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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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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