Tom Cavanagh is known for three things: his Golden Globe nominated work on the TV show Ed, his recurring guest spot on Scrubs, and for finding the Fountain of Youth around 1999. He’s bounced around with several low-budget films and a lot of made-for-TV movies with the word “Christmas” in the title, but on this year’s season of the CW’s TV show The Flash, Tom Cavanagh reminded me just how good of an actor he is.
The Flash is not the greatest show on TV by any stretch of the imagination, yet it has managed to really capture the fun and excitement of the superhero genre. In a world where every hero has to be “retconned” into oblivion and/or made into a dark/brooding character study, it’s refreshing to have a show on the air that relies more on adventure than aggression.
The Genius Of The Flash
Tom Cavanagh plays Dr. Harrison Wells, a Steve Jobs-like personality who works in the world of advanced science. He runs a giant facility called S.T.A.R. Labs where the main character Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) works alongside Cisco (Carlos Valdes) and Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker).
I won’t get into spoiler territory quite yet, but I want to stress that one of the most integral parts of Cavanagh’s performance is his relationship with his employees. These people are more than his employees: they are his students and he is their mentor. I’m oversimplifying his relationship with the group, but he acts in many ways as the voice of consequentialism, constantly eroding the groups deontological tendencies.
Barry Allen (aka the Flash) starts off as a man with a strict moral code who slowly begins to bend his own self-imposed rules due to the logical but sometimes menacing mentoring from Wells. He acts not so much as the group’s moral compass but rather as a constant challenger of their ethical code.
Tom Cavanagh’s brilliance can’t be fully explained without a few key spoilers, so reader beware.
Tom Cavanagh starts off as a somewhat mysterious and anti-social ally who is eventually revealed to be the arch rival of the Flash, going so far as to call himself the Reverse Flash. When he’s just the slightly creepy Dr. Harrison Wells, he comes off as a bit confrontational with the group, but he is simultaneously the voice of reason. He usually helps keep the calm within the group and offers sage advice to its members. He comes off as a bit of an odd bird, but the only one truly suspicious of him is Barry’s adopted father Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin). It’s hard not to like Dr. Wells since on several occasions, he saves Barry’s life and makes him a better superhero.
The duality of it all is revealed during the final third of the season as Dr. Wells needs the Flash to become stronger and faster so that he may time travel. I promise you that if you watch the show it’s not as complex as it seems. Basically, Dr. Wells is from the future and he traveled back in time to kill Barry Allen, but failed and is now stuck in the past. The only way he can return home is to have Barry be as fast as he was during his time. It creates a beautiful dynamic where one side is willing to let his enemy live as a means to an end, and the other just wants to do the morally right thing. It is literally consequentialism vs. deontology in action.
Tom Cavanagh has a hard role to play, as he has to be believable as both an intelligent mentor and also has to pass as a time-traveling sociopath with an axe to grind. His moral code is all about trying to accomplish his goals, but in an odd way he does truly care about his pawns’ lives. He’s been stuck in their time for so long he’s developed attachments to them: not enough to prevent him from killing them if necessary, but he is a super-villain, after all.
The trick is that Cavanagh doesn’t play the character over the top. Agents of Shield is a parade of cartoonish overacting, Gotham is one of the most inconsistent displays of character motivations I’ve ever seen and Arrow doesn’t seem to know whose story to tell and when. The Flash works because everything stays fairly contained. Even when the script gets a bit hyperactive, Cavanagh manages to ground his performance and avoid becoming a caricature.
Watch the video below as a sample of just how great his work has been on this show. In this scene his prized pupil Cisco has discovered that Dr. Wells is the Reverse Flash; of course Dr. Wells is one step ahead of him. What happens next is in my opinion the best villain performance of any superhero show on TV this year. There were some scattered moments of inspiration from Jada Pinkett Smith on Gotham but Cavanagh nails Reverse Flash in this moment and cements him as one of the most unsettling antagonists in recent memory.
It is incredibly hard for any actor to get nominated for an Emmy, as it’s a crowded field that consists of actors on network TV, cable/satellite, PPV, Netflix, Hulu and even freaking Amazon Prime! Cavanagh will most likely not be nominated for an Emmy, due to his show not being on HBO and or having a TV-MA rating, but he’s done good work bringing a very difficult character to life. I see his performance as The Reverse Flash akin to a top level athlete on a .500 level team. He doesn’t win the MVP award even though his team would haven’t won many games without him, but it doesn’t matter to the league; they want someone who is flashy and high profile.
Here’s to hoping that this year the Academy can do something totally radical and give performances like Cavanagh’s a real fighting chance.
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