Tuesday, November 5, 2013

'Arrow' won't win any awards, but it still hits its target (Season 1 Review)

Apologies for the pun.

When it was initially announced that the CW was going to move ahead with a series devoted to Green Arrow, I was cautiously optimistic. The advantages of using a character like Oliver Queen for weekly TV were many - he has no superpowers, meaning no great amount of computer wizardry would be required (at least no moreso than any other action series) and as a less culturally iconic character, more creative liberties could be taken with his mythos without alienating potential audiences. The disadvantages however, were just as thought-provoking: not only was this going to be a network show meaning the widest possible audience would need to be reached with a laboured 22 episode run per season (rather than something like 'Breaking Bad' which has proven that 13 episode seasons are a lot more effective) but it was going to be on The CW known for prioritising teenage angst and romantic drama in its shows - often to the detriment of quality storytelling.

It also crossed my mind that The CW were responsible for 'Smallville', the biggest mixed bag to have ever spent ten years on the air. Clark Kent's long-winded odyssey was probably the deciding factor in bringing 'Arrow' to the air, as Green Arrow also played a sturdy role in that show, bringing much needed life to the roster of characters and the capabilities of the production from season 6 onwards. Green Arrow was blatantly a stand-in for Batman on the show (as the Dark Knight had other media on his mind) and this was both a blessing and a curse for the character for reasons that I'll get into later.

'Arrow' jettisons any connections to the 'Smallville' universe, starting from the ground up with a brand new set of characters, a revised origin and an interesting mission statement. The series sees Oliver Queen, a wealthy young layabout who gets stranded on an island off the coast of China after mysterious circumstances. Five years later he returns to his home of Starling City a new man; seeking revenge for the death of his father and justice for his city - going after a list of elite citizens who have brought harm to his hometown. To do this he adopts the mantle of a hooded vigilante, allying himself with former soldier turned bodyguard Andy Diggle and later a bubbly but eccentric IT assistant named Felicity Smoak.

When the series premiered, the initial episodes didn't do much to excite me. Nothing about it seemed particularly compelling or original - it was for all intents and purposes a by the numbers TV version of Christopher Nolan's Batman. But without the calibre of acting those films offered, heavy dialogue such as "I must become something that criminals dread," fell to pieces in the hands of lesser actors. Recently, with the vacuum provided by the conclusion of 'Breaking Bad', I decided to give it another look. I had heard from many of the show's fans that while it's definitely a bit cheesy throughout, it does get consistently more enjoyable and well-executed. I can at least say that that much is true.

The best thing about 'Arrow' at least on a conceptual level is that it's more 'free' than other superhero programmes. I'm sure there are plenty of Green Arrow enthusiasts somewhere in the world who are angry that Oliver isn't an orphan and that he suddenly has a sister, but for the most part the series relishes in its ability to tell its own story in a way that no other superhero series I've seen (at least not one based on a pre-existing character) has been able to do. The concept of a superhero who pointedly goes after white-collar criminals who are poisoning the world with unfair distribution of wealth is oddly relevant - especially as it's a criticism often (unfairly) made of Batman, a rich, privileged individual who goes out at night and beats up people who have been failed by society. This is the greatest argument the show makes to prove that it's a series primarily about the Green Arrow character (for whom social activism has often been a hallmark) and not merely a cash-in attempt at doing a weekly version of the Dark Knight.

However that being said, this is very much a series aware of its DC Comic roots and nearly every single episode of the series has made a point of bashing us over the head with a bizarre reference ("I'm getting the red-eye to Central City. I should be there in a flash!") or a bastardised version of a character from the comics.

The villains of the series range from the usual brand of faceless TV villainy (various white-collar criminals) to actual Green Arrow villains (Merlyn - who together with his son provides this show's Lionel/Lex Luthor tragedy quite similar to the one in 'Smallville') to fistfuls of B-list Batman villains (Deadshot, Firefly, Count Vertigo and others still). While Deadshot is a recurring character who has admittedly grown into something almost worthy of his comics counterpart, Firefly and Count Vertigo are as hilariously TV as possible - Firefly is a disgruntled Fireman who pours petrol at his enemies and Count Vertigo is a drug dealer inexplicably named 'The Count' who sells drugs named (you guessed it) 'Vertigo'.

The villains aren't the only signs that this show is secretly a Batman show - there are dozens of brazen scenes that are hamfisted homages or blatant rip-offs of scenes and plots from Batman movies (and occasionally Batman comics). One such scene is when Diggle asks Oliver if he's going to change into his costume to stop a bombing - Queen responds "Never during the day!" just as he grabs a motorcycle helmet. Doesn't get more 'The Dark Knight' than that (funnily enough that scene itself was an homage of a similar scene in 'Batman Year One').

And yet, I don't really mind that this is a Batman-lite series. Firstly, it has its own agenda (at least conceptually) and while it admittedly mines Bruce Wayne's back catalogue of villains, it does an admirable job of providing exciting stories involving the concept of an individual who employs theatrics, a keen mind and fighting skill to fight crime. I've wanted a non-Batman show that could capitalise on such a concept for years. The closest we came before this was 'The Cape' which fell so flat on its face that it's become a running joke on 'Community'. Point being, there's so much that can be accomplished storywise without sacred cows getting in the way.

The most controversial aspect of 'Arrow', particularly in that first season is its protagonist's stance on taking lives. Obviously Batman is well-known for supposedly never killing anyone (although in 75 years, he's been quietly guilty of doing it on more than one occasion), and yet while this is a series that owes a huge debt to the Caped Crusader, Green Arrow (or 'The Hood' as he's annoyingly referred to 95% of the time for some reason) is regularly seen offing baddies. Initially it seemed as though that he would only take their lives when there was absolutely no other solution, but in later episodes he's seen shooting arrows into the chests of the most insignificant criminals in the show (the waiters of an underground casino had this grisly fate only minutes after they were mixing martinis). I really do appreciate the efforts by the writers to do away with the tired cliché of the hero not killing his foes only for them to return and laugh at him for his 'human' failure (are you listening, Paul Dini?) but showing Green Arrow mowing down anonymous henchmen a la John Rambo is a bit too much to stomach, not to mention that it segregates the series from the younger audience it ought to have. Not everybody has to die.

The biggest problem with 'Arrow' is the one sacred cow it has chosen to indulge. Laurel Dinah Lance (who we know as 'Black Canary' in the comics but who in this show doesn't show any similar desire to bust fools) is introduced as Oliver's long-lost love, who he betrayed in favour of her sister Sara who died on the same yacht trip that resulted in his island-incarceration. The series does the usual teen drama song and dance between the two characters and it quickly becomes apparent that while they do have some degree of chemistry, the back-and-forth is going nowhere fast, even though the legacy of these characters' comics counterparts demand it. This was a similar problem in 'Smallville' where Clark was constantly pining for Lana despite her relative uselessness as a character. Just like 'Smallville', this series has its own fan-favourite nerdy girl who pines after the hero, is far more likable than the object of his affections and who is probably going to peter out as a character down the line, destined to be paired off with some comedy sidekick (ironically it was 'Smallville''s version of Green Arrow that ended up with Chloe Sullivan on that show).

Outside of these considerations, the only other thing worth criticising is that the dialogue is outrageously over the top in many episodes, to the point of teetering on the precipice of so-bad-it's-good. The David Goyer-esque 'I fight for justice' material is always a bit bizarre to hear (especially in the hands of TV actors), but lines such as "You slept with your girlfriend's sister and now you think you can make things right? You really are crazy," coming from Deathstroke is a very special kind of hilarious. However, I can't tell whether I just became used to the level of cheese 'Arrow' offered or whether the writing genuinely got better, but by the end of the series I was noticing less and less ridiculous exchanges between the characters.

Overall, 'Arrow' is a reliably fun series that succeeds where 'Smallville' failed. Its core concept is solid enough that when weaker episodes come along (and they do), the appeal of the series isn't lost. Unlike so many other similar shows that promise a grand destination and get bogged down in the journey, with 'Arrow' we're already there - and it's non-stop, unashamed superhero fun from week to week. It won't win any Emmys any time soon but if it stays as consistently entertaining as it has been, I'll look forward to it with a grain of salt in one hand and a beer in the other.