Emily S. Whitten: What I’m Watching – Arrow
I love TV shows, but sometimes I’m terrible at keeping up with them. As with comics, I tend to skip a few weeks and then mainline three or four episodes in a row, mostly because I hate getting just a tiny bit of story and character interaction and then waiting a whole week for more. Impatience is one of my little flaws, and the mandatory waiting is made more bearable if I get a miniseries collection of stories first.
However, given that it’s often harder (or more inconvenient) to find and watch back episodes of current shows, this fall I did take note of two shows I was excited about and wanted to actually try to keep up with, one of which is Arrow, the new CW show about Green Arrow. So far, I’m succeeding. Go me!
I always try to give a new show at least two episodes to decide what I think of it. Sure, a pilot is supposed to grab you and draw you in, but sometimes it takes even a potentially good show a couple of tries to establish a balance (and sometimes it takes half of a season and by the time they’ve worked out the kinks the show’s canceled. I’m looking at you, Dresden Files). For instance, during the first episode of Dexter I was unsure of whether my long-time friend had been insulting my character or serious when he’d said “Oh, you’d love Dexter. It’s about a serial killer!” but by episode two I’d realized that he was absolutely right and I wanted to see more. We’ve had two episodes of Arrow so far, so I feel like I’ve given it a fair shot and it’s time for a frank assessment. So here we go!
(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
The storyline is centered around Oliver Queen immediately after his return from a yacht wreck and five years marooned on The Island that Makes a Man Out of Him – or a Future Vigilante, whatever. He returns to Star(ling) City to discover that his mom has married the CEO of his dad’s company, his sister Thea’s a recreational drug user, and his best friend Tommy Merlyn’s a slightly smarmy partier – which apparently means he’s the one person who hasn’t changed at all in five years. Ollie’s ex-girlfriend, now-lawyer (Dinah) Laurel Lance, is mad he’s not dead because her sister Sarah died on the yacht because Ollie was cheating on Laurel with her. Classy!
Pretty much from the first moment Ollie arrives back in the city, he begins his purposeful transformation to (Green) Arrow with his stated (literally stated, in an Intense Voiceover) mission being to take down a list of corrupt people his dad told him about who have ruined the city.
Even in the comics, Green Arrow bears a lot of superficial similarities to Batman; but in this show, it’s obvious that they’re actually trying to channel Christopher Nolan’s Batman in particular. Ollie hides behind a more shallow “playboy” persona that he switches on in public so people won’t suspect his vigilante skills and activities; he’s most genuinely affectionate towards the household staff (which plays weirdly here, since it doesn’t seem like either his mother or sister are heinous people at this point); and he magically sets up a fully stocked and wired Arrow-cave with what are apparently two Bags of Holding containing computers, lights, weaponry, and an entire exercise setup.
The problem with all this, though, is that it’s done so quickly. In the Batman movies there’s a clear progression and motivation behind everything Bruce Wayne does to make himself into Batman, and we get to savor the transformation of an ordinary man into a superhero. In this show, it’s like they’re rushing to get the setup out of the way and don’t bother to appreciate what’s so cool about a superhero’s origin, or to go through the reasoning for his behavior. Which is puzzling, because if you’re going to have ridiculously dramatic voiceovers in your show, what better way to use them than to say things like, “I had to pretend to be something I’m not – a shallow, callous party boy – so people wouldn’t suspect the truth.” I can just hear Stephen Amell intoning that now. (Although hopefully he’d stop short of saying, “I also had to don a green hood of vigilante-ism. Because I cannot complete my mission as Oliver Queen. But as a symbol…as a symbol I can be incorruptible; everlasting…”)
Okay, I’m making a big deal about the Nolan parallels; and it could be argued that those movies redefined certain types of superhero cinema, and naturally a serious superhero show might resemble them. But there are actual shots in Arrow that are so cinematically similar to those movies that I can’t think it’s remotely a coincidence, and they’re a little too on-the-mark to be enjoyed as homages.
For instance, in the pilot we get a scene with the head bad guy sitting in a car looking scared as Arrow takes out his men just outside – a la Carmine Falcone at the docks in Batman Begins. And in episode two we get the previous part of that same Batman scene, when a different head bad guy looks around in fright as an unseen person starts taking out his men around him with projectiles in a warehouse-like area (a la the Batarang striking the light bulb and the ensuing mayhem in the movie). And that’s just a couple of examples. Let’s not even get started on things like Tommy driving Ollie into the bad part of the city (does that make Tommy Rachel Dawes?) and the dedication of an applied sciences building in episode two.
I’m not saying that stealing a few pages from Nolan’s playbook is a bad idea; in fact, I think it could be really enjoyable to watch. But as I said, here…everything is so rushed. It’s like they were in this huge hurry to slot every family member, friend, and piece of Arrow’s persona into place so they could get down to the nitty-gritty plot of the show. Which would be okay, except that so far, the plot isn’t a plot, it’s a…routine? I’m not sure what else to call it. Other than all of the establishing information (including the shipwreck and island flashbacks), if I had to sum up what has happened in real time so far, it would be: Queen goes after someone on his Bad Guy list and makes them pay somehow that involves trick arrows; Laurel is involved because she’s a lawyer who fights against the Bad Guys in court; and Detective Harry-Dresden Lance gets involved either because of his daughter or Arrow or both, which makes me happy because so far, he’s my favorite part of the show. (Seriously, I love Paul Blackthorne as Detective Lance so far, and I really loved him as Harry Dresden. Can you tell?)
And… that’s it. Sure, there’s ongoing character drama – sister Thea is alternately begging Ollie to let her in and angry at him for judging her, and the interactions between the two, while not always logical, are pretty well done. Mommy Queen is now married to his dad’s old friend, and is apparently in the midst of Evil Doings but still loves her son… maybe. Ollie and Laurel are back-and-forth about where their relationship is (and their interactions are probably the best part of the show so far, because actress Katie Cassidy, whom I last saw as Ruby in Supernatural, is killing it as Laurel). Meanwhile, there’s some undefined nonsense going on with Laurel and Merlyn; and Laurel and her dad have fights about The Right Way to Do Right. It’s all potentially interesting, but somehow the interesting moments are so disconnected that they turn into background noise for Ollie’s quest; and so far, Ollie’s quest is boring.
To compare: while Smallville, the last CW show to feature Green Arrow, was often goofy and sometimes entered downright “WTF?” territory, the same zaniness that allowed for total mis-steps like “Lana becomes a vampire for an episode” also allowed for stuff like Red-K Clark partying and knocking over banks in Metropolis, and Ollie leading a young Justice League into Lex Luthor’s evil labs and blowing them up; and seriously? That was kind of awesome. There were some really fun plots that only happened because the fictional world was wide open to stuff like Lois & Clark somehow getting sucked into the Phantom Zone via both simultaneously touching Clark’s Fortress crystal which had just been anonymously mailed to him. All in a day at the Kent farm, as it were.
In that universe, which features a different take on Green Arrow’s core personality (and one that I grew to appreciate despite his clunky introductory scenes), somehow Green Arrow targeting Bad Dudes and giving their money to charity managed to be both not boring and not the only thing we were supposed to be invested in. Ollie in Smallville had heart, a certain playfulness despite his tragic past, and, frankly, more firmness of purpose than Clark a lot of the time. Despite the Smallville-ian costume Arrow dons here, however, this character is pretty dour (too much firmness of purpose?), and while I get that he’s supposed to be suppressing his emotions for his mission, I miss the heart that the Smallville character had. Even when he was in pain and being a jackass about it, you felt for him and could understand why his friends would rally together to help him, as they did more than once. I don’t find that here.
I guess I’m having a bit of trouble collating how I feel about Arrow overall, because I’m torn between how much I really wanted to like it (especially given all of the good advance reviews) and my thoughts when watching it. Despite my criticisms above, there are some good pieces to this puzzle; but it seems like all of the pieces I might enjoy are jumbled in with each other in a way that makes it hard to enjoy any of them or put together a coherent picture. The good pieces include the aforementioned interactions between certain characters; Tommy Merlyn as the comic relief; the fun little nerd references to Andy Diggle, Mike Grell, and Deathstroke; Amell, who is gaining traction in a more nuanced portrayal of Oliver by episode two, and is plenty pretty for a CW show (it’s a requirement, dontchya know) and impressively fit (the salmon ladder exercise in the pilot is memorable); the flashbacks to the wreck (and Sarah’s whooshing out to sea, which was very well done); the trick arrows (I like how they’re modernized into technology arrows); and the Lance family (really I’d watch a whole show about the Lance family, as played by Blackthorne and Cassidy, and am thinking right now that maybe the network should have gone with that).
But there are also jarringly bad notes, like the over-the-top (and sometimes unnecessary) voiceovers; some not-stellar dialogue (“What…happened to you on that island?” “A lot.”); and the fact that Oliver Queen, Our Hero, cold killed a dude by straight-up breaking his neck (after presumably killing another dude by putting him in the way of about fifteen bullets to the chest). This happens in the pilot, when Ollie and Tommy are abducted so that some mysterious person (Ollie’s mom, as it turns out) can learn if his dad told him about all the Bad Guys in Star(ling) City. And I get that Ollie is in danger here, since the thugs Ollie’s mom hired are spraying bullets everywhere in a way that would have killed anyone who wasn’t trained to escape them (and since Ollie’s mom doesn’t know about his bad-assedness, that really makes me wonder about her); but still – he kills the guy in cold blood, just because the dude saw him do some sweet parkour and martial arts. I feel like this isn’t very heroic, you know? Also it’s uneven writing, because after that, he purposely doesn’t kill any more bad dudes (even the really bad ones specifically named in his book), instead “bringing them to justice.” Hm.
Taken all together, I would have liked to see a lot more of Ollie progressing from “traumatized guy with a purpose” to “full on superhero,” rather than the rushed bits we get here. Hell, I’d probably watch at least a half-season of just that. Instead of trying to pull every thread of his life together at once, I think if the show had focused in on Ollie, slowly drawing in and examining his interactions with others, I might already have become more invested. I also think that if they threw some challenges in Ollie’s quest path, instead of making it seem like each week he’ll just knock another name off of his list, no problem, I’d be more eager to watch.
As it is, the flashbacks have been interesting, the nerd references are fun, and there have been some snippets of good character interaction. What will keep me watching (for a few more episodes at least) is mainly my appreciation for seeing any adaptation of a superhero to a major network show; my love of the nerdy bits they throw in here and there; my appreciation of The Pretty (hey, Amell’s abs and chiseled looks are impressive); my interest in the Lance family; and my hope that the show is going to jump to a more surprising trajectory than it’s on now, and hopefully get better.
…So I guess I’ll keep watching and see how Arrow does next week, and until then, Servo Lectio!
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Michael Davis? Really?
WEDNESDAY MORNING: Mike Gold Gets Mad, For A Change