By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Whitney McIntosh and Cameron White
Season 1, Episode 12, “The Trickster”
Original airdate: Feb. 7, 1991
Les: And so, the superhero roundtable has come to a close. We’ve kept Gotham, Metropolis, Century City and so many other locations safe from the forces of darkness. We’ve fought off arms dealers, crooked reporters, spiteful ranchers, amnesiac professors and the “ghost” of Julius Caesar; all thanks to the aid of alien outfits, gamma radiation, Egyptian amulets and six million dollars worth of bionic enhancements. The world is safe… BUT FOR HOW LONG?!?
Okay, I’m over that now. This has been an interesting roundtable to participate in, as superheroes are more of a mixed bag than some of the other genres we’ve talked about in these thematic roundtables. Some of them go for a corny, colorful approach that embraces the “comic” part of “comic book” (Batman and Shazam!), others go for a darker, gritty approach (Green Hornet), and others are interested in a more human, sincere story (The Greatest American Hero and The Incredible Hulk). The budgetary limitations of rendering heroes mean that the real strength of the story has to rely more on what we see of the heroes outside of their costumes than in them, and (as Cory said all the way back in the first post about The Adventures of Superman) the ensemble becomes more important to the weekly activity of the show. And I think there’s a clear path to these shows getting better as we move ahead in time, as they can get away with more action and better effects but are also able to get deeper into the issues that are inherent with superhero burdens.
Fittingly (and unintentionally as it was just announced last week), for our last roundtable we’ve picked a hero who’s supposed to be making his return to the small screen next year: The Flash, one of DC Comics’ oldest and most venerable superheroes. CBS brought the hero to television in 1990, telling the story of police forensic scientist Barry Allen (John Wesley Shipp), who when struck by lightning and thrown into a shelf of volatile chemicals has his biochemistry altered to the extent that he’s able to move at superhuman speeds. In this installment, the Flash grapples with a megalomaniacal magician called the Trickster (Mark Hamill), while also juggling his relationships with his best friend Dr. Tina McGee (Amanda Pays) and former detective Megan Lockhart (Joyce Hyser).
Out of all the superhero shows we’ve watched, I’d say this one goes in the upper tier, and in terms of execution and efficacy I think I’d put only The Incredible Hulk ahead of it. I think it straddles the line between seriousness and adventure well, with the tone set early on with the Danny Elfman score and the pseudo-Gothic setting of the city–I was reminded strongly of the Tim Burton Batman film, and that was a theme that carried over for much of the action. Shipp made a convincing character both in and outside of the suit, and thankfully his power is easy enough to render that I didn’t feel any of the superspeed moments were silly. There’s some comic relief provided by Barry’s best friend Julio (Alex Desert) and the bickering between the two uniformed officers over whether or not one of them is the Flash provide an amusing background joke.
But of course, most of this episode hinges on the performance of the eponymous Trickster, the first supervillain we’ve had in the roundtable since King Tut: Hey kids, it’s Mark Hamill! (Applause) This episode aired a year before Hamill gave voice to his iconic interpretation of The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series, and you can see the seeds of that character here in the homicidal James Jesse. It’s a villain that’s hilariously over the top from the start–he’s introduced trying to saw a woman in half, for God’s sake–with a repertoire of ludicrous stunts, a car that looks like it should be transporting clowns to a tent and an outfit that beggars belief. But as with Hamill’s best villain performances, there’s a genuine undercurrent of threat that keeps you from dismissing him entirely, his callous disregard for human life and psychotic fixation on Megan leaving it clear this is not a character to mess with. He had no superpowers to speak of, instead it was pure lunacy and malice that was so chaotic that in the end the Flash had to use his mind instead of his speed to put the Trickster down for good.
From a story perspective, what I both liked and was also a little annoyed by in The Flash was the way it kept hinting at more serious and interesting approaches to the issues the hero faced, only to deal with them on a surface level. Early in the episode Barry admits that his speed abilities aren’t infallible, and he can’t continue to go at great speed without running the risk of dehydration and muscle damage. I assumed this was going to be a recurring part of the episode, but aside from his needing a ride home (triggering the Tina/Megan tensions) it never came up again. And introducing the Trickster also allows the episode to casually brush against one of the great questions of superhero stories, what role they play in creating the villains they fight against, a question that Barry seems genuinely tormented by for one scene but which–again–is barely mentioned after that and doesn’t get any sort of resolution. I realize that it’s a weekly CBS procedural and you can only ask so much of those, but I feel there was a deeper story to tell that they just chose not to in the interests of entertainment. And really, which of these superhero shows couldn’t that be said about?
Whitney: I vacillated between really enjoying this episode and not enjoying it at all throughout most of the run time, but ended up firmly on the side of enjoyment by the time everything was wrapped up and done with. As you discussed Les, the story here was one of the most well presented out of all the episodes we’ve watched the last couple weeks. The fact that a few story threads dropped off after they were mentioned was disappointing but not at all surprising considering this was a procedural on CBS in the mid-90’s. Seeing as this was only the 12th episode of season one, I went in assuming some relationships and motivations would still be muddled but was happy to see that most things were smoothed out by this point in the season. Specifically, I was such a fan of Barry’s uncertainty about his abilities and role as a hero and the way the show presented his emotions. They touched on it a few times, always allowing the audience to see where he was coming from but adding in a few dashes of levity and perspective from either Tina or Megan.
As in most hero tales there needs to be some sort of inner struggle for the show to have any sort of meaning, but The Flash makes it possible to require thought while still having fun and joking around. John Wesley Shipp in this role actually reminded me a lot of Ryan Reynolds in The Green Lantern and made me think about what it would look like for Reynolds to step into this part if a big screen project was ever launched. Personally, I think it would suffer from a lot of the same problems that this episode did but also have the same strengths. Namely, possibly leaning too much towards a romantic pairing when one is unnecessary while also embracing the camp of a superhero that can only go incredibly fast.
My attention wandered the most almost every time there was manufactured tension between Tina and Megan. At first I was unsure whether Tina and Barry were actually meant to be dating, or if they were merely friends and the show had yet to decide if they would push the unrequited love angle or not. I don’t think I ever really figured out where this episode was heading with the whole “faux love triangle” thing but it didn’t seem to matter in the long run of the show’s relationships seeing as Megan left town like she had planned to the whole time and Tina continued to help Barry fight the Trickster with no real animosity beyond general annoyance of Megan’s presence. What was interesting about the interactions between these three was the representation of the characters as yuppie city slickers with social lives beyond fighting crime. The inclusion of a pre-Becker Alex Desert almost pushes the scenes in the coffee shop and making plans each night into a Friends zone of city living. “Barry has a nice apartment! But who will he decide to take to the police ball?! And will that hurt the other woman’s feelings???” Etc., etc. The Flash is without a doubt the most procedure-heavy series we’ve discussed, if only because the crime fighting is much more sequestered from the rest of the action.
Which brings us to the Trickster’s obsession with Megan. Introduced almost out of the blue and requiring a large amount of exposition after his first attempt at harming her, his need for her to be his sidekick did little except give a framing device to his other criminal escapades around the city. I preferred it this way as opposed to making his desire for Megan the only issue, although I’m sure Hamill would have sold his performance either way. Seeing Hamill turn the cheese level to 99 was such a treat, and I agree that it was so obviously a precursor and inspiration to his later work as the Joker. In this way it’s almost like we’re getting a secret inside look at his process for creating a persona to file away and use at a later date, even if he wasn’t even aware of it yet.
Cory: One of the clichés I don’t think we’ve exhausted enough during this roundtable is the old adage that a superhero is only as good as his/her villain. Maybe that’s because for most of the roundtable we’ve been stuck with lower-level foes or more pedestrian problems like corrupt journalists and loan sharks. But damn, this is the week to talk about villains because Mark Hamill is simply out of his mind as the Trickster. Les and Whitney smartly touched on Hamill’s later and more famous work on Batman: The Animated Series, but he’s certainly no slouch here either (in fact, during my research of the show for both this and the Test Pilot I did last summer, Hamill’s turn as the Trickster came up more than just about anything else.) Not only did Hamill’s Trickster return later in the show’s only season, but he helped spur on something of a different version of The Flash, which focused mostly on “grittier” stories in the opening episodes. Thus, what began as a show clearly intended to piggyback on the success of Burton’s dramatic, dark Batman only grew more compelling once it found its own version of the Joker.
I’ll concede that the Trickster’s origin story is way too rushed in this 44-minute episode. Two-parters aren’t always a great idea, but in this case, it seems like an additional episode would have fleshed out the character and more importantly given Hamill more to do. Although, if we’re continuing the idea that the Trickster is basically this show’s version of the Joker (and Riddler, kind of), then it makes more sense that we actually don’t know how lot about James Jesse; he’s simply a crazy person that gets progressively crazier once engaged with the Flash. The tonal transitions between Barry’s love life and the Trickster’s plotting are outrageous and you can totally tell that the triangle is stuck in the older version of the show, and yet, this episode works primarily because of Hamill. He’s really committed to hamming it up and never working through one scene the same as the previous, keeping both Barry and the audience on his toes. It’s not as good as Jack Nicholson’s work in the Burton Batman film, but it’s nuttier, which plays better on TV anyway.
The presence of the Trickster only improves what I’ve found to be a pretty fine show in the three or four episodes I’ve seen. However, the energy that the character and the actor inject into the show does reflect the kind of impact a good villain can have on a superhero–especially one as boring as the Flash. For a theme dedicated to superheroes, it’s fitting that we close with a power-house villain performance to remind us that most of the time, villains get to be flashier (hey-o), and are ultimately more fascinating.
Cameron: Most of what I wanted to say has been said, specifically with regards to Mark Hamill (it’s clear, for instance, that this performance would inform WB/DC’s decision to bring him on as the voice of the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series), but I wanted to say that, while I think “gritty cop show” is the way to go with Barry Allen, I equally love the sort of show that The Flash is in this episode: completely bonkers, everything on the surface (the relationship stuff and the over-the-top villain), no-holds-barred. The best part is how these different all-in aspects are kept in balance; as Barry struggles with the questions about what his presence as the Flash has caused, as Tina and Megan have a (admittedly contrived and by their own admissions not really a conflict) bashing of heads, we turn to the Trickster, embodying male entitlement and reveling in the evils of it all. This show clearly takes after The Incredible Hulk in all the best ways, and that makes for an absolute fun television show.
The roundtable is heading to its respective Batcaves and Fortresses of Solitude to rest and consider our next topic. An announcement of that will be forthcoming. Once again, we thank you for your readership and comments, and look forward to talking about the next series of episodes.