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.

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