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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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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