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So long, and thanks for all the fish!
Last week, I took a little time to ponder what the CW’s new comic-based show, Arrow, could do to replicate the success (and avoid the pitfalls) of the network’s dearly departed Smallville. Now, after a truly impressive – and sometimes exhausting – amount of hype, Arrow has finally premiered. So how did it stack up?
Spoilers for Arrow episode #1
Action – From the get go, CW has been promising fans that this isn’t the Smallville of Green Arrow, that they’re in for something grittier and more action-packed. The fight scenes from the trailers boded well, and the pilot delivered. Arrow kicked off the series with three decent sized action scenes, all of which got me looking forward to more.
Pacing – One of the hardest things about a pilot is how to set up the show without going Phantom Menace on the exposition. The series smartly chose to skip over long stranded-on-the-island sequences and opened instead with Oliver getting rescued. Things moved at a good clip for the whole hour and while the “plot” of the episode got started a little late, Arrow’s first episode never left you room to get bored despite the occasional clunky moment.
Setup – While Oliver might have bolted his way through his origin story, Arrow did manage to tease a number of things without giving it all away. Tommy Merlyn’s ulterior motives, Speedy’s substance abuse, Drakon, some secret of his father’s that would be worth kidnapping Oliver to reveal, mommy dearest’s role in that kidnapping, and, of course, the Deathstroke mask. There are still plenty of questions left unanswered; most notably, the origins of Oliver’s smooth new martial arts moves and sudden grasp of Russian. The show succeeded in making me interested in finding out the answers.
Merlyn – Probably the show’s biggest departure from the comics, and also my favorite. There’s a lot of heavy angst going on, particularly with Oliver. Tommy lightens that up, walking that razor’s edge of over-the-top and playing the goofy best friend to a T. All of which is made better by the fact that the show is already giving us hints that there’s more to Merlyn than meets the eye, and I’m excited to see where they take him.
Voice-over – The voice-over. Has. To stop. Has to. I assume that they’re going for a comicbooky thought-box vibe but it sounds ridiculous, and it pops up just randomly enough that you almost forget about it until it starts up again. It’s very jarring. Just letting Oliver have actual emotions would be a lot simpler and more enjoyable than his current, fourteen year-old emo inner monologue.
Clarity – Pilot episodes tend naturally toward infodump territory, so I can hardly penalize Arrow for that. The issue was that not all the information we got seemed to be the bits we needed. Diggle’s introduction, for example, could have easily been left for episode 2 since his sole purpose seemed to be getting knocked out or ditched whenever things were about to get interesting. One of the biggest head-scratchers for the fans I talked to was why Oliver’s first thought when he got rescued was about going home to clean up his city. I think it was supposed to tie in with his dad, but the through-line never became evident. It made his dedication to his cause seem less justified.
Likewise, there are a number of his island-learned abilities that, for now at least, don’t make sense. I have feeling that most of them are being saved up for an explanation in a later episode. In the pilot, though, instead of coming off as mysterious, they just seem like things the writers didn’t feel bothered to deal with.
Dinah – Yes, her name is Dinah, and that’s why we have a problem. I don’t blame Katie Cassidy, I actually think she’s a pretty good choice for the part. The issue is that this girl doesn’t seem to have
much to do with the Black Canary we know and love. Dinah, in comics, is like the befishnetted lovechild of BSG’s Starbuck and Bubbles from the Powerpuff Girls. She’s kickass and adorable, with a soft gooey center that makes her stronger instead of weaker. She’s more than just an awesome female character, she’s an awesome character. I do not know who this vanilla lawyer chick is, but she ain’t my Dinah.
Emotional development – This one was hit or miss. The first scene where Oliver insists on going to see Laurel and they talk was nicely done. There were some dialogue issues (it’s still the CW), but the emotion behind it rang true – this is a woman who spent five years thinking her sister and boyfriend both died in the middle of sleeping together behind her back. Then, she suddenly finds out he survived it all. Of course she’s confused and angry, her grief cycle has been completely turned on its head. So then why does she show up at Oliver’s party saying that he can come to her if he needs to talk? I have no idea. Why did he seek her out only to turn around when she tries to befriend him and say that she should stay away from him because he’ll just hurt her again? Nope, no clue.
I will say that they actually did a much better job of this with Speedy – who is just as screwed up and conflicted about her brother’s sudden resurrection as Laurel, but also owns (and sticks with) those facts. She’s an impulse-control challenged seventeen year-old and she just might be the most self-aware character on the show.
Walter Steele – On the one hand, yay, a POC! And, on top of that, a POC who was originally a white dude in the comics! You almost never see race changes work that way, and the fact that they did it for a character who is depicted as smart and powerful is extra thumbs-up-worthy. Exxxxxcept for the fact that he’s a bad guy. (Even without knowing the comics character, this guy was obviously a baddie – he’s British! And playing Scar to Ollie’s Simba… er, I mean, Claudius to Ollie’s Hamlet!) So I applaud the effort, and the actor seems like he’s well-suited for the little bit of a part he’s had so far, but it still would have been nice to have some racial diversity that wasn’t evil or in a service profession.
Different names make it AU – The writers seem to really, really want you to know that this is not Justice League Unlimited or Smallville; that this is a whole different ballgame. Of course, they can’t really change major things about Oliver since he’s the main character. Instead, they’ve renamed a bunch of stuff.
It’s not that the name changes reflexively bother me because I can’t handle something being different from the comics; it’s that none of these changes seem to serve any purpose other than letting us know this isn’t DCU canon. The moment toward the end where Merlyn points out Laurel’s full name has no shock value because if you know the comics then you know who “Laurel” is meant to be, and if you don’t then the name doesn’t matter to you anyway. Likewise, naming Ollie’s sister, and implied sidekick-to-be, Thea instead of Mia (Speedy 2.0 in pre-N52 canon) is pointless. She’s clearly not a child prostitute, and has Roy Harper’s drug issues, so it doesn’t seem likely that fans were going to confuse the two characters – and on the off chance they were, naming her something nearly identical probably didn’t help. And Star City is Starling City because…? Nothing says ‘gritty action setting’ like songbirds?
Maybe something more will be made of these changes in the coming season, but right now I am side-eyeing them hard.
Green Arrowman Begins – This is maybe my biggest worry, but also one that could work in Arrow’s favor.
Green Arrow has some obvious parallels with the Caped Crusader – I’ve always thought his Batman knock-off status is why he was featured in Smallville in the first place – but Arrow is really leaning on the Nolan-vibe hard. That’s all well and good. There’s nothing wrong with a darker, more realistic reboot, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to make Oliver Queen into a broody Bat-clone.
In the comics, Oliver is a fun character – he doesn’t just put on the playboy image, he lives it, and he’s got all the swagger and wit that come with the look. He’s also a big freaking hippie who’s trying to change things from the inside, whether in the corporate world or the political one. He’s the Robin Hood of the DCU, self-appointed defender of the little guy, and it would be nice to see some of that thrown into the driven badass that we saw in Arrow’s pilot.
I think there’s a happy medium somewhere between boxing-glove-arrow camp and the “Smallville‘s bad boy brother” theme they’re working now, and I’m hoping the show will find it. Some levity could make for some really good TV.
So, is Arrow a hit? Well it got the highest ratings of any CW premiere in three years. How many of those viewers return next week will be the real test. With all the money the network has funneled into this show and its promotion, things will have to take a turn for the drastic for it to get cancelled before the end of season one.
Catch Arrow, Wednesdays 8/7c on the CW