Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Box Set Blues: Arrow, Series 1

I blame Smallville for missing out on Arrow as it launched. I mean, Smallville was fine, as these things go, but I stopped watching it about it's third series, already worn out on teen-aged superheroics that seemed terrified of moving towards the end point that the series inevitably set for itself. Arrow looked far too much like going back to that sort of setup, coupled with being about Green Arrow, a character I've never liked much and one who has always struggled against the impression of being a sort of budget Batman rip-off. So we just gave it a miss, although it did pick up a decent reputation over its first season run and eventually we got around to renting the DVDs, on the basis that at least Ewan would enjoy it. But it turns out, Arrow is a bit of a Batman knock-off, and wears it pretty well.

Arrow starts with Oliver Queen's return from 5 years presumed dead, and interspersed its main story of his quest to "clean up" Star(ling) City with flashbacks to his time there, or at least the early bits of it. These two elements reflect the shows two great touchstones; Batman Begins, and Lost. Thankfully I like both of those things, so in many ways thats a good start. The main story starts out as a "case of the week", as Queen follows up on a list of names he's picked up on the island, and slowly fills out the grand conspiracy to explosively remodel the city that will come to dominate the more serialised second half of the season. The flashbacks follow him being chased, beaten, chased some more, beaten some more, and then finally trained a little bit as he learns the hard lessons of The Island and it's mercenary inhabitants.

Taking this latter element first, Olivers adventures on the Island couldn't feel like more like Lost if he ended up in a cave punching numbers into a computer. It's populated by mysterious characters with damaged backstories, there are schemes withing schemes and betrayal on betrayal. Also like Lost it never quite ties together with the main storyline preferring thematic symmetry to direct relevance, but the neat trick of making not-yet-but-one-day villain Deathstroke an ally is a neat touch, even if I was constantly waiting for him to show up in the City and he never did.

Meanwhile back in the city the main plot ebbs and flows a little, and whereas the running around on the Island reflects chance in Olivers character, a lot of the early going back home just seems to delay it. There is a neat thing happening in the background, as the very damaged and frankly pretty psychotic Queen slowly starts to heal and deviate from his focused path of vengeance leading up to the seasons finale. This allows it to be free of the tyranny of the "book of names" plotting, widens the focus of the show nicely and gradually allows new characters into Olivers inner circle, avoiding the trap of all his friends being too stupid to work out what is going with him.

This steady expansion of his circle does lead to some heavy Batman parallels - bodyguard Diggle as Alfred, perky computer genius Felicity as Oracle and Detective Lance as Jim Gordon spring instantly to mind. Roy Harper turns up but feels like a story for future, not present series, and really its only poor Laurel that gets left in the cold, and consequently under-served by a lot of the story lines. A quick shout is in order for Tommy Merlyn however, who forces me to skip analogies by being the too-beautiful-to-live Gwen Stacey of the setup; a character just too damn decent to make it past the end of the season unscathed.

In the final analysis Arrow is another one of those shows that only develops its sense of what it wants to be, really, as it feels its way along. It's propped up in the process by some compelling leads that make the most of the material and get it past the "treading water" stage, and its also got some neat direction at times that makes it look classier and more expensive that it probably is. And by the final third, once its sorted all that stuff out, it becomes genuinely good television, and I look forward to series two.