Monday, June 17, 2013

Arrow (Season 1) (2012-2013)

CW's new show loosely based on the DC Comics superhero Green Arrow got off to a rough start. Frankly, I hated the first few episodes.

The premise is that billionaire playboy Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), believed dead along with his father from a shipwreck in the Pacific, actually survived Castaway-style on a remote island, finally to return five years later to Starling City, now with a hard attitude and the badass vigilante skills to cleanse the city of the crime lords who sank him. His mother and sister are outwardly glad to have him back, but everyone else is still dismissive and resentful of the irresponsible young party-goer they continue to perceive him as. Nearly every old acquaintance he runs into rudely acts as if they were the ones who were suffering those last five years and that he is to blame. True, he was the one who invited along the sister of his then-girlfriend Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) (very loosely based on the comics' Dinah Lance (AKA Black Canary), as the show reimagines most of the comics characters as ordinary civilians... except when it doesn't, and that's when things get really weird and dissonant....), consequently not only cheating on Laurel with her sister but also unwittingly leading the sister to her death. Still, nobody seems properly sensitive to what Oliver himself has been through. Seriously, one character actually says to him, "You spend five years on an island, and I'm supposed to believe you've found religion?" Um, I've seen people convert after far less harrowing experiences, so why not? The entire show is drenched in this suffocating hyper-seriousness, as almost every character is unbearably mean, cynical, and never in the mood for joking.

Of course, Oliver himself is just about the worst of them. He's overbearingly self-righteous, especially in enforcing the old superhero rule of "must lie to your friends in order to protect them," but he won't hesitate to break that other rule of "superheroes don't kill." In fact, in the very first episode, he kills a guy specifically in order to protect his identity, which gives you a sense of his priorities. In his civilian persona, he plays to people's expectations as the billionaire playboy in order to throw off any suspicions that he is the vigilante in the news (who conveniently emerged on the scene at the same time Oliver returned to Starling City), but he's so aloof and self-loathing in his performance that I don't know how anybody could fail to see that he's a madman and/or hiding some deep, dark secret. I guess nobody catches it because they already also loathe him and think him phony. And because they're also nuts themselves.

The way that the world of Arrow's Starling City is crazy is similar to the crazy of the Batman movies, or maybe even more descriptively one could liken it to the Dick Tracy movie. It's ostensibly supposed to be a realistic setting, to the extent that, for example, the laws of physics are the same as in the real world. As are the laws of... well, law. It's the real-world laws of social reasonableness and sensibility that seem not in effect, as weird things can happen very suddenly and without context—like outlandishly attired figures going on crossbow rampages in a city that, as far as we know, hasn't ever seen such things—and even the ordinary people seem to suffer from personality disorders—characters routinely skip to making logical and emotional leaps with a rapidity that no rational human being ever would—but nobody within the show seems appropriately perturbed by how unreasonable everything is.

In the midst of that, what saved the show for me initially were the flashback segments covering the time Oliver spent on the island. We're not actually told at the outset what specifically Oliver went through that so changed him, and, as the flashbacks are doled out over the course of the season, we see that there's a lot more to it than "crime lords sabotaged his boat, and now he's back and out for justice." The island story is a trip unto itself, full of costumed characters, mercenaries, and double- and triple-crosses, and, even by the end of the season, it's not clear what any of it has to do with Oliver's mission in Starling City. What makes it compelling and not merely unbelievable like the Starling City stuff is that, in these flashbacks, Oliver himself actually comes across as a normal guy, who responds to the madness around him as a normal person would, completely nonplussed in disbelief and denial. When you introduce one normal person into a crazy situation, as opposed to just having everyone be crazy (but thinking they're normal), it completely alters the dynamic, not only within the show but with the audience as well, because now we have a surrogate to place us in the acknowledged madness, instead of us feeling taken out of a story that just seems too incredible. And the island story is frankly more interesting than the main story, replacing the usual CW relationship melodrama with fearsome characters who know exactly who they are and what they're after (even while leaving viewers guessing at their true allegiances).

As I started to get hooked on the flashback story, the main Starling City narrative also surprisingly improved. It never becomes any more credible, and the cases of the week are largely snoozers, but after rival archer Merlyn arrives at the end of the first half, Arrow suddenly becomes the most thrilling action show on television, with stunt choreography far surpassing anything in the Nolan Batman films, let alone anything else on TV. And Merlyn was, for me, the most awesome villain on any show all season. Reminding me a bit of Ozymandias from Watchmen, he'll go from wearing thousand-dollar suits to startlingly ripping guys apart without missing a beat.

The show also finally picks up a sense of humor, once Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) goes from being nearly a one-off, one-scene character to being a breakout de facto regular (and now an official regular for Season 2). Seemingly the only person in the world of Arrow who isn't obsessed with themselves and their own drama, this one supporting character alone carries an entire dimension to the show with her pointed observations that manage to ground both Oliver and the show itself whenever they start to take themselves too seriously.

It's not a perfect show by any means; it's uneven, full of blah characters, and too often unintentionally absurd. But when it delivers, the first season is as thrilling a show as you'll find on network TV, with better fight scenes than you'll find anywhere else, and twists that eventually surprisingly pay off the excessively heightened self-seriousness with legitimately major consequences.

No comments: