Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Double Dip: Arrow

[Update: My 2nd-to-last draft posted at 7:58AM by accident. You're seeing the final draft as of 12:01PM]

Well, I'm in the awkward position of, um, revising my prior recommendation of Arrow. Much as I felt for Burn Notice before it, the show's general charms are still there, but the later seasons are not able to follow through on the promise evident in its early days.

So when did things go awry? What made me lose my love for the Greg Berlanti/Marc Guggenheim TV project, abandoning it as I have done with other series before? Sadly, what initially seemed a mere sophomore slump turned into ongoing trends that I don't think the show will ever reject.

Even in the program's first outing, the writers displayed a shaky grasp of how the world works. While Arrow gained points early on by forcing its lead to get declared legally alive, many scenes were devoted to a cop and a lawyer (Det. Quentin Lance, and his daughter, Laurel). In the scenes centered on these two, you really got a sense that Arrow's staff knew little about the operation of... cities or the legal system.

Even at the start, Quentin's authority and position fluctuate wildly, and Laurel wears $6000 suits while working for a Legal Aid group. The second season takes it from "a bit silly" to "did the writers go to school" or even "have the writers lived in a city" territory. Public officials do things clearly beyond their powers, executives at a billion-dollar corporation answer public phonelines (?), amid civil and criminal justice systems seemingly calibrated to increase angst and uncertainty.

Hell, season 2 manages to start with Moira Queen on trial for her part in a man-made earthquake that killed hundreds of people; after her (spoiler alert) acquittal, Moira is then approached to run for Mayor. It's not even Moira's idea! Businessmen suggest mayoral candidacy to a wealthy accomplice to a mass murder (via duress) in the poor part of town. This arc is not conveyed in an ironic or campy way, and Mrs. Queen actually does pretty well in public opinion polls... despite Starling City, y'know, nearly putting her to death a month earlier.

There's also one element that's just a consistent weakness in CW shows: the network really plays to teen audiences, yet loves to fill their shows with adult material. Who wants a show with teens doing teen s--t, right? The CW truly is a ground zero for "teenagers" who drink and screw often, without worrying about getting caught, pregnancy, STDs, cops. So CW roles get to emote and even actualize their teenage-sized emotions, but also do adult-sized stuff - and that combination, after a while, just becomes comical. At least, it does to anyone with a mature or experienced viewepoint.

While these specific flaws aren't critical, CW's love of marketing adult behavior to youths generates characters constantly embroiled in teenage drama. Everyone invariably swoons over everyone else, yet the situations aren't built up enough to allow for the deep, super-serious feelings that each role claims to have; people don't get crushes or feel lust on the CW - they fall utterly in love. And though this matches the emotional palette of young kids, it's quite jarring to see in Arrow's adults, who are involved with revenge plots, super soldiers, and saving society from its darkest elements.

But bad choices abound in this production, one that always either excels or collapses. In some ways, I don't know what's worse: that the show runners hired the impressive Summer Glau for a half-written, on-going semi-cameo part whose motivation makes zero sense, or that this solid actress ends up in the laughably s--tty costume that you see below:

Similarly, the plots of Arrow started to feel rushed, and resolved in a way I found semi-satisfying, at best. At one point, Ollie decides he's going to take a chance on love and be with someone he cares for. Sure enough, some random villain of the week makes comments that could apply to our hero's ruminations about having a love life.

So, by the end of the hour, Oliver acts on the specious wisdom conveyed in parting, by a total nutjob; and this big moment isn't even played as youthful uncertainty, fear of commitment, or a persecution complex... Writing choices like those make the roles' feelings come off as unearned and random.

Worse still, many character scenes and mini-arcs are resolved with a hollow speech. While that might work for big public displays and Crispin's Day-style rallying cries, when Ollie ends a "I want to date this girl, but it may not work out" situation with a big, angsty monologue about his feelings instead of a simple conversation?... That makes the show seem filtered through the half-assed mindset of an overgrown child. And again: it's not due to the characters themselves being overgrown children, it's clearly because that's the level that the writers are aiming for.

And that's also a confusing choice - the speeches thing - for a show about a man of action.

The even sadder part? This is a heavily-serialized program where 19+ out of 23 episodes serve to tell one huge story... Yet the writers feel like every emotional arc has to be neatly resolved in 43 minutes' time. And that's why we get these dumbass monologues. It's hack-tastic.

All the casual attitudes and recklessness of youth disappear instantly via forced speeches that do not fit into the worldview of either a young, fickle lover or a mature crime-fighter who's recently decided to stop outright murdering criminals. I'm left to wonder if all the TV relationship bs is written by people who only know about relationships from watching TV. I may pity adults with such a limited perspective - or lack the instincts to do better - but that doesn't mean that I want to watch stories written by them...

Regardless, many of the strengths of Arrow hold up. The action scenes are still largely well-executed, and - above all - the cast is generally wonderful. Stephen Amell remains a knockout lead, though his character is written in a way that's ignorant of how risible all this sound and fury truly can be. Emily Bett Rickards cannot be anything but a joy, even if her personal plots feel awkward, unnatural, or tied to that of a male role. David Ramsey's Diggle holds fast as a great source of support and exposition and humor, although his part gets sidelined far too often; his character can seem to be an afterthought on occasion, and I don't like that at all.

I guess the real kicker was the way Arrow built up its second batch of 23 episodes. The first season established that Oliver Queen was stranded on an island for 5 years, and that he was brutalized there; the experience caused him to both mature and to learn how to fight/kill. But instead of following that up with more stories about Ollie's survival and personal growth in isolation, the flashbacks in S2 set up the mythology behind the present-day threats that he faces. I used to love the scenes on Flashback Island, but I can't feel that way when they're used thusly..

And, throughout the second season, we get insane moments like an "Ollie has bloodlust" plot - which only occurs because he sees his new gf, Shado, held at gun point and smacked once. Mr. Oliver "The Hood/The Arrow/Green Arrow" Queen bursts out from hiding and (basically) goes ape... even though he's previously seen this lady get hurt and threatened and tortured, and he knows she's a better fighter than he is. Since the show never plays this material as Ollie growing possessive or developing a god complex or as PTSD, all this noise just seems meant to... eat up more of en episode's running time?

So Shado is held hostage and rescued by Queen and his mentor/comrade Wilson Slade. This ignorant boy who's gradually becoming a warrior makes a good trio with this mysterious and fierce Asian lady, as well as the veteran Aussie spy/soldier. But, because the S2 flashbacks have to tie into the modern day plots, Wilson and Ollie leave Shado at their makeshift base to use binoculars to "check out" a nearby ship. That stupid decision sets up the rest of the season's story,

It's already senseless to leave her after that near-death experience, and it's dumber still to think they'll do much scouting from the foliage with a pair of binocs. But then the ship starts shelling the island, and Slade and Queen run right into the line of the ship's mortar shells so they can try to rescue Shado. God, it's one thing that Ollie does it, but the highly-trained vet? Following his idiotic apprentice into the field of fire? Why not wait? Or... walk around?

Now, Slade is injured, and Shado becomes torn between the two men-folk (sigh, of course she does). First, people on Arrow do things that make no sense for their characters, then their nonsense is sold as serious drama, and then that's further sold as the foundation for all the dubious narrative crap that dominates a 20+ episode storyline. In fact, I feel pained whenever I think about the way that the second season goes on to handle Wilson, the flashbacks, and Ollie's present-day crises.

The overall work is just not good enough, despite how much I like the actors and how much I can appreciate some aspects of the execution. Nor is what I've described even the worst or dumbest or most forced set of plots that the program relays in its second year. The writers just completely stopped thinking things through or saying them out loud to make sure they don't sound dumb/crazy.

One more thing that I absolutely must highlight: season 1 of Arrow gave us three strong women in the form of Moira Queen, Felicity Smoke, and Shado. Despite varying degrees of control over their lives or experience facing danger, each of these ladies demonstrated a mix of courage, focus, and ingenuity in combatting their problems. Yet, on four separate occasions in season 2, two of these women (and two others not mentioned here) have their lives threatened for no other reason than to screw with the male protagonist. It's as if none of the writing staff realized that this amateur-hour script work was disempowering the female characters.

Perhaps the simplest way to explain the result of episodes 24-46 is this: I stopped watching the series regularly in the middle of season 2; instead, I started catching up once a month. Then I watched the first several episodes of season 3... after which I basically stopped catching up at all. Now, I sometimes read recaps for the show on one or two websites.

I'm glad that I took a chance and experienced the first season of Arrow. It was fun and creative, and I won't hate what came after, even if it felt like such a stumble or even a big step down from what was presented before. I just can't recommend this program anymore, as I have to realize what I think in hindsight: that I'd tell someone to enjoy the hell out of Arrow's first season, bail right after that, and find something new to do.

It's a shame to see a series handle iffy/insane elements worse in its second and third seasons than it did in its first, just as it's odd that The Flash is now a much more enjoyable program than Arrow is, despite Flash having some of the same problems. Hopefully, better minds will someday rejigger Amell's show into an edgy, rough-and-tumble program about distressed cities and those that exact illegal justice therein - but it will do so in a way that doesn't ignore the basics of how life works, without dumbing all the emotional material down, and by showing the confidence to take its time.

But I will still enjoy that first season. And I will be comforted by knowing that that's how television shows turn out, sometimes...


  1. I only watched S1 of Arrow,which was great, but was still too far behind to check into the other seasons. I recall getting into Smallville for awhile but clocking out when Supergirl woke up with memory loss in Detroit(after fighting with her dad in the Fortress of Solitude!). Nothing against Detroit but that just seemed too damn random there.

    The CW has been and still is a teen heavy network, whether it's superheroes,vampires or small town folks that they're dealing with and while that doesn't excuse bad writing, it does mean that the powers that be no doubt pressure all of their programs to stay as close as they can to that comfort zone.

    I do hope that The Flash can keep it's head above water in that department when S2 starts up, as this initial outing is just so damn fun(and iZombie is turning out to be better than I expected, you might want to give that one a try).

    1. I will not go into Smallville because I'd be torn between revile and laughter. Suffice to say that Snyder was not the only one to utterly disgrace America's oldest iconic alien resident.

      But yeah, Vampire Diaries was quite fine in its first two seasons, and yet I still laughed derisively at how often the fake or real teens were downing scotch like they're embittered 20-somethings. But it would be best if they had some programs that didn't fall into the same categories as the rest do. It'll be easier for CW to be taken seriously...

      And yeah, woman, I hope that Flash keeps it up. And I will definitely check out iZombie - the buzz is too positive for me to ignore...


Chime in!