Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Box Set Blues: Arrow, series 2

Its a sad fact that I was late to the Arrow party, mentally filing it away with the Smallvilles of this world and missing out on its first transmission, and then scrabbling to catchup as everyone kept telling me it was actually rather good. Its first season followed a common "first season" trajectory; a mix of strong setup and then a certain amount of paddling in circles, and a strong finish as the cast and crew all settled in with how everything was going to work. It also helped to have a strong cast with no obvious weak links, even if the show struggled to give everyone something worth-while to do. So its second season was something to look forward to, with the promise of more changes to come and a firmer sense of the shows direction. Thankfully, it gets a lot more right than it gets wrong. 

At the end of the first season, Gwen Stacey-alike Tommy Merlyn, always too beautiful for the stubbly world of Starling City, dies in Oliver's arms and shows his the error of his previously murderous ways. This means that the big them for season two becomes Oliver's transition from the scarred nut-job he starts season one into someone more heroic, whist the island-set back-story charts in more depth his journey towards that starting point. Overall this means that season two is a direct continuation of season one, and it's finale feels like the end of a story in a way the season one's didn't. 

To skip forward, this is most apparent as the season runs towards the end and the two plot-lines properly converge with Slade Wilson's appearing in Starling City. Prior to this, the two storys don't quite feel connected, even with the (predictable) not-deadness of Sara Lance, who turns in a great performance as The Canary - no relation, maybe? - but flip-flops about on the island a little too much for me. Pinning this all together though is Manu Bennett's barnstorming turn as Slade Wilson/Deathstroke, hitting every note he's asked to and generally stealing every scene he's in. Keeping the "Big Bad" grounded and human, even as he's murdering people left, right and centre, is no mean feat and its a credit to the writers and actor that by the end I really, really felt I would miss his presence on the show. 

For the earlier part of the season we get a number of smaller plots that ultimately tie neatly together, if they didn't always feel it at the time. Anthony Ivo feels a little wasted (and lacking any super-robots) and Sebastian Blood would, I think, have been more fun if he wasn't called Sebastian Blood and so a bit chunk of the audience would always know he was a villain. Summer Glau's character is, in the end, totally wasted and underused, and probably the only big mis-step of the run. More positively, we get a fun few episodes with Barry Allen which leaves me looking forward to The Flash, and the Suicide Squad setup is really fun too. 

It does feel at times as though the show has too many characters for its stories, however. Thea, Roy and Laurel have all struggled at various points for decent connections to the main story, and whilst they all make it in the end, they often seem to be marking time. Its less noticable for characters like Felicity or Diggle, as even if the show isn't focused on them they've a good reason to be around, and have a nice little friendship dynamic going on. Similarly no-longer-Detective Lance (who I have to stop calling "budget Mark Ruffalo" sits somewhere between the two groupings but feels organically plugged in most of the time. In fairness the show does leave a new setup that should address this problem a bit. 

Finally, Arrow is just really well crafted - it's directors and set-designers know how to get a bigger budget look and feel from it, something that often let down Agents of SHIELD in it's first year. It's also thematically coherent and carries a strong sense of direction, where the first season tended to belabor it's points a little this moves a lot more cleanly and ruthlessly, accelerating to a final few episodes that are genuinely gut-wrenching tense. Best of all, we're all caught up just as it's about to start on the TV again!