I want to love Arrow, I really do.
Green Arrow has always been one of my favorite DC heroes, and I’m thrilled that he’s got his own very successful TV show which, to be fair, is a damn sight better than it might have been. But that doesn’t mean that it’s as good as it should be.
My relationship with the show has run hot and cold. I watched the first seven episodes and quit. Later, during the second season, several friends recommended I give it another try, reassuring me it had gotten a lot better, so I went back and watched everything from the point I’d stopped. And I was glad I did, because it was getting better, and by the end of second season, it was pretty great. I went into the third season excited to see what the show’s creators would do next, and then things got painful.
Eleven episodes in, basically halfway through the season, I quit again. That was several weeks ago, and this week I decided to give it another chance to get better again, and I’ve now watched up through the season’s thirteenth episode, “Canaries.” And it’s still not must-see TV.
Before getting into what’s wrong with the show, I want to mention some things that are right about it…
Stephen Amell. I like this guy as Oliver Queen. He conveys great balance between heart and strength, and he’s certainly physically up to the demands of the role. I would like to see him develop more of a sense of humor, but other than that, he’s a great Green Arrow.
Deathstroke. Slade Wilson is a great villain in the comics, and the show did an excellent job of establishing him as both an incredible threat and a completely understandable and relatable character. Manu Bennett is captivating in the role. Deathstroke’s story, both in the island flashbacks and in the present day, was what made the second season so good.
The DC Universe. As a lifelong comics fan, it’s a delight to see so many DC characters brought to life, though they’re inconsistent in quality. Seeing Tatsu “Katana” Yamashiro go into sword-slinging action was awesome; she’s underused so far, but it’s nice to see the character again after we lost the excellent Beware the Batman. Seeing Ollie duel a majestic and deadly Ra’s al Ghul was incredible. Seeing the Flash bantering with Green Arrow was lots of fun (and his show, by the way, is wonderful). And I look forward to seeing Ray Palmer get shrinkin’ as the Atom.
I could write more positive, but I’d be squeezing the stone. The show does have its charms, and when it’s cooking it can be great (again, the latter part of second season). But all too often, the things that are wrong with it overwhelm the good stuff.
Too Many Arrows. What’s cool about Oliver Queen? He’s an archer, a modern Robin Hood. That’s what’s special about him. Except it’s not. These days, it seems like every third character is carrying a goddamned bow. Malcolm Merlyn. Roy Harper. Nyssa al Ghul. Cupid. Every time someone else picks up a bow, Ollie becomes a bit less unique and cool.
Stupid Action. The show, overall, does well enough with its action sequences, but sometimes they get really dumb. The latest example that springs to mind had Laurel and Roy in rooms across a hallway from each other while attacking the bad guy’s den when said bad guy, Brick, comes walking down that hall with a gun pointed in their direction. Now, Brick seems to have only a vague idea of where they are, and they’re out of sight, in cover, in those rooms. So what do these bright heroes do? They simultaneously throw themselves into the hallway, acting like they’re dodging fire but actually putting themselves into Brick’s line of fire. Oooh, exciting. And the reason they do this? Because the writers want Malcolm Merlyn to come up behind them suddenly and shoot Brick so he can say he saved them. It’s stupid writing and it makes no sense.
Meanwhile, Five Years Ago… The show’s original structure alternated between showing us Ollie’s present day adventures and showing us his formative experiences as a castaway on the most populated desert island since Lost. It worked, especially once Slade Wilson appeared on the island and he and Ollie became friends. We got to see the two men working together in the past, and what led to Slade becoming Ollie’s enemy, all of which added layers of resonance to their conflict in the present. But three years in, the writers ran out of island fun and took past-Ollie to Hong Kong for a lot of pointless adventures as an unwitting tool of Amanda Waller’s shady organization. It’s been dreary stuff. At the end of the latest episode I watched, Waller brings past-Ollie to his hometown so we can see him have some more boring adventures in the exotic locale of the same generic city where we always see him in the present. At this point, if they can’t make them interesting, they need to just stop with the flashbacks.
Ollie’s Mutant Healing Factor. The best episode of third season so far was “The Climb,” in which Ollie challenges Ra’s al Ghul, the immortal leader of a cult of world-class assassins, to a duel to the death. This was fantastic, Matt Nable’s Ra’s was an imposing and elegant surprise, and the fight was extremely well done. It culminates pretty much as it should, with Ollie skewered on a big sword then kicked off a cliff to fall a few hundred feet. Man was clearly dead. And that was the cliffhanger for the show’s mid-season break, so we were all excited to see what happened next. Of course Ollie would be back, but how? Lots of speculation about the Lazarus pits, which haven’t been introduced in the show yet, but in the comics Ra’s uses them for regular rebirth (thus his immortality). Would someone bathe Ollie in one of the pits, resurrecting him using Ra’s’s own magic? Cool possibilities…
So how did it turn out? Ollie fell, his body was secretly recovered by a friend in Ra’s’s ranks and taken to Katana who…basically gives him first aid. Because even though he’d been impaled on a sword and dropped hundreds of feet down a rocky cliff, he was actually just sort of generically “injured” and just needed some medical attention. No Lazarus pits, no mystical ninja magic, not even any references to special herbs and spices that might have actually brought him back to life. He wasn’t dead and he just got better. They didn’t even make an attempt to explain how the hell he survived, and it was deeply, terribly, boringly anticlimactic.
Felicity Smoak. For most of the show’s run, this entry would have gone up above, in the list of good things. But this season, Felicity has become unrelentingly whiny and petulant and ernest and pretty much a pain in the ass. It’s a shame, because she used to be awesome.
Now, we come to the two most grievous flaws of the show.
Laurel. From the very start of the show, Katie Cassidy’s Laurel Lance has been, bluntly, terrible. Badly written and badly performed. And the evolution of the character has only made things worse. At first, as a Green Arrow fan, I was of course hoping to see a kick-ass Black Canary somewhere down the line. Then I saw Laurel, who was not only Ollie’s ex-girlfriend but whose middle name is Dinah (Dinah Lance is the Canary in the comics), and thought, “Really? She’s going to be the Canary?” Then the writers brought in Laurel’s sister, Sara, as the Canary, and I thought they’d cleverly pulled some character sleight-of-hand to fool comics fans: “Ah-ha! You thought Laurel was going to be the Black Canary! Fooled you!” Not only was that cool, but Caity Lotz was great as the character, cocky and street-smart and amazingly athletic.
Unfortunately, Laurel wasn’t the red herring Canary, Sara was, and they abruptly killed her in a perfunctory way to clumsily serve Laurel’s arc. Now Laurel has started taking boxing lessons and hitting the streets to take her sister’s place and she’s terrible. Cassidy is an awkward presence even just standing around in street clothes, but put her in mask and black leather to fight crime and the results are embarrassing. The only good thing about the character is that the writers are at least showing that she’s a novice at the job, so she gets her ass beat and makes stupid mistakes, and presumably the character will get better but I don’t think the actor will. I honestly don’t like speaking so harshly about Katie Cassidy’s performance, as I’m sure she’s doing her best. But she’s so horribly miscast, and the resulting characterization thus so off-putting, that I can’t not mention it.
Adding insult to injury, the episode “Canaries” had Laurel hallucinating and fighting Sara, which only served as a reminder that the original Canary was so much better.
(UPDATE 10/29/15: We recently started rewatching Supernatural from the start, and I was surprised to see Katie Cassidy show up as Ruby. I’d forgotten she was on that show. And you know what? She rocks. If you’d have pointed to her as Ruby and said, “What would you think of her being the Black Canary?” I would have said hell yeah. So now I’m inclined to think that the problems with Laurel are based in the writing and the direction Cassidy gets, because clearly she can do better.)
MELODRAMA. Arrow, unfortunately, is a Mexican soap opera in green leathers. All of the characters dwell on the emotional level of hormonal thirteen year olds. They’re petty and they keep secrets for no good reason and they whiplash between emotional states and they bear stupid grudges and they just do dumb fucking things simply for dramatic effect rather than out of realistic character motive. Ironically, The Flash, which is a more colorful, fun, goofier show, the less serious counterpart to Arrow, manages (most of the time) to convey its adult characters in a more mature way, and when it doesn’t, it’s easier to swallow because it doesn’t take itself so seriously. And Marvel, both in its films and in its TV shows, manages to portray superhero characters with emotional conflicts in a way that doesn’t evoke drunken parties during junior high school. It’s like the writers are still somewhat trapped in the attitudes of the past, when people thought superhero stories have to be childish.There’s nothing wrong with drama, or soap opera-esque melodrama, but there’s no need for it to be so lazy and immature. Characters on Arrow even stomp off in “I don’t like you anymore” snits over ridiculous things, taking the emotional life of the series even younger, to a first grade level.
The absolute nadir of the show’s melodrama followed the real Black Canary’s death. Laurel’s and Sara’s father is a police detective, and after Sara was murdered, Laurel actually lied to her father about it “because he has a heart condition” and she was afraid doing the right goddamned thing and telling him that his child was dead might hurt him. This went on for months in the show, as Detective Lance heard reports of the Canary in action around town, thinking it was the bold and skillful Sara while it was actually her worthless sister. Laurel even roped the others in Team Arrow into perpetuating the lie, to the point where she talked to her father in costume, pretending to be Sara, even going so far as using a speech-modulator to sound like her dead sister. For months, they didn’t tell this poor man his daughter was dead. These aren’t the actions of heroes, they’re the actions of terrible fucking people.
The melodrama was what drove me from the show the first time, and it was what drove me from it this season. I don’t know if the writers are capable of doing better, but I hope they are and that they realize they can tell these exact stories without forcing the characters to act like adolescents. The show would be a lot better for it.