One thing that's made CW's "The Flash" stand out among shows like "" and " " is its lighter, more optimistic tone. It's a show full of friendship and caring. Barry Allen lost his mom...and ended up with three dad figures who shower him with affection and pride. His costume's a bright color, he enjoys his work, he's unexpectedly good at karaoke, and he and his friends are sincerely trying to make the world a better place.
Of course, staying in tune with that relatively sunny and kid-friendly world requires a bit of cognitive dissonance. You have to be able to ignore a few things, like that Barry's in love with a girl who was raised as his sister. Barry's had all the "You're not my real dad!" "I take it back, you've truly been a dad to me" conversations with Joe West, and yet, we're not supposed to extend that perception of family to his daughter Iris. Joe thinks it's fine, so I guess it's fine? But no one even acts like it's perhaps a little unusual.
Can you imagine meeting them at a party if they got married? "Where are you two going for the holidays?" "Oh, we always go to our dad's house. Yeah, we have the same dad."
But enough about Barry's personal life. At least he's currently dating outside his nuclear family. The other thing that throws me in most every episode is that freaking creepy, inhumane prison they keep in the basement of S.T.A.R. Labs. Are we REALLY supposed to not notice?
There are always little things you're supposed to ignore to make a story work. But this elephant gets bigger the longer it's stuck in the room. [Update: The CW Tumblr took on a couple of these questions -- and made it all sound creepier than ever. My reaction on a private blog here.]
In the early episodes, it seemed reasonable enough that our heroes would jam a metahuman villain or two in a sort of holding cell in their busted particle accelerator's sturdy infrastructure. What else are they going to do with them? The regular justice system can't handle them. They were hurting innocent people. Dr. Wells might even be able to find a way to help them, eventually. (He's secretly experimenting on them, isn't he? Noooo!)
But once it's longer than a day or two -- once Cisco can flippantly remark, "That was, like, week three!" -- you really start to notice that these prisoners don't have windows, or furniture, or anyone to talk to. They don't seem to be given any way to pass the time -- anything to read, or listen to, or look at. They surely don't get let out for exercise and their cells look pretty small. You have to assume they have toilets and get food and water, but this level of solitary confinement is startlingly cruel for the long term.
How exactly do they get food and water, by the way? Presumably this got added to Cisco's and Caitlin's duties? That would be a bummer of a forced job update.
"And in addition to continuing to contribute to my research with your keen scientific mind, I'd like you to cook or otherwise acquire a number of meals, trolly them over to our secret jail and slip them through a bunch of little airlocks to our homicidally miserable prisoners three times a day. Twice if we're busy."
It would help if the S.T.A.R. Labs group at least kept talking about trying to find another solution. Even after hearing that Oliver's team has their own island prison during a crossover episode of "Arrow," our team didn't try to offload their prisoners there. Though to be fair, Oliver's antagonists haven't tended towards powers like turning into poison gas, so maybe they assume he doesn't have the facilities.
But what options are they considering? What's the timeline and is this really something to procrastinate on? And what about Peek-a-Boo, who basically just broke her boyfriend out of jail and stole some money? Does it at least bother them that they're treating her the same way they do murderers? (Actually, considering that they already have a bank robber in custody, maybe not. And wasn't Tony Woodward imprisoned more on spec than anything? Hartley Rathaway knocked cars off a bridge, but wasn't he assuming Barry would save the drivers? Do they really only have one murderer?)
When Dr. Stein's wife tells him, "They can help you...they say they can," my first thought was to wonder if our heroes had also said what they'd do to her husband if they couldn't help. Which felt strange. On some shows it's normal to dread what the protagonists are going to do next, but "The Flash" isn't really one of those.
Barry Allen's a good guy. It's part of his appeal. He's responsible, sweet, idealistic. Cisco and Caitlin don't carry as much of the moral burden of the show, but they still seem pretty well-meaning. Dr. Wells is, of course, ambiguous -- FINE, he's EVIL, but he probably has some sort of good intentions. (I'm basing that solely on the fact that he's polite to his computer voice, Gideon. Usually on TV a sociopath drops the act when he's alone, to tip the viewer off. That Wells keeps on seeming kindly and civilized in his off hours suggests there's something real about it at base.)
It could turn out that we're supposed to have been noticing this problem all along. That Wells convincing his protégés that this setup was OK was just another tip-off that we shouldn't trust him. Cisco has been seeming increasingly callous lately -- look at how he tortured Rathaway, and enjoyed it.
Are we seeing a sort of Stanford prison experiment effect in which being complicit in the abuse is eroding Cisco's morals? Is Caitlin going to turn around in the end and scream at Wells that she should have known it was wrong all along? Is Detective Joe going to blow his top about it and precipitate a final confrontation?
I know I'm not the only one who's hung up on the Pipeline. I found this Reddit thread, for example, which makes the excellent point that Barry should be more concerned about the ethics here given that his own bio-dad has been locked up all these years.
(Does Barry just not think too hard about things that don't affect him personally? That's what got me wondering whether, say if he lost all the people constantly providing him with love and guidance.)
Maybe the show plans to address this question more satisfyingly in the future. Either tell us why the Pipeline isn't as bad as it looks, or admit that it's worse. In the meanwhile, I'm half expecting a scene where Cisco asks who will watch the watchmen, lets the room go somber, then adds, "Like, this weekend? I've got it on Blu-ray."
Disclosure: CNET is published by CBS Interactive, a unit of CBS. "The Flash" airs on The CW, a joint venture between CBS and Warner Bros. Entertainment.