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.

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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