Making the world a better place, one show at a time.

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Washington, DC, United States
I guess you would like to know a little bit about the person making all these proclamations upon good taste and horrid characters. I'm Andrea and when I was 15 I fell in love. An hour after meeting "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" I was forever altered in the way only love can, and I never questioned for one minute afterwards that television offered me an amazing chance to experience lives and moments that I could never imagine. So now, when I'm not getting distracted by my real life, I write about TV. I also read, am finishing a Master's degree in English Literature, travel, am attempting to learn vegan cooking, am the 5th of 6 children, and drive my roommate nuts by constantly cleaning our already clean apartment. Now that we're old friends, time for you to take my opinions as the be all and end all.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Arrow: The Superhero Buddy Comedy We've All Been Waiting For

Last fall LilBro asked me a question:

"Have you watched Arrow?"

I replied that no, I hadn't.  See, what I didn't tell him (or maybe I did) is that I make very arbitrary decisions in my life, and one of those is that, aside from Batman, I am not a DC-universe girl.  I am willing to accept certain things as an either/or situation, and therefore in the case of superheroes I'd picked Marvel and wasn't budging.

I have never been so happy to be wrong.

Don't let the cheesy promotional art fool you.  (Honestly, I think the cover art for Season 1, at least the one on Netflix, is rather lazy.  I can just see someone saying "how will we get people to watch this show?  I know, put a shirtless shot of our extremely buff star on the front, that'll do it."  Ugggg, poor choice to make your gritty sci-fi show look like a cheep romance novel.)   Arrow is well-crafted, engaging and funny.

Arrow has all the traditional elements of the hero story: after a young man is abandoned and forced by dire circumstances to shed his indolence and narcissism, he must return to his home and reestablish order by exorcising the corrupt.  Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), the son of a successful industrialist, is rescued from a deserted island after being presumed dead in a ship wreck with his father five years before.  Oliver is covered in scars and stoic about his experiences, but wastes no time in setting out on his mission of ridding Starling City (which it took me almost the entire season to figure out is supposed to be Seattle) of the list of criminals and opportunists that his father passed on to him.  His family, mother Moira (Susanna Thompson), sister Thea (Willa Holland) and step-father Walter (Colin Salmon), and his best friend Tommy (Colin Donnell) are overjoyed at Oliver's return to life.  His ex-girlfriend Laurel (Katie Cassidy, aka original Ruby from Supernatural!) and her father Det. Lance (Paul Blackthrone) are less thrilled, since Laurel's sister Sara was on board the Queen's boat as Oliver's "guest" when it sank and Sara was killed.  They're not too happy about that.  Luckily, everyone soon has their hands full with Oliver-in-a-hood shooting arrows into all the scumbags and the evil conspiracy that his family may or may not be involved in.  Oliver recruits his mommy-mandated bodygaurd John Diggle (David Ramsey), a retired army officer, to help him, both as an extra set of eyes and as a conscience.  Before long team Hood (it makes me genuinely happy that Oliver never calls himself anything and that the two nicknames "the hood guy" and "the vigilantee" that his alter-ego is referred to as are assigned by the police) adds IT wiz-girl Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), who reluctantly agrees that not all is well in Starling City.

Good sci-fi/fantasy tells stories about loss, redemption, courage, and struggle.  Removed from the confines of "realism" (which is a joke at this point, because really, how realistic are most show that claim to be set in the real world) sci-fi/fantasy shows have the freedom to tell classic stories that are deeply personal and truthful.  There is a never ending irony in that the more a show claims to be "realistic" the more likely it is to be a series of manufactured emotion, while a show that has an absurd premiss unlike to occur in reality is where one will find whole characters who behave as actual human beings do.  Accept the premise that Oliver is an expert marksman with an incredible capacity to allude the police, and from there you are able to ask questions about how a family copes when a dead son returns to life, about what is the difference between justice and revenge, and most importantly about what constitutes redemption; is it an accomplished act of internal change or is it a life-long dedication to continual gradual improvement.   Lost, in my opinion, wasn't successful because it wanted to have things both ways; it wanted the freedom to reach for truth that sci-fi/fantasy allows but it wanted the legitimacy of being like the real world that we live in day to day.  (I know, I know, is it possible for me to get through one post without complaining about Lost?  Well, obviously not.)

One of the best parts of Arrow is the Oliver is just plain awkward.  He talks to the side of people's faces, he's abrupt and vague, and says things that are socially inappropriate.  It's really funny.  Here's this handsome, rich, supposedly charming guy, and he's kind of a doofus because he was isolated from civilization for 5 years.  And he's a secret superhero.  It's much more humanizing than whining and brooding and agonizing would be and that is the way that shows usually try to soften boarder-line-sociopaths-as-main-characters.  The audience isn't subjected to a great deal of Oliver sitting alone thinking sad thoughts about his sad life and then having sad soliloquies about his sad life.  We are all better off for this, show and audience.  I'm not against a good brood on occasion, but it's overused and ineffective in most cases.  (Think about how awful those final David Tennent Doctor Who specials are, and really, it's mostly because The Doctor is a big sobby bore.)

Balancing the awkwardness, and preempting the brooding, is Dig.  The interaction between Oliver and Dig provides a great deal of the humor in the show, but also the opportunity to discuss the larger moral implications of extra-lawful activities without being heavy-handed about it.  Like my title says, Oliver and Dig are like buddy-cops; they quip and bicker, disagree about methods and morality, but share an ethical outlook that creates a bond of affection and respect.  Genuine male friendship are so satisfying to watch, not only because they are so rare on TV, but because it is a hopeful reminder to society that good men bring out the best in each other, and that men need strong non-sexual relationships just as much as women in order to grow as persons.  Strong friendship between men (not dudes) is a rebuke to a culture that has relegated men to at best well-intentioned buffoons and at worst predatory deviants.

There are some hilariously idiosyncratic elements to Arrow.  Like the fact that flashback-Oliver is styled to look like late-Dawson's Creek James Van Der Beek.  It took me a couple of episodes to pay attention to what was happening without snickering about how the bad wig and the completely buttoned up collared shirt.  Or that Oliver comes back from a deserted island with professional tattoos that he didn't have before he left, and no one seems to ask about it.  I mean, yes, we know Oliver wasn't on the island by himself, but other people aren't supposed to know that.  The Microsoft product placement is a bit forced in places, but not nearly as bad as it can be on other shows.  (This seems to be something that we just accept now, that a show will be both an entertaining story and an add for cars or computers or makeup.  What exactly does that say about us?)

The pace is excellent.  Neither too slow nor too fast, each episode both advances the current story of what is happening in Starling City and flashes back to what happened to Oliver on the island that wasn't as deserted as believed to be.  But, the audience is not so bombarded with information and plot twist as to make it impossible to recognize and appreciate the characters and their relationships.  Backstory and current story are balanced and neither is belabored.

And as far as I'm concerned, it never hurts a show to be a stop along the way for sci-fi actors.  Guest roles are filled by some of the greats from Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Angel and Fringe.   This may not matter to anyone but me.

Now, not everything about Arrow is golden.  It pains me to say this, because Katie Cassidy can be a hands down badass, but Laurel is stiff and boring.  The morally upright crusader for the poor and downtrodden, Laurel is "caring" in that way that comes off a bit too sanctimonious.  In the beginning she's understandably angry with Oliver but before long, and far too easily, she forgives him.  I'm not against forgiveness, but there is little demonstrable evidence provided by Oliver to Laurel to warrant her change of heart.  It's seems clearly out of convenience, a necessary step in order to back up the assertion that Oliver and Laurel "belong" together.  And I'm fundamentally against the couple that "belong" together.  How do I explain this?  I tend to root for the couple that develops naturally, that results from respect and emotional understanding between the characters, and these are often the couples that struggle the most or don't make much sense.  I don't like being told by show overlords that this person will be with this person simple because that is what we say, not because who those people actually are.  Sadly, Laurel isn't a fully developed character.  Especially to Oliver, she is a figure of goodness, not a whole person with both faults and virtues.  Therefore, the attitude that their romantic reconciliation is inevitable isn't a genuine love story, but rather a formula (boy lost girl, boy gets girl back) that is dictated from the writer's room.  Oliver and Felicity on the other hand, now there is a couple to root for.

It's a pleasure to watch a show that you feel wants you to be pleased.  Too often now I find myself in the situation of trying to enjoy a show that seems to have set itself up to make it difficult for me to do so.  I love shows that make me think, that challenge my expectations, that have something that I want.  But the show also needs to want to give what it has to me.  I get the sense with many shows that I am scornfully being allowed to experience something I don't really deserve.  That's not a good dynamic between show and audience.  It's easy to get involved in Arrow because it all comes together in a way that invites you in, rather than makes it clear that you will bow to it's greatness no matter what.

So, thanks LilBro and SisterDear for keeping the bug in my ear about Arrow.