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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