One Down, One to Go

So I decided to indulge in a little self-flagellation. Nothing too masochistic of course — no bloggers were actually harmed in the writing of this post — but I do find myself mildly aching and queerly disappointed after subjecting myself to the first four episodes of “Arrow”‘s third  season. In metaphorical pain because some of the show’s worst elements, in my opinion, are still lingering in plenty of scenes, like a clingy ex-boyfriend who just can’t figure out he’s not welcome any more, and deflated because a tiny, optimistic sliver of me wanted to like this show again.

Anyone who followed my sporadic reviews of a number of last season’s episodes — there are piteously few of you, I know, but I have had some friends tell me they enjoyed my analyses — should remember that I became rather disenchanted with “Arrow.” The light, to contradict Rust Cohle, wasn’t winning. Most of the flashes of quality I observed, and to a lesser extent documented, turned out to be just that — flashes, momentary glimpses of an intriguing, potentially gripping show that were swallowed up and almost entirely snuffed out by the myriad failures which are apparently a prerequisite for most popular television.

I’m not delighted to tell you that the dialog remains exposition heavy, that plenty of characters remain laughable imitations of humanity and that the episodes still progress like a mash-up of several half-baked ideas instead of as the steady development of one or two (or maybe even three) fully-formed ones. I have it on good authority that the creative team grabs their bucketful of tricks, slightly overflowing with “interesting” concepts, flings its sopping load at the blank canvas of an episode and hopes everything sticks.

“You have a hit TV show until you don’t,” said Stephen Amell, the star of “Arrow,” in a recent interview with BuzzFeed, apparently parroting producer Greg Berlanti. “So why are we saving something? We just press on. Press on, press on, press on, press on.”

Who can deny him? That strategy probably does make for “hit TV”; it just doesn’t make for good TV, or at least not stimulating TV. Look, I don’t want to seem like that pretentious snob at a dinner party who sucks on a pipe and fingers his monocle and snickers derisively at what “less evolved” people enjoy, but if a network’s template for crafting an appealing show is quick-cut action sequences, broad (and surprisingly gender-neutral) sex appeal and preposterous melodrama — I’m sorry, that’s just not riveting television; that’s an AXE commercial (minus the gender-neutral sex appeal, naturally). And I’d rather not be counted among the people who lap it up.

A close friend recently pointed out to me that it should impossible to write badly or superficially about comic book characters who have reams upon reams of back story that existed before a show (or movie) did. But the only thing “Arrow”‘s showrunners appear to care about is leaving their no longer insubstantial viewer base howling in manufactured awe or disbelief at their flat screens (or on Twitter) at narrative twists or reveals doubtlessly designed to compel them to tune in the next week for another foaming-at-the-brain experience. Hear me: if every moment is a climactic moment, then there is no climax — there’s not even a build up. There’s just a deluge of “big” emotions drowning out any gasp of nuance or subtlety or ambiguity in a scene, and that feels maddening to me, like every line is written in capitol letters. Like everybody’s screaming all the time.

What’s more, character “development” (or choices or motivation) is often explained in one line of dialog, usually defiantly, by the character in question before he or she storms out of a room to punctuate the end of the conversation. And I get it. Watching a person ruminate over a tough decision for 35 minutes wouldn’t be any better, but I’d like watch to an episode, or a few strung together, that doesn’t begin with characters feeling one way then 20 minutes later — like magic! — undergoing a complete change of heart. The bottom line is this: what’s happening is not nearly as important as the people it’s happening to, whatever it may be, and people rarely if ever renounce their worldviews in the span of a few hours.

“It’s a superhero show, sourpuss, lighten up!” objectors might say, and I know well it’s unfair to criticize a series (or anything) for not being something it’s not trying to be. But any serious fan of “Arrow” is going to tell you he or she loves the show because it reaches for those capital-“t” themes all the time. I just happen to think and am now convinced it can’t hit those beats; and, moreover, that one, if not the only, thing that makes superhero characters so appealing and empathetic is their fallibility, morally or otherwise, their irrepressible humanity. I don’t detect much of that on “Arrow” either. Obviously sad things make characters sad, but there are no lessons to be gleaned about grief, or even any character-specific grieving. Nope. We get “once you let the darkness inside, it never comes out” instead. Bleh. I can’t find the power button fast enough.

Now I’m sure I’ve tested your patience long enough, generous reader, and I do apologize if my screed has grown tiresome. I’m selfish enough to think my opinion matters to you, so I’ll compress it here once more to reward your perseverance:

I’m going back to “Twin Peaks.”

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Sophomore Surge

 

Grande (middle) performing “Problem” at the 2014 Radio Disney Music Awards

By Steven Martinez

Trends in most mainstream music reflect cutting-edge developments from the less heard corners of the music industry. This is not news, it’s not even particularly insightful, but it is nonetheless factual. However, it also doesn’t mean that pop music can’t be both pleasurable and objectively good. Case in point: Ariana Grande‘s recent capitulation to popular trends on her latest single “Problem.”

Any listener can immediately identify the saxophone loop, apparently a sample, on “Problem” and recognize eerily similar production in Jason Derulo‘s “Talk Dirty” and perhaps even more readily on Macklemore‘s smash “Thrift Shop.” (One would also be remiss for failing to mention that Kanye West likewise employed horns on his 2006 single “Touch the Sky” — more evidence of his prescience.) So, yes, it’s a derivate but “Problem” succeeds on much the same terms as her previous hits. Namely, stellar, kinetic production and Grande‘s soaring vocals (though the lyrics here are not to be scoffed at either).

In the song, Grande laments her affection for a lover who consistently mistreats her, and criticizes herself for swooning at his repeated and likely disingenuous declarations of contrition and rehabilitation, ultimately concluding she has her “head in the clouds” and “one less problem without [him].” She doubtlessly arrives at this decision with an assist from Iggy Azalea, who’s featured on the song and who dedicates her verse, the song’s last, to generally gelding males of the lothario variety (and referencing Jay-Z in the process). “There’s a million ‘you’s, baby boy,” she spits, “so don’t be dumb/I got 99 problems but you won’t be one.”

Azalea gets the mic-dropping send-off, but Grande does most of the stage setting here. In each of her two verses, she, Grande, fires off her lines in rapid succession, almost piling the sentences on top of one another, as if she’s in a hurry to finish the conversation before her former lover can swindle her again. This rush, however, does nothing to dampen her vocal prowess. She’s fluidly melodic and layered throughout and spectacularly builds her pre-chorus couplets to a climactic crescendo. (Alas, she saves glimpses of her dazzling melismas for the song’s outro.)

It’s invariably refreshing to hear a twist (or a tweak) on the au courant production trends, but combine that with a decent message — Taylor Swift‘s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” which glorifies the triumph of ephemeral emotions over reason, is a main offender here — and genuine talent and you’re hearing something special (and something bound to become tremendously popular). Creating music that meets both criteria, on the evidence of this song and her debut album, seems to be no problem for Miss Grande.

 

Both Sides Now

I know it’s been a while since a wrote an Arrow think piece, but I’m still following the show and it recently passed the halfway mark in its second season, which is as good a time as any to resume my critique. Although, I won’t lie to you, I have an ulterior motive. And here it is (in all it’s contrarian glory): Arrow isn’t as good as everyone seems to think it is. Of course when I say “everyone,” I mean those individuals dedicated to reviewing every episode, and when I say “not as good” I don’t (necessarily) mean “bad.” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, my excoriation.

Everywhere I look (or everywhere I can check), the reviews for this season’s episodes amount to a litany of plaudits. Seriously, you could drown in all the drool.  At IGN, out of 13 episodes, the mean rating per episode is 8.6 (also the median); the mode is 8.5; all three indicate, according to the IGN scoring system, episodes of “great” quality. The A.V. Club ratings are virtually identical (a mean score of 8.8), and season 2 boasts a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes; the average critic score? 8.2/10. For any recent show not titled Breaking Bad to sustain such a reproachless caliber over a three month span remains firmly entrenched under the banner of highly improbable. To think that just such a caliber can be — and is — found in a show on the niche CW network is abject lunacy. With that foundation, I can only conclude that either a) I do not adequately understand television criticism b) I am watching a different, worse version of the show, or c) the fanboys (or girls!) masquerading as critics are blind to, or willfully ignorant of, the show’s apparent flaws because they’re too busy gushing over an episode’s latest comic-book reference or prepping their salivary glands for the next barrage of superlatives. Let me address these concerns in turn.

A normal day for me consists of reading, or otherwise consuming, at least one piece of criticism (usually concerning movies, television or music) and very often more than one. So I don’t think it can be said that I’m unfamiliar with the critic’s approach to analyzing entertainment, or that I don’t understand the nuanced aspects of such an approach. In fact, I don’t think there’s anything particularly esoteric about a critical approach to begin with, only a difference in knowledge breadth. Therefore I must reject option a).

Option b) similarly falters upon examination. As yet, I am unaware of any television show that presents critics and audiences with dichotomous viewing experiences. (The only example I can think of is Firefly, which Fox aired in anachronistic order. Even so, the episodes were unaltered.) Though the existence of a counterexample wouldn’t matter anyway because reviews for Arrow only ever appear the night, or morning after, each episode airs for general public consumption. So at the very least Jesse Schedeen and I judge the same content.

Which leads me, by process of elimination, to option c). The people talking about Arrow are critics in name only. A complete lack of dissent (remember: the mean averages of the critical opinions I’ve mentioned differ by no more than half a point) implies that either all the reviewers share one opinion — the same opinion — of the show, all of them are trying to claim the title of taste arbiter (because the show has gained a substantial following) or those who hold differing views are afraid of fan blowback and thus keep their protests to themselves.

If there is any truth to the last two statements, the individuals responsible have reduced criticism to petty hipsterism (i.e., “I liked it before everyone else liked it”), in the first instance, or shameless pandering in the second. Both distort and pervert and frankly soil the critic appellation.

I could be persuaded to accept that the critical consensus of Arrow is merely the only possible reaction to its unfailingly spectacular quality — this happens all the time with movies or albums or TV shows, though there tends to be at least one not-as-favorable opinion — if my eyes and ears didn’t avow otherwise. The acting from Willa Holland (Thea Queen), who delivers all of her lines the same way, with the same head-shakes and inflections, and Colton Haynes (Roy Harper), who relies heavily upon the quivering of his lips, never eclipses mediocrity, character history or background is often only revealed in passing conversation and the dialog tends to oscillate between absurdly expositional and almost insultingly unsubtle.

That, as I said before, doesn’t mean everything is bad or unworthy of exhortation. Just about all the material given to Paul Blackthorne (Quentin Lance) is exceptional, and exceptionally performed and delivered, David Ramsey (John Diggle) is criminally underused, and occasionally a great line or witticism pops up from someone else. But, thinking about it now, that level of dialog (for all the characters involved) is probably a sine qua non on any number of other shows, and only stands out because on average the Arrow script is only, well, average.

Which says nothing of the show’s penchant for melodrama (seriously, someone was resurrected) and the creative team’s ostensible addiction to sending as many narrative plates spinning per episode as they possibly can (and torpedoing Laurel Lance in the process). But those issues, and the aforementioned ones, are really just symptomatic of the show’s largest problem: the producers can’t make up their minds, and that let’s-have-it-both-ways attitude permeates every facet of the show.

Arrow is a superhero story, typically a one-main-character affair, trying to accommodate an ensemble, family-drama angle. The problem: very little of that present-day drama directly involves Oliver, the main character. Arrow is a show that earned strong early reviews for its deviation from comic book lore (that’s what my younger brother still claims to love about it), now ramming comic-book references or homages into episodes. The problem (and I’m sorry to trot out a cliche): you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Arrow, with the flashbacks, was supposed to tell a superhero origin story (Oliver’s), and is now using those sequences to explain the origins of several other characters. The problem? Flashbacks are no longer required to feature the show’s protagonist.*

Am I the only person to notice this, or am I the only one that cares? I won’t insist on having everything my way (I’m not that childish), and I completely understand the desire to brave new artistic territory, I welcome it in fact, but if originality’s the goal then it must be wholly embraced and pursued, not merely used as an excuse for unusual narrative shifts. And this adopting of ideas and storylines as rapidly as the writers are inspired by them (then dropping some just as quickly) needs to stop. 

To be clear and (finally) to conclude, I’m not advocating for the cancellation of the show, or even for the fans who like it to stop watching it. I just want some fair-minded people, besides myself, to speculate about or at least mention everything I’ve rambled on about here. I’m not trying to be contrarian or elitist, but sometimes that’s exactly what’s necessary. Arrow isn’t as good (right now) as seemingly everyone thinks it is, and I shouldn’t be the only one to say so. 

*Not an exhaustive list.

What to watch: films of 2013

I didn’t rank or score any of the following movies (although I will tell you which one was my favorite). But in a year of great movies, I whittled my list down to this lot — and that should speak volumes about their quality. Every film named below, each in its own way, is sensational; though some are, for one reason or another, certainly easier (or harder) to watch than others. I think they’re all must-sees, but I also pride myself on the versatility of my tastes and, children aside, there should be something here for everyone.

 12 Years a Slave

Plot: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejoifor), a well-to-do black man and accomplished musician, living free in New York, is drugged, abducted and sold into slavery from Washington D.C. in 1841. Traded between masters, each more savage than the last, Northup unjustly endures and bears witness to various quotidian horrors of the antebellum South for more than a decade.

Review: Director Steve McQueen, who’s made a name for himself depicting human suffering, though never to this degree, ensures every heinous act of racial violence is documented with visceral, unflinching vibrancy. He highlights not only the magnitude of these atrocities — the only time Northup tries to escape, he stumbles upon a lynch mob in flagrante delicto, and both Northup and the viewer then realize that the evil of slavery is all around him — but also their banality. After striking an overseer, Solomon is strung up from a tree and left to dangle, one slip of a toe from asphyxiation, while all other slaves go about their daily routine — there are even children playing — as if they do not see him hanging.

Irrespective of the brutality, Northup’s journey is also fiercely compelling because Solomon’s experience of slavery — as a foreigner, not yet inured to its dehumanizing vicissitudes — mirrors our own. (Steven Spielberg achieved something similar with the eponymous protagonist of his 1993 Holocaust-epic Schindler’s List.) And the incendiary performances, from Ejiofor on down (Michael Fassebender, Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulson all give award-worthy turns), only fuel and intensify the barbarism that unfolds on screen, ultimately climaxing in a harrowing display (shot in a single take) late in the movie’s 134-minute runtime. The somewhat abrupt arrival of the conclusion (the film’s title is its own spoiler) is an emotional reprieve but also deeply unsettling; it’s McQueen’s final stroke of genius. Our happiness for Northup is swallowed up by our knowledge of the many more unlike him, still suffering. That bitter taste, McQueen seems to be saying, has yet to leave our mouths.

Verdict: Visually arresting, emotionally exhausting and poignantly convicting, 12 Years a Slave succeeds where other slavery narratives fall short (to wit, the loquacious Lincoln and the lurid, revenge-fantasy Django Unchained) by presenting an exceptional and unsparing portrait of the violence and subjugation visited upon blacks in the 19th century, the reverberations from which we still feel today.

 Her (2013 Top Pick)

Plot: Technological advancements in the near future lead to the creation of the first artificially intelligent operating system. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely and nebbish writer, recently separated from his wife, downloads the OS, which is personalized to meet his every need, and falls in love with it.

Review: Her is, among many things, a miracle of execution. Spike Jonze, in his first feature as both director and writer, surrounds a high-art concept (the human-OS romance) with themes ripe for didacticism (love and connection in an impersonal, technologically driven age) and, for many of the film’s 126 minutes, follows only one (on-screen) actor. The possibility of failure is astronomical; if even one of those elements falters, the picture is doomed. A unique premise might not seem accessible, or Jonze might use the film as a vehicle for delivering a bludgeoning homily (movies are at their worst when they do this), or Phoenix’s character might try the patience, and strain the credulity, of the audience. But it’s not — the fact that Twombly’s relationship with his operating system seems only slightly weird is perhaps the film’s greatest triumph —, Jonze doesn’t, though there is some satire (Theodore works for a company called beautifullyhandwrittenletters.com that specializes in personalized love letters to and from clients too busy to write the words themselves), and when have you known Joaquin Phoenix to be anything but a splendid actor?

Scarlett Johansson likewise deserves heaps of praise for her work here as the voice of Samantha, Theodore’s amorous OS1. Though, ironically, words cannot sufficiently extol her ability in this purely vocal performance. Everything else, from Hoyte Van Hotyema’s creamy, pastel photography and the art direction and costume design (high-waisted pants, for the win) to the setting, which is near-future Los Angeles (the cityscape is actually a computer-generated amalgam of L.A. and Shanghai) and Arcade Fire’s ambient, piano-heavy score, works too. (And there’s humor, to boot!) The narrative is no exception. Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, interspersed by wordless flashbacks of Catherine (Rooney Mara), Twombly’s estranged wife, dips and swells like any other, and takes an inevitable turn in the end, but the film’s message, dictated by Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s lone human friend, that falling in love is just a “form of socially acceptable insanity” but we do it anyways because we have to, is among the most profoundly romantic and insightful. So ultimately we leave Theodore knowing he’s better off than when we met him, and, for once, it’s really happily ever after.

Verdict: Without veering into pretentious message mongering, and despite an idiosyncratic set up, Jonze delivers his most assured, wistfully romantic film to date. A movie brimming with smart ideas and penetrating insights, about the journey towards self-discovery — as true a love story as there ever was.

 Gravity

Plot: Two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) search for a way back to Earth after a cloud of space debris destroys their ship and communication relays, kills their crew and leaves them stranded, untethered and alone in the void of space.

Review: A narrative synopsis of this movie beyond what I just described isn’t merely unnecessary, it’s actually superfluous. The reason for one to see Gravity will not be found in the film’s tale of survival against (I’m sorry) astronomical odds. Though Bullock’s performance, as a first-time space-walker and mission specialist Ryan Stone, and George Clooney’s work as Matt Kowalski — the veteran-astronaut version of himself — deserve proper commendation. And Steven Price’s score is especially chilling. But, no, neither the writing nor the acting nor the music (or even all three) are capable of outmatching the groundbreaking work of director Alfonso Cuaron and his longtime DoP collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki. Simply put, Gravity is best movie I have ever seen — and I mean that in a very sensory-specific way (it wasn’t even the best movie I saw last year). One does not watch this movie so much as one experiences continuous wonder at the visual poetry on display before his/her eyes. Case in point: the movie’s opening shot, in which the camera zooms in and out, dips, swivels and pivots, is a nearly 13 minute, unbroken take.

In my estimation, a finer example (and another tracking shot) arrives about a third of the way into the movie when Stone (Bullock), in an effort to survive another barrage of debris — the cloud completes an orbit every 90 minutes —, frantically dodges the shrapnel and navigates the exterior of the International Space Station in search of an airlock. (For narrative reasons, the ISS is parked relatively close to the former site of Stone and Kowalski’s mission.) She survives, of course, and a rebirth metaphor is apparent, and the emotional power and catharsis of the moment, the flawless choreography and lighting, the strains of Price’s score, coalesce into one of the most searing and unforgettable images in Gravity. I felt so tangibly moved by the scene that I wished simultaneously (and instantly) to replay it at least twice, and for the movie to end immediately after the scene was over (it doesn’t) so that the image would linger even longer in my mind. However, I cannot go without saying that the movie has some shortcomings. The dialogue (from a script co-written by Cuaron and his son Jonas), which possibly could have been eliminated altogether, stumbles in places and Stone’s backstory feels trope-y and excessively tragic; her character’s circumstances are empathetic enough. But these are minor quibbles against an otherwise astonishing, paradigm-defining movie. Not the kind of movie made for the UltraScreen, but the very reason for the UltraScreen’s existence.

Verdict: Alfonso Cuaron, directing with virtuosic flourish and bravura, surges past some slightly unpolished writing and produces a dazzling and nigh-peerless spectacle of technological mastery and visionary artistry. See it, if possible in 3-D, on the biggest screen you can find.

The good, the bad and the unchanged: the 2014 Grammys

I admit I gave up hope for the Grammys last year. After witnessing the most popular music awards show all but shun Frank Ocean (despite ubiquitous critical praise and tremendous commercial success, Channel Orange won a Grammy for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” — a category created for the purpose of giving Ocean the award), and reward — surprise, surprise — the record with the best sales figures (Mumford & Sons‘ Babel), I crossed my arms and stamped my feet and rashly declared the whole ceremony a wash. (It wasn’t; The Black Keys and Dan Auerbach came out all right.)

Granted, my opinion of the show dwindled significantly after Adele won everything two years ago, and when Kanye West’s peerless, hip-hop opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy somehow failed to earn an Album of the Year nomination. Ergo, wholly embracing my dispositional pessimism and writing off the Grammys as a farcical popularity contest where sales quantity was positively correlated with quality, and artistic merit only mattered in dollars and cents, seemed inevitable. (Again, not true; a number of critical darlings including Ocean, Miguel, Fiona Apple and the aforementioned Keys were recognized last year.)

All that to say I didn’t watch the telecast this year, I didn’t watch it last year either, save for the AotY announcement, but I did read up on the winners and, I have to say, as much as it pains me, there remains some justice in the music world. I loved Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which won Album of the Year, and Kacey Musgraves’ defiant, iconoclastic Same Trailer Different Park, awarded Best Country Album (the trenchant and acerbic “Merry Go Round” was also a winner), topping the heavily-favored Red, to my overwhelming delight. (Despite popular opinion, I don’t dislike Taylor Swift. The message of her music is misleading, and her new sound is at best nominally country, but she writes a killer hook and cranks out Top 40 hits, one after another, like a Gatling gun.)

Moreover, “Get Lucky” won a bevy of awards, Record of the Year among them, and was performed live to great success by Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams,  Stevie Wonder and, most surprisingly, the imitation robots themselves. (OK, I watched the performance, but on YouTube, ex post facto.) And Vampire Weekend snagged a gilded gramophone, Best Alternative Music Album, for Modern Vampires of the City. A real awards-show coup, right? Critical acclaim still means something! There’s hope yet for the Grammys! Hoorah!

Well, not so fast.

That Jay-Z (Or is it “Jay Z“?) won anything (Best Rap/Sung Collaboration) for a song off the phoned-in drivel titled Magna Carta Holy Grail borders on sinful, and Ben Haggerty’s sweep of the remaining rap awards, for his gay-is-OK anthem “Same Love” and The Heist (with Ryan Lewis), somehow trumping Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, feels to me like political posturing and message mongering from the industry that blew their chance at it last year. (Frank Ocean famously announced that the inspiration for Channel Orange came from his romantic entanglements with another man.) Though, if that is the case, at least Macklemore’s ideology and this quasi-endorsement of it share a shameless heavy-handedness. So they’re honest about their myopia.

And Imagine Dragons’ Best Rock Performance win, for “Radioactive,” is baffling to say the least, mostly because the song has more in common with EDM than rock (Think maybe the song’s popularity bolstered its chances?), but I suppose it was silly of me to carry a torch for Queens of the Stone Age, who as yet have not won a single Grammy award. (Seriously though, …Like Clockwork kicked major tuchus.)

Disappointment and confusion aside (“Holy Grail,” really?), I didn’t turn away from 2014’s list of winners with disgust and indignation — though I will never forgive nor forget the snubbing of Frank Ocean — which I consider a major step forward for someone like me, whose baseline temperament, especially regarding the Grammys, hovers near contempt. And, in a way, the list made me feel validated. Some of the albums I adored received their due recognition and admiration, and I’ll be the first to tell you there’s little else I enjoy more than being right.

Which rightly begs the question, have I changed my mind about the Grammys? Has my faith been restored, my skepticism vanquished?

Well, there’s always next year.

‘The Spectacular Now’: unmissable, unforgetable

The Spectacular Now, adapted for the silver screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — the duo behind (500) Days of Summer — from a young adult novel of the same name, is nothing short of its titular superlative.

It’s the story of Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a high school senior with a drinking habit and an absentee father (the two are entwined in more ways than one), and an attitude that epitomizes the Millennial Zeitgeist: he only cares about the moment he’s in and chasing the one to follow. He makes friends like he breathes, without effort, and plays matchmaker for his buddy Ricky, but he’s not without relationship issues.

Sutter’s girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson, of 21 Jump Street) dumps him because she can sense he’s a dead-end, an act that hurtles Sutter into a drunken tailspin, crash landing him on a stranger’s lawn in an unfamiliar neighborhood, blocks away from his abandoned car and miles away from home.

He wakes to find Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a bookish but comely girl, standing over him. Sutter offers to help her with her morning paper route in exchange for a ride back to his car, wherever that might be. And thus their somewhat cliched, party-boy/unpopular-girl relationship begins. Except it’s not what you think. (Well, maybe a little.)

Sure, they learn from one another — for Aimee that means not letting those she loves walk all over her, Sutter included; and for Sutter that means dispensing with his bumper-sticker philosophy (“serious about not being serious”) — but Sutter only makes a pass at Aimee after Cassidy’s made it clear she’s moved on, and he only kisses Aimee after she takes a pull off his trusty flask and shouts some expletives. The rest unfolds mostly unpredictably: a jealousy-laced trip to the prom, an eye-opening encounter with Sutter’s estranged dad (Kyle Chandler), and a promise made by Sutter for all the wrong reasons then broken for all the right ones. Not to mention an open-ended conclusion that lingers in your mind long after the credits roll.

Deftly directed by James Ponsoldt (who’s apparently fascinated by alcoholism), and vibrantly photographed by Jess Hall, The Spectacular Now deserves as much praise for its craft as well its defiance of formula. Two single-shot, long takes comprise two of the most memorable scenes (the couple’s first kiss and their first — ahem – sleepover), and the performances by Teller and Woodley are magnificent, their chemistry undeniable.

Despite occasionally almost veering into douchebaggery, Teller’s Sutter is equal measures affable, charming and empathetic, like a young, booze-swigging John Cusack during his Say Anything… days. But it is Woodley who’s the more memorable star — if only slightly.

She climbs inside the skin of her character, projecting a self-effacing intelligence and beauty that’s remarkably genuine, and a naive, saucer-eyed hopefulness that everything will work out for her in the end, to poignant effect.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mary Elizabeth Winstead likewise excel in small but important roles as Sutter’s mother and sister, respectively.

The Spectacular Now, like the novel upon which it’s based, is a startlingly tender, wholly authentic coming-of-age story about gaining perspective, learning to take the time to truly appreciate the few watershed teen moments there are (and all who make them possible and worthwhile), and the rarity and uncertainty of second chances.

Don’t miss your first chance to see it.

Music roundup: A beginner’s guide

The game-changers, fist-pumpers, claptrappers and the Johns

As we countdown to the annual Pazz & Jop poll, and because I have no other way of publishing this list, I present the inaugural year-end rundown of music worthy (and not so) of your attention and consumption. Of course I’m not a professional critic, which means I’m not sent advance copies of albums, which means my record selection is generally limited to what’s popular or what I’m interested in or — sometimes —  what my friends recommend. That, in turn, implies I’m likely to miss at least one sleeper sensation. But don’t reach for your pitchforks or torches just yet; remember when I said this was my first. Because, like any truly great album, I’m bound to get better the next time through.

(** Albums are listed in no particular order **)

Justin Timberlake The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 (RCA)
Like a lout who ogles himself at the gym, this Long Play (at 74 minutes) demands more patience than it deserves. Bloated song structure, extended codas and libertine lyrics abound; and for all the sonic muscle producer Timbaland flexes in Part 2’s protracted cuts, he – and Mr. Timberlake – now share the hubris of any fitness-center peacock: the person most impressed by the show is the one in the mirror. (Album score: 5/10)

The Wonder Years The Greatest Generation (Hopeless)
Billed as the third in a trilogy of albums about growing up, this one doesn’t charm so much as it enthralls; the songs layered with existential crisis (“the devil’s got a rifle on my front porch/with me in his sights/ he knows I came looking for a fight”), coming-of-age angst (“I’m sorry I don’t laugh at the right times”) and a yearning for greatness (“I just want to know that I did all I could with what I was given”). So they got the emotion, how about the sound? Protean pop-punk at its finest: forceful mid-tempo tracks, resonant ballads and standby turn-of-the-millennium melodies with some torque. You could say it’s an LP with courage, brains and a heart. That’d be the trifecta then, which makes sense because good things are supposed to come in threes; except a trio of listens won’t be enough. (9.5/10)

Parquet Courts Light Up Gold (What’s Your Rupture?)
Give their hipster cred a serious boost for releasing a debut on cassette, but dock twice as many points for stonewalling commercial (and popular) viability in the process. This time round, the brothers Savage and Co. minded their pocketbooks and got a proper release. Good thing, too, because theirs is a sound lacking in the mainstream (well, since the Japandroids anyway). Maybe this Brooklyn-based quartet plays a little loose with pre-hyphen genre modifiers, but the music’s rock all the same, sometimes post-punk, garage, even stoner. Besides, malleability is the hallmark of a craft mastered; and this lot oozes virtuosity whether contemplating mortality – with Ramones-esque urgency – or battling the munchies. (8.5/10)

Daft Punk Random Access Memories (Columbia)
The premise: a record from two faux robots that never lost their kid-like fascination with music, or their love for the music that fascinated them as kids. The players: Bangalter and de Homem-Christo, naturally; additional highlights include Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams and Julian Casablancas (among others). The product: an alacritous and anthropogenic soundscape; the amalgamation of disco, funk and house, breezy guitars and bouncy synths and buoyant hooks. The verdict: lubricate your hips, the dance floor beckons. (9.2/10)

The Front Bottoms Talon of the Hawk (Bar/None)
You know that friend on Facebook who overshares? The guy who cultivates space age cyrstals? Yep, that’s Brian Sella. He makes you wonder if he can’t process tragedy (or happiness) without a microphone, digital or otherwise. And, of course, some lines could use a proofreader; “I feel f***ed, but in a good way,” for instance. But there’s also, “[This is] for the warning signs I’ve completely ignored/there’s an amount to take, reasons to take more,” and “Tonight I’m the only one left, and I’m bettin’ it’s a fact that you will never learn.” And then there’s the music, which seems to obey exactly one rule of pop: four minutes or less. The sound is a fusion of power pop and rock (more rock), and Sella’s voice is always on the verge of cracking. But despite his talking without thinking (just feeling), you like him because unmitigated honesty’s rare these days. (8.5/10)

Justin Timberlake The 20/20 Experience (RCA)
The working title must’ve been The Honeymoon Metaphors. In any case indulge me an apropos simile. The songs are like ingredients in a love potion: some you expect (“Strawberry Bubblegum”), some you don’t (“Let the Groove Get In”) and each has a distinct flavor (i.e., bizarre musical influence); ingested together they make for a potent concoction. But every subsequent gulp (listen) has the potential to introduce a new fixation (Favorite Song). Not always a bad thing; this time though it means these tracks have another thing in common with a magician’s philter: most of their powerful effects don’t last. (7/10)

Kanye West Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam Recordings)
A Dark Fantasy sequel this ain’t. Call it what you want: polarizing vanity, sales suicide, downright abrasive. I call it boredom, artistic squirming; dissatisfaction with the safety of pop’s status quo, groundbreaking; the anti-pop record from our generation’s most definitive pop superstar. Here, the sonic milieu, aptly inspired by architecture, is as spare and industrial as the lyrics are galling and provocative. (Think: the “Monster” video on acid.) Ergo Yeezus might cost him some bandwagon listeners, but Kanye’s appeal always seems to border enigmatic. That’s how friends of mine can discuss their hatred of his recidivistic tendencies and their love for at least one of his songs in the same breath. Such contradictions typify this release: it’s radio-incompatible and addictive, proto-‘Ye and not, minimalistic and exasperating. In short, what you should expect from a guy who pummels expectations like they disrespected his mother. (9/10)

Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different Park (Mercury Nashville)
The Girl Who Changed My Mind About Country Music (but not country radio). Here’s why: she largely eschews popular, epicurean lyrical tropes for stories of the recurrent lifestyles of small townsfolk; people who’ve disciplined themselves to settle for second best because personal ambition is, like arriving late to church, for them an unfathomable concept (and an unforgivable sin). Though there’s some lighter, bucolic fare as well. A song about the mobility of “home” and a YOLO anthem with a shoulder-shrugging (“If that’s something you’re into”) endorsement of same-sex relationships — take note, Macklemore — similarly shine. The results – despite some very tangible radio-friendly sensibilities – aver Musgraves to be disenchanted with becoming a pop artist. She’s trying to be something much more interesting: a good one. (9.3/10)

A Day to Remember Common Courtesy (Self-released)
Hey, McKinnon, if the document speaks for itself, why’d you write a song about it? Or, if you had to write the song, why’d it make the album cut? The sun rises, sets, label execs short you on royalties. Haven’t you heard? Living well – not muckraking – is the best revenge. Naming the pre-release tour after the best song on your new album? It’s a start. The existence of that song, maybe the best you’ve ever written? That’s the middle finger you’re searching for. All the broken relationships (record label not withstanding) and the hometown jingoism and the silencing of naysayers, or, better yet, the making converts of ‘em? That’s what I want to hear about because that’s what sells concert tickets. And guess what? Those execs are the naysayers now, and selling well is the better revenge. So right back at it again? Can I get a “f*** yeah”? (8.8/10)

Queens of the Stone Age …Like Clockwork (Matador)
Necessity may boast the longer tenure as mother to invention, but near-death experiences are also a fine source for fecundity. And when an artist, like Josh Homme, who has in reserve enough creative juices to fill a sixth Great Lake, glimpses the Afterlife one can (and should) expect a deluge of lurid imagination. And that’s just the cover art. The music plays out like the Songs for the Deaf sequel that never was: crunchy guitars churning out mammoth riffs; songs both woozy and propulsive, the sound constructed with a mosaic of musical influences and rubber band-ish genre bending. Not to mention reinserting the inimitable Dave Grohl, and reinstating the erstwhile Nick Oliveri, into the famously revolving lineup. Clockwork isn’t Homme’s opus (that’s SFTD) or his swan song (that’s TBD), but it’s his latest classic and Deaf’s proper successor — and it’s about time. (9/10)

Chance the Rapper Acid Rap (Self-released)
The first marvel is the veracity of this line, the last on a prophetic opener: “This your favorite [expletive] album and I ain’t even [expletive] done.” The second is how this kid — and, at 20, he’s still a kid — doesn’t have any label support, Young-Kanye comparisons and all. The rest, if you can convince yourself to take that first track off repeat, equally stuns: an eccentric but not esoteric flow, clever hooks, soul-inspired production as trippy and euphoric as an all-day high and mic-dropping freestyle raps that pile up in greater number than Chance’s myriad personas (a sometimes paranoid dealer, incisive social commentator, love-struck teenager; sometimes all three at once). Here, the sophomore effort, Chance proves more than equal to the task of eclipsing the hype, his own grand self-assessment, “even better than I was the last time, baby,” serving as both the standard and the conclusive evidence. (9.3/10)

Ariana Grande Yours Truly (Republic)
Refreshing as it is, this year enormously, to see a former female child star shirk the customary “clothing optional” attitude, no discussion of Ariana Grande is even half complete without mention of her prodigious vocals; the first time I heard “The Way,” I couldn’t differentiate Grande from Mariah Carey — and, I assure you,  a more favorable comparison does not exist. Similarly noteworthy, courtesy of producers Harmony Samuels and Babyface, is her homage to the staccato synths of ’90’s R&B (another nod to Mariah) and the piano flourishes of ’50’s doo-wop, though both unfortunately tail off towards the end. What remains (and endures) however is a fresh perspective on love as grownup as her iconoclastic modesty, network mandate or otherwise: “I wanna say we’re going steady like its 1954/… so just call me, if you want me/’cause you got me.” Got me, too. (8/10)

Arctic Monkeys AM (Domino)
AM, like the latest QotSA record, owes a small measure of its bravura to Josh Homme‘s contribution and endorsement. Credit the rest to artistic maturation. But, also like the latest QotSA record, Homme’s influence isn’t the only one apparent from the opening moments. On “Do I Wanna Know,” the album’s first track, lead single and the only AM song I know to get consistent radio play, the sound is vintage, stoner-rock Queens (tinged with bluesy diversions a la Brothers), chugging out a greasy, slithering melody over a simple, march-worthy drum patter; even the lyrics line up: “the nights were mainly made for saying things you can’t say tomorrow,” the narrator laments, aping Dan Auerbach‘s howl. The next 11 tracks exist in that morally ambiguous twilight. The album proper described best in Turner‘s own words: “Mad sounds in your ears/they make you feel alright/they bring you back to life.” (9.1/10)

Vampire Weekend Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
There are gradations, a friend likes to remind me, where music and creativity collide after a breakthrough album. At the bottom, a great risk that fails. More of what made a band popular takes second place, and, at the pinnacle, a sonic overhaul that yields tremendous results. Fitting then that Vampire Weekend follows just such a progression, minus the misstep. The idiosyncratic indie rock of their self-titled debut propelled the band onto the mainstream, Contra held them there and then we get City, which finds them not unveiling hidden weapons but discovering a brand new arsenal. It sounds like the epitome and the antithesis of pop music, wholly electronic and unflinchingly original. They even take a potshot at the popular lyrical zeitgeist: “Diane (Get it, “dying”?) Young.” And wouldn’t you know it, the gamble pays out. Cheeky bastards. (8.5/10)

Jason Isbell Southeastern (Southeastern Records)
His lyrics (e.g., “we’d burn these joints in effigy/cry about what we used to be”). If not his lyrics then his voice; the twang present but not hyperbolic. If not his voice then his sound, which, on this record, is nominally (“alternative”) country, but not in a Taylor Swift, electrono-pop way. If not his sound then his discursions; there’s carnal love and bacchanalia, but poetry (“home was a dream/ one that I’d never seen/till you came along”)in the former and black humor in the latter, and also loneliness (“what good does knowing do/with no one to show it to?”), death and rehabilitation (“so high the the street girls wouldn’t take my pay/they said ‘come see me on a better day'”), the clarity of hindsight (“all the things she’d suspected/I’d expected her to fear/was the Truth that drew her to me when I landed here”). If none of the above then why bother? (8.8/10)

Guilty Pleasure: Chris Brown, “Fine China

Favorite Obscurity (single): John Grant, “Pale Green Ghosts

Favorite Obscurity (album): John WizardsJohn Wizards

Undeniably Implausible

Had enough, John?

Had enough, John?

Review: (spoilers ahead)

Expect me to increase the threshold on my suspension of disbelief so I can enjoy watching a series of otherwise impossible events? You got it. Make my ears suffer through line after line of theme- and thought-declaring dialog, rob character interactions of all subtlety and nuance, so any hormonally imbalanced 12-year-old can stumble into an episode 20 minutes late and pick up the story without missing a beat (or asking even one question)? Done and done. Abandon tactful marketing practices and accost me with blatant product placement? Hey, man, those “special effects” won’t pay for themselves.

But try to persuade me that two characters share a romantic connection absent a hint of sexual tension, and lacking a number of relationship-building conversations, and I’m calling that bluff. Fraud of such magnitude I cannot abide. And frankly audiences shouldn’t either, especially when the genesis of this particular romance is rooted in crowd pleasing. For clarity’s sake, I’m referring to the extraneous love triangle shoehorned into the plot of last night’s Arrow (though most scenes spotlighting Roy and Thea likewise qualify). The word disingenuous can’t quite encapsulate all the emotions very much not on display in “Keep Your Enemies Closer,” so I’ll try my best to expound adequately.

But first, a brief synopsis.

Under the pretext of a business trip – or pleasure jaunt, the characters seemed to confuse their cover stories –, Team Arrow travels to Russia bent on liberating Lyla Michaels (Audrey Marie Anderson, Diggle’s ex-wife) from a gulag. She was investigating the whereabouts of Deadshot (Michael Rowe) on Dig’s behalf and, as they often do, plans went awry. Also, spoiler alert, Amanda Waller (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) might’ve had something to do with it. But enough about that. Ollie’s new business partner, Isabel Rochev (Summer Glau), intercepts the gang moments before takeoff and parlays herself a seat on the Learjet. She’s tired of Oliver shirking his corporate responsibilities as the (co-)CEO of Queen Consolidated, by bailing on important company meetings, etc., so she wants to keep a close eye on him and thus complicates the faux-business trip by tagging along.

How a billionaire, or two if you count Rochev, could travel without any fanfare or media presence is beyond me, but, remember, you’ve got to suspend that disbelief. I have not yet arrived at the juicy part. It quickly becomes clear, via more of that sloughy dialog, that Isabel believes Oliver and Felicity to be romantically entwined because (1) Felicity’s pretty, and (2) for an administrative assistant she lacks a multitude of secretarial qualifications, like experience and a professional wardrobe. A brief aside: while it’s great for showrunners to address the unrealistic or incongruent aspects of a character, recognizing their existence is not the same as rectifying them. So don’t be fooled. Anyway, Oliver becomes suddenly distressed by this news. Although the reason why rumors of a workplace paramour matter at all to him, when he’s trying his damnedest to appear feckless, remains unexplained, and his brow furrows regardless. And the writers’ machinations begin to unfurl.

Meanwhile, Felicity remains oblivious to this development (though likely not to the rumor itself because some scenes hint that she might be its progenitor). So Diggle’s off on his rescue mission, and Oliver runs into Isabel in the hotel lobby; the two share what could pass for a real conversation over vodka shots. One drink leads to many and one thing to another, and they wind up trying to kill some loneliness between the sheets. Felicity arrives in time to witness Isabel sauntering out of Ollie’s room and her face instantaneously cramps with simmering distraught. Her reaction to the situation is unwarranted for a number of reasons, but one in particular. Up to this point, Felicity’s relationship with Oliver has primarily consisted of her transforming even his most innocuous remarks into impossible double entendres while Oliver patiently waits out her babbling and then, ignoring it, moves on. Oh, and she fetched him a cup of coffee once. So, you know, there’s that. But such behavior does not a romantic overture make.  And there hasn’t been one palpable spark of attraction between them nor even a flint, like close friendship, from which a spark could ignite.

But when she catches Oliver behaving like the philanderer he’s pretending to be – a ploy she must be aware of because she’s substantiated it at every turn – her emotions tailspin and subsequently incinerate her opinion of him? Color me reasonably doubtful. Regrettably, the situation is exacerbated by Emily Bett Rickards, who’s prone to overacting in a show inclined to overcomplicating on a network that’s famous for overreaching. However, it bears mentioning that Rickards’ promotion to a series regular was all but demanded by the Arrow fanbase, and perhaps this latest hiccup is just another attempt to reward the fanboy fervor.

Consequently, some of those petulant Smoak supporters might try to argue that all of Felicity’s forced awkwardness and unchecked logorrhea was merely a byproduct of her attraction to Oliver, that he made her nervous and lightheaded and that explains her strange comportment. The argument has some merit and a shred of plausibility, but collapses upon cross examination. Felicity behaves the same way towards every character she comes into contact with, including characters she’s never met before (e.g., Sara Lance), so the problem is likely congenital not circumstantial.

Either way, Kreisberg, Berlanti and Guggenheim need to tread lightly. They’re already wading into dangerous waters because their show has no definitive personality. At turns, it’s a drama, where character relationships and narrative arcs dictate tone and pace, or it’s a procedural, where weekly villains and action sequences take precedence, or it’s a crowd pleasing endeavor where all things Felicity Smoak (usually in eye-popping attire) reign supreme. Do I have a preference? Certainly, but any of the three will do so long as the show remains consistent.

My two cents: don’t bother trying to please everybody because the effort alone will kill you, and ruin your series in the process. Better to make a show that’s really good at being one thing than a show that tries, and fails, to be moderately good at three things. Who knows, it just might change some minds. Superb television, like any superb art, finds a way to transcend boundaries. And what’s better than making a proselyte out of an unbeliever?

I know, converting the lot of them.

Smart Guys Finish Second

ARROW

Review: (Spoilers intermittent throughout)

There’s a scene near the beginning of the fourth episode of Arrow’s new season that starts out problematic and rapidly devolves into something appalling. The villain stands in his liar, a derelict nightclub, perforating a mannequin with a hipshot assault rifle. His laugh: maniacal. His accuracy: questionable. He shifts his gaze to a recently thwarted henchman and, before doling out the inevitable punishment, proceeds to literally exposit his character’s “tragic” backstory, motivation and raison d’etre like he was reading them off cue cards. The kicker: he’s dead about 35 minutes later.

I know what you’re thinking: what a waste of time (and bullets). Quality drama television shows spend seasons teasing those details out of their characters, and without acting a fraction so wooden. And you’d be right; drama’s all about the slow play, the buildup, the catharsis. But don’t be so quick to write off Arrow.

Because later in that very same episode there’s another scene, also in a nightclub, that gets it right. Quentin Lance comes to Oliver for help with his daughter, Laurel, who’s fresh off another near-death experience and drowning her post-traumatic stress in pinot grigio. The emotion evident, the subtext clear: I wouldn’t be asking if I thought there was another way. It’s deftly executed. The eyes and inflected voices saying much more than the dialog passing between the men. The pity felt more acutely because we know Oliver’s harboring a Gibraltar-sized secret about Quentin’s second daughter, Sara (Caity Lotz) – the one everyone thought dead. (Spoiler: she’s not.) He can’t say no but he can only ameliorate a modicum of guilt by saying yes, and he knows it. So after a prolonged silence he ponies up. “I’ll talk to Laurel,” he says.

The writing here is of a caliber you’d probably never expect from a CW show, and take for granted in cable dramas. But it also epitomizes the creative team’s ability, like a silver medalist, to do almost everything right; to teeter at the cusp of greatness. In a vacuum, and with only those two scenes as evidence, you’d never guess they were 10 minutes apart much less written by the same people. In fact, you might not even think they were from the same show.

That’s a sobering notion, to say the least, but nonetheless part of an even more sobering pattern. That is, in this show every positive has an asterisk, a qualifier: the action sequences are brisk but the preceding banter inert; several plotlines are compelling (e.g., the Ra’s al Ghul namedrop) but many are underdeveloped or recycled; Felicity Smoak’s babbling is cute now but threatens to become ingratiating; Stephen Amell delivers a strong lead performance but Paul Blackthorne’s acting (in a supporting role) is stronger. But that’s not the worst of it.

In the season 2 opener, Oliver reexamined his vigilante policy on criminal extermination, summarized reductively as “kill or be killed,” because he felt convicted by close friends labeling him a murderer (and probably overwhelmed by a staggering body count). A simple yet brilliant ethical struggle most, if not all, superheroes encounter and endure. The problem: after two conversations – early in the episode and rife with flimsy logic – he simply decided not to kill anybody anymore and that was the end of it. I kid you not. No conflicted soul or divided mind or possibility of a slip-up. The issue now only addressed in passing and often by proxy. Occasionally a thug tries to bait The Arrow, but the lout is so obviously determined to die that clearly the better punishment is to keep him alive. Or, as I said before, the problem manifests in others. Like when the Canary (spoiler: Sara Lance) hesitates momentarily before offing a minion and Oliver shouts, “Wait! You don’t have to do this! There’s another way!” and she snaps the guy’s neck anyway. But there’s no discussion or debate afterward, not even a perfunctory reprimand. Either a character does it or he or she doesn’t – no middle ground, no shades of grey. Strange because Vince Gilligan et al. on Breaking Bad (I get one comparison) spent arguably the entire series run – 62 episodes – probing questions of morality (Is it right to kill a man to protect yourself, or someone you care about? Is it right to allow a person to die to save someone you care about? Is that your choice to make? and so on), but Oliver Queen needs only 20 minutes and a dollop of incomprehensible philosophizing and his mind’s made up? I’m no engineer and that still sounds like bad calculus to me.

And now you’re thinking, wait, wasn’t I was supposed to give this show a fair shake? Don’t judge a TV drama by its network’s spotty reputation and such? Right again, because I’m telling you, despite a myriad of problems, Arrow still deserves your attention. None of these issues are immutable. And, apart from the “kill or don’t kill” conundrum, I might even call them minor. Let me tell you why.

I’m five episodes deep in the second season and I’ve only seen improvement or plateau in quality. No regression. The first episode trotted out yet another group of blase Dark Knight-knockoff baddies but nailed the kiss-off with a twist (the Canary intro) and a wink (the arrowhead). The second episode featured some of the worst dialog from either season, but also delivered one of the most genuinely satisfying Oliver-Diggle-Felicity interactions and threw Sebastian Blood (Kevin Alejandro) into the fold. The third episode hinted at that Ra’s al Ghul connection and upended the Detective Officer Lance/vigilante relationship. The fourth episode torpedoed my opinion of Laurel but offered me hope for the character of Roy Harper (sans Thea Queen, naturally). The fifth episode allotted Thea too much screen time (read: any) to howl at injustices and personal affronts, as is her wont (and only ostensible purpose), but counterbalanced with a knockout performance from Blackthorne and restored a sliver of my empathy for Laurel and introduced more than one narrative development with intriguing potential.

Now all the sub-par acting and clunky dialog and outlandish logical leaps stand out because everything surrounding those lapses is, by any network’s standards, markedly improved. In season 1, those moments were few and far between (see: “The Odyssey” and “Home Invasion”) with large swathes of the show passing indistinguishably, or in reverse order with the bad drowning out the good at its core. That’s simply not the case anymore, at least so far. And when you witness the sustained, successful execution of a difficult task, like producing an engrossing TV drama, you’re allowed to be picky because you know just how good it can be – and how good you want it to be.

You realize suddenly that winning a silver medal might be the best thing that could ever happen to you because it gives you something to work for.

Off-center, but not astray

Stephen Amell in costume as The Hood on CW’s ‘Arrow’

Review: (Spoilers to follow)

Some pious converts change their names to mark the beginning of a new chapter in their lives. Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), Starling City’s resident billionaire lothario turned bow-wielding vigilante, and the protagonist of the CW‘s Arrow, is also looking to ditch his moniker — but not the one on his birth certificate, and not because he’s interested in becoming an accolyte.

Ollie’s crisis of faith might not be religious but, like most narrative developments in superhero stories, it’s irrevocably personal. Coincidentally (or probably not), another name, belonging to Oliver’s ex-best friend, serves as the catalyst for this self-doubt. The prefix is necessary for two reasons: one of them predictable, involving drama’s favorite polygon of late — the love triangle; and the other, not so — involving character death.

Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell), the aforementioned catalyst, died last spring in the season one finale, “Sacrifice,” immediately after Oliver lied to him about sparing Tommy’s father, Malcolm (John Barrowman of Torchwood fame) — season one’s primary antagonist — who, before his cardiac bisection, triggered a demolition device that leveled the ungentrified, crime-and-poverty-ridden section of Starling City colloquially known as The Glades.

We also discovered that the Queen matriarch (Susanna Thompson) was complicit in the city-scape carnage; that Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), the connecting vertex in that token love triangle, liked Tommy better than Oliver — albeit post-mortem; and that Oliver’s little sister, Thea (Willa Holland), was still without even one moderately engaging subplot.

Enter last night’s season two premiere, “City of Heroes”: Moira Queen remains incarcerated; Laurel’s started working for the DA (though, to the delight of fanboys everywhere, she’s still traipsing about in pastel evening gowns molded to her figure); Ms. Lance’s father, Quinten (series supporting cast MVP, Paul Blackthorne), suffered a law-enforcement demotion; and Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and Marc Guggenheim (the creators of Arrow) still don’t know what to do with Thea, but at least now she has a job — as a club owner. (Just go with it.)

Conspicuously truant is Oliver. Who, it turns out, returned to the island where he was marooned for 5 years, prior to his initial (read: prodigal) return to Starling City (the premise for the show’s pilot episode), to brood in isolation. And although it’s mildly indolent of the showrunners to begin both seasons in essentially the same way (with Oliver’s homecoming), they’re smart enough to realize there’s little intrigue without Amell and his absence is remedied within the episode’s opening sequence.

Then it’s back to business as usual, right? Well, yes and no. Many of season one’s ancillary narrative threads are re-spun: Thea’s once again unhappy with her mother (this time for Moira’s role in The Undertaking) — she roils and ruminates on her anger, ultimately forgives; and Laurel seems to have replenished her supply of “why we can’t be together” speeches for Oliver. There’s also one shameless Dark Knight reference — a gang of thugs masquerading as vigilante knock-offs; but thankfully, the flashback sequences (documenting Oliver’s five-year transformation from pampered playboy to pectoral predator) similarly remain intact.

The show is also unfortunately plagued by problems endemic to the CW. The most egregious being the eminence of an actor’s appearance over his or her ability (this cast finds a better balance), but also an overindulgence in exposition (Tommy’s death is mentioned five or six times) and clunky dialogue (e.g., “Since you majored in dropping out”) in addition to a low production budget (anything computer generated is glaringly obvious).

Moreover, some characters are drawn a little thin. Take for example the perpetually-babbling, IT expert Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards, a new series regular) who spends most of her time babbling perpetually — and somewhat endearingly — and who barely conceals her attractiveness behind some thick-framed glasses. (But, hey, we can pretend.) Or all around badass, Slade Wilson (the fan-favorite Manu Bennett), who serves as the sensei of scowls and other general badassery in Oliver’s flashbacks. Needless to say, those personalities deserve some fleshing out; but these issues have all been around since before Smallville, and if you can’t fix them you’ve got to stand them — at least for a while longer.

Regardless, the fight sequences continue to be kinetic and well-choreographed, and some lines like “Keep in mind, I do control your paycheck and your sex life” find sturdy comedic footing. Although the humor can seem ostentatious at times, it’s never overwhelmingly so, which gives the show a nice consistency of tone. And the addition of perennially dour-faced Summer Glau should, if nothing else, buoy viewership. (And was that Black Canary?)

Arrow‘s inaugural season earned several very positive reviews for its handling of dark subject matter and its deviation from the comics that inspired it; and the series creators insisted they were going to continue down that path, but season two, at least ostensibly, seems a bit more pro forma (and slightly more kid-friendly), which I suppose stills counts as taking a new direction.

As for the name change, Oliver’s decided to drop his media-appointed, vigilante appellation (“The Hood”), presumably for his more familiar and equally-simplistic handle, Green Arrow, and assumed his rightful place atop the family business conglomerate (Queen Consolidated); he’s also resolved to stop killing every crook he encounters. All of which indicates turning over a new leaf, but also a pretty strict adherence to the character’s comic book backstory.

Or, in other words, not what the showrunners promised.

But, for the record, weaving those seemingly disparate parts into one cohesive narrative about coming to grips with who you are, what you’ve done and how you’re going to move on (i.e., serious character development) together with a little social commentary, concerning celebrity media coverage, is impressive for any season opener — especially one on the CW. So it’s not a bullseye, but with a little refinement the series can find its stride and hit that mark.

Episode score: 7.5/10

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