend to have more than one man behind the mask over time.  It also highlights what a bunch of poseur bullshit The Big Bang Theory is since all of them are supposed huge fans of The Flash yet Shipp has somehow never appeared over it's 7 bullshit seasons as a recurring, guest or even a cameo.

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