"The Flash," the latest comic book superhero to be translated to series television, comes with ready-made super-villains to cope with.
First it was Bill Cosby, the TV colossus whose sitcom series has held down the 8 p.m. Thursday timeslot all these years. Then came "The Simpsons," attacking The Flash from the blind side in the same time period. Could The Flash, with all his speed, avoid being crushed?
Yes, but only if he could move to another timeslot, where he would find waiting that happy gang of characters from "Cheers," just waiting to do him in on their way to the top of the Nielsen ratings.
So far, "The Flash" seems to jump not from the frying pan to the fire, but simply from one fire to another.
"Let's face it," said executive producer Paul De Meo, who must face it, "we're going against 'Cheers,' which is a top show. But I'd prefer to be on at 8:30 than to be on against a first run of 'The Simpsons.' 'Simpsons' and 'Cosby' -- that's our audience."
The "Cheers" crowd may be large, but at least it's mostly adult, not the demographic "The Flash" is heavily counting on. "As our show progresses and we begin to build a loyal audience -- which I feel is happening -- I'd rather be where we are," he said.
It's hard not to wish De Meo and his partner, Danny Bilson, well as they realize a dream 12 years in the making, at the same time they give CBS its most intriguing new entry in the race for early-evening viewers.
What De Meo and Bilson have done is take a 50-year-old, second-tier comic superhero -- Superman and Batman were taken -- and try to turn it into an engaging TV series that will capture the imaginations of young viewers and maybe attract some of their elders too.
To do that has taken a lot of money from Warner Brothers and CBS, making the series a big gamble.
"Let's face it," said De Meo, "the show's expensive to produce. It's got to be the most expensive hour at Warners, and one of the most expensive on the air, period. The cost to get the look we want, the special effects we want to do -- it all adds up."
For the two-hour pilot alone, it added up to $6 million, a couple of million or so more than your usual two-hour pilot. The cost for each episode was expected to run about $1.4 million to $1.5 million. With the meter running at that rate, "The Flash" had better hurry up the Nielsen chart as quick as, well, a flash.
The series is based on the DC Comics character and stars John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen, a police lab chemist whose life has been changed by a bolt of lightning. When the lab was struck, Allen found himself awash in a chemical spill that transformed him -- for short periods anyway -- into a man who can do things at incredible speeds.
Allen's problem has put him in touch with Dr. Christina McGee, a scientist played by Amanda Pays. She happens to be studying his very problem; his initial reluctance to talk to her has turned into something of a dependent relationship.
That, of course, has put a strain on his relationship to girl friend Iris West, played by Paula Marshall.
Along for support is Alex Desert as Allen's lab assistant, Julio.
Each week Allen and the ensemble are faced with a new crime threat to meet and overcome, with Allen's speed producing much of the show's action and special effects.
The cost of the pilot was inflated by some 100 special effects that were put into it. That will level out at about 25 per hour episode. And then there's that fussy costume worn by John Wesley Shipp as "The Flash": His perspiration helped destroy four of them for the pilot, costing $100,000.
"We use a lot of effects," said De Meo. "We use a lot of black screen work, matt paintings," techniques used to superimpose one image on another. "And we do a lot of night shooting. We don't like The Flash to work during the day," said De Meo, as if citing a clause in a labor contract.
The real reason for shooting at night, in addition to enhancing mystery, is that The Flash -- how can we say this? -- looks tacky in the light.
"The costume looks better in the dark," said De Meo. "If it's in harsh light, it begins to lose its realism. It's also why we're adamant about not letting people shoot him in the suit unless we're there controlling it. When CBS sent people to do publicity stills, we were there to watch. We try to approve all the stills.
"We're also very controlling when it comes to behind-the-scenes things. We don't let him do personal appearances in the suit."
The suit is made of molded latex foam -- "It's a makeup effect as much as a costume" -- much like the outfit worn by Michael Keaton in "Batman." But The Flash's duds are also coated with electrostatically charged particles, or fibers, bonded to the foam.
"It's part of the suit, rather than a separate layer," said De Meo. "We're concerned about the suit. War and tear is something we have to be careful of. We have the makeup guys freshen it often. Put the guy in a harsh light and it starts to look like fuzzy foam. It's like Batman -- put him in the wrong light and it begins to look like rubber -- which it is."
CBS has ordered 13 episodes of "The Flash," and De Meo said he expects to hear by mid-November whether the network will want nine more.
Meantime, he wondered what the show's irregularly scheduled early outings would do to audience discovery and, he hopes, acceptance of the show. Between the show's move to 8:30 -- putting it in the unusual position of being an hour show that does not begin at the top of the hour -- and its recent pre-emptions for post-season baseball, "The Flash" TV show has been as hard to see as its fast-moving hero.
"It's hard to say what effect all that will have," said De Meo. "I know I missed it," he said somewhat wistfully. "Maybe we had our momentum going. You get apprehensive, especially when the show is new. But I hope it gave word-of-mouth a chance to grow. We've been getting a lot of mail at the office and I've been hearing that kids have been getting into it and there seems to be a bit of a cult following on college campuses."
De Meo is encouraged by ratings that indicate the show's audience has tended to grow rather than fall off during the show. And to finish 36th for the week when it premiered and 48th the week it moved to 8:30 -- that isn't too bad, is it?
Also encouraging is the prospect of merchandising deals being cut. T-shirts should be out soon, said De Meo, with more toys and figures to come if the series has legs. If "The Flash" had moved more quickly, there might have been Halloween costumes available, but that, De Meo hopes, will come next year.
And there's promising fan mail, some of it from people well beyond the kiddie stage, mostly men who have been Flash fans as far back as 50 years ago, when DC Comics first unleashed the character.
One of those fans is De Meo, who is 37. He offers a personal history and a comic book history.
"It came in two waves," said De Meo. "When I was a boy, I read a lot of comics, especially DC Comics. My main character was Superman, but there was Batman, The Green Lantern and The Flash too. I read them till I was 10 or 11. My next step was Mad Magazine, and I stopped reading comics."
He got reacquainted with them at Cal State, San Bernardino, where he earned a B.A. in theater and formed a friendship with Bilson and a partnership now known as Pet Fly Productions. They have written and produced films such as "Trancers," "Zone Troopers" and "Eliminators," and they wrote the script for Disney's spring offering, "Rocketeer." And they read comic books.
Delving back into them about five years ago, they found comics had changed since their campus days. "It was amazing, the quality of art and writing," said De Meo. "There had been a revolution, a renaissance of comic drawing and writing. It was a hybrid of the underground comics that started in the late '60s, featuring things that were raw, aimed at an adult audience. There was a mutating of that group of comics with the heroic comics we grew up reading. All of a sudden there was a new generation of characters with a lot more neuroses, and they became more human, more adult. They faced their vulnerabilities, their failings as human beings and as superheroes."
Among De Meo's favorites: Frank Miller's "Dark Knight," "a 'Batman' revisionist comic, which took the character into his 50s, had him coming out of retirement to face The Joker one last time. It was very dark, very gothic. A lot of its elements surfaced in the 'Batman' film."
There was "The Watchmen" by Alan Moore, dealing with a group of crime-fighting heroes operating in a parallel world. And there was "American Flag" by Howard Chaykin, "which had very sharp writing and an interesting graphic style. His work is very influential."
From childhood in Buffalo, N.Y., to young manhood, De Meo has, off and on, read comics. And now he's putting one on TV.
"I was completely absorbed by them as a kid," he said. "Comics were my primary reading material. I'd run down to the drug store on the day they came out, with my dime, at the time, in hand.
"I still remember running to the drug store with a dime the day they went up to 12 cents. It was a shock. I almost flipped out. I was about 8 or 9. What a bummer. 'Oh, man, they can't do this!'
"Now I don't think many comics are under a dollar. But as your ticket to another world, they're cheap."