If you strip away everything else, CW’s The Flash is about a guy who runs fast—his only power. Sometimes he runs so fast that he summons some sort of tornado; other times, he blasts through the time barrier itself. No matter what, Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) remains apple-cheeked and prone to seeing the bright side of things, even if the planet is on the brink of destruction. The CW superhero drama seems cut out of a simpler era where a hero fighting a villain of the week was all you needed to make a comic-book adaptation shine.
But The Flash’s real skill is in balancing that throwback feel with dense, yearlong storytelling arcs that frequently fold time on itself and feature villains from the distant future. Its first season, a huge ratings hit for the network, recalled the soapy early years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the best comparison a genre TV show could hope for. Like that show, it mixed small-change bad guys with a battle against a much bigger threat (resolved in a dramatic season finale). Even more importantly, it was about how heroes are defined by the support systems they build up around them. For all of its throwback charm, Barry’s blended family in The Flash—something Buffy had as well—was a quietly radical element in a genre that is usually anything but.
That emphasis on family continues into the second season, which premieres Tuesday on The CW. A supervillainous speedster killed Barry’s mother and framed his father for the crime when Barry was a child, so he was raised by a kind-hearted cop named Joe West (Jesse L. Martin). The show’s first season saw Barry given the power of supernatural speed, which he eventually used to uncover the identity of his mother’s killer. But in the second season, Joe remains a paternal figure, and his familial bond with Barry feels authentic. It would be easy for the show to reduce Joe to the role of wise African American mentor, but he’s a far more well-rounded figure. He acts a moral sounding board for Barry, but he’s also a father who’s often frustrated with the danger his son is in.
That’s where the Buffy comparison comes in. Joss Whedon’s revolutionary 1997 show was about a singular hero, but it was just as much about the ensemble around her that both informed and fed off her heroism. The Flash’s support crew includes the same archetypes: Buffy’s wise-cracking geek Xander takes the form of Cisco (Carlos Valdes), and the type-A know-it-all Willow seems reincarnated as Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker). Barry on his own is perfectly charming, but straightforwardly so: You’re rooting for him, but there’s not much drama to it, and his superpowers keep him at arm’s length. Mix in a team of lovable losers he has to protect, and he’s that much more human.
The Flash’s first season also perfectly imitated the classic Buffy structure, setting up a “big bad” in its first episode (the two-faced scientist Harrison Wells, played by Tom Cavanagh) and having his master plan slowly unfold over the course of 22 episodes before being vanquished, at a cost, in the season finale. It’s a structure Whedon borrowed from comic books themselves, where encounters with small-time foes (like the amusingly chintzy Captain Cold, played with dramatic relish by Wentworth Miller) feed into a larger battle on the horizon. In the first season’s finale, Barry defeated Harrison but lost an ally in the process; the season two premiere handles that trauma appropriately, without sacrificing the show’s overall sprightly tone.
When The CW launched as a merger of The WB and UPN (both of which aired Buffy) in 2006, it struggled for years to sustain the teen-focused brand of its predecessors. Only in recent years has it found a ratings groove by offering surprisingly complex genre dramas like The Vampire Diaries, Arrow, and The 100, which are mostly aimed at younger viewers. The Flash has attracted some of the best ratings in the network’s history because it balances all-ages appeal with institutional knowledge of what’s worked before. Buffy worked because it took its audience seriously while allowing itself to be silly; The Flash has some of that same spirit, meaning it can feature a pitched battle with a talking gorilla in the same episode as a heartfelt confrontation between an adoptive father and his son without feeling ridiculous.
Of course, Buffy’s real success was that it managed to strike that balance for a long time, and continued to find compelling villains for its season arcs as the years went on. The Flash’s second season begins, as Buffy’s always would, by having its heroes pick up the pieces, and it does so nicely. Here’s hoping the world’s fastest man can continue to keep up the pace.