How The Flash Went From The Best Superhero Show On TV To A Total Disaster

The CW has spent most of 2022 cleaning house in anticipation of its likely sale, itself a direct result of the newly-finalized Warner Bros. Discovery merger. This has also led to the gradual death of the network's shared DC TV universe, aka the Arrowverse, a process that will culminate with "The Flash" airing its ninth and final season in 2023. It's a bittersweet turn for those who've spent years watching Grant Gustin's Barry Allen and his faithful "Team Flash" save Central City over and over again... but at the same time, it's hard to deny this news is long overdue.

When "The Flash" premiered on October 7, 2014, it was a breath of fresh air for the superhero genre. Where its predecessor, The CW's "Arrow," was a broody and grounded crime-drama drawn in the vein of "Batman Begins" (sometimes on accident), "The Flash" was brightly-colored, unapologetically soapy, and perfectly willing to indulge in the sillier aspects of its comic book source material. This, in turn, paved the way for other Arrowverse series to further explore the spectrum when it comes to tone and style.

To put it another way: King Shark and Gorilla Grodd walked on "The Flash" so Beebo could body-slam demons in the Old West on "DC's Legends of Tomorrow."

What's more, "The Flash" managed to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump by introducing different realities in its second season, well before the Marvel Cinematic Universe began its own multiverse saga. Yet, over the years between season 2 and the present, the show suffered a stark drop-off in quality, albeit one that happened in fits and starts as opposed to a steady decline. As such, in light of its cancelation, now seems a fitting time to examine how the Fastest Man Alive ended up running off the track.

The first signs of trouble

"The Flash" season 1 thrives by blending a villain-of-the-week formula with an origin story for Grant Gustin's Scarlet Speedster. An effective adulthood coming-of-age parable, season 1 wisely uses the particle accelerator explosion that grants Barry Allen his powers to explain why his home, Central City, is suddenly flooded with meta-human law-breakers. It then balances these cartoony genre elements with earnest sub-plots involving Barry's tragic past, his loving friends and adopted family, and his secret affection for Iris West. And yes, Iris is basically Barry's adopted sister (!), yet their slow-burn romance somehow works in spite of the underlying weirdness.

Most of that approach was successfully carried over into season 2, between the birth of the series' multiverse — itself the source of new allies and threats alike — and the arrival of Iris' brother Wally West as part of a larger father-son motif. It's season 3 where the show's reliance on formula starts to become an issue, courtesy of the show's loose attempt to adapt the famously dark "Flashpoint" comic book storyline (in which Barry creates a bleak alternate timeline while attempting to rewrite his past). It seems an extra dose of broodiness was all it took to begin throwing off the series' alchemy.

To be fair, it wasn't merely that "The Flash" made an ill-advised effort to be more like "Arrow" (re: grittier) in season 3 with its now-infamous Savitar storyline. After two seasons, its villain-of-the-week formula had grown repetitive and was failing to evolve with the rest of the show, leading to weaker one-off villains and week-by-week B-plots. It called for an overhaul and season 4 obliged by bringing in Clifford DeVoe, aka The Thinker, a foe who, in a welcome twist, presented much more of a psychological challenge than the series' previous Big Bads.

A time of Crisis

Giving Barry Allen an enemy he couldn't simply speed-punch wasn't the only thing "The Flash" season 4 did right. That year also saw producer Andrew Kreisberg fired in response to multiple sexual harassment allegations, after which (by no coincidence) the series' female characters and their sub-plots got noticeably better. Season 4 subsequently ended by formally bringing in Barry and Iris West's daughter from the future, Nora West-Allen (aka the speedster XS), a development that allowed for a natural progression in season 5 of having Barry go from mentee to a mentor-figure and literal father himself.

Season 5 would thusly set the stage for season 6's "Crisis on Infinite Earths," the major Arrowverse crossover event that would more or less bring "Arrow" to a close and should have done the same for "The Flash." In fact, "The Flash" had hinted it would for years, teasing that Barry would one day vanish in a mysterious future "Crisis" and giving the series a natural endpoint. Except, it was obvious heading into season 6 that Barry would somehow "miraculously" make it out of "Crisis" alive and well, robbing the final episodes leading to the event of any real tension or pathos.

Sure enough, Barry survived "Crisis" and "The Flash" just ... kept going. In doing so, however, it lost the momentum it had heading into season 6. The show felt directionless in a way it never had before, bringing in more characters and launching new story threads with no clear endgame. It didn't help that longtime cast member Carlos Valdes (who plays Barry's adorkable guy-in-the-chair, Cisco Ramon) already plainly had one foot out the door well before his departure in season 7, having planned his exit since as far back as season 4 (as he admitted to TV Line in 2021).

Stop running Barry!

"The Flash" season 7 was pretty much a perfect storm of problems. After the pandemic cut season 6 short in 2020, season 7 was left to try and quickly wrap up its predecessor's story, then jump right into its own. Coupled with co-star Hartley Sawyer being fired in-between seasons just as his character, Ralph Dibny aka Elongated Man, was about to get his own major sub-plot (mind you, he was fired for valid reasons) and the limits on filming imposed by the ongoing health crisis, season 7 was one giant mess from start to finish. Frankly, there wasn't a single story thread that didn't feel off, forced or both, and even the attempts to bid farewell to Carlos Valdes and Tom Cavanagh (who plays, well, a lot of roles on the show) as main cast members didn't really land.

It was — purses lips like Miranda Priestly — a catastrophe.

While season 8 isn't generally regarded as quite the disaster season 7 was, it's apparent the magic is gone and the series is (no pun intended) running on fumes at this stage. Even if the pandemic hadn't happened, it's hard to imagine there being a reality in the multiverse where "The Flash" wouldn't have been better off ending with "Crisis on Infinite Earths," either. The idea that Barry Allen would inevitably have to vanish during the event gave the show actual stakes, the kind that kept it alive even after its formula became stale and its luster started to wear off. Moreover, "The Flash" was always a show defined by a simple yet powerful conceit: Even the Fastest Man Alive can't outrun his fate. Turns out, that was true in more ways than one.

"The Flash" will return for its ninth and final season on The CW in 2023.