Tuesday, June 16, 2015

TV Review: Arrow (season 3) and Agents of SHIELD (season 2)

So to finish up my impromptu trilogy of "double header" reviews, I thought I'd turn to TV land, and mop up the last two Superhero shows of the outgoing season, Arrow, and Agents of SHIELD. On a third and second season respectively, both shows are much more of a known quantity than say, The Flash, and to an extent they are unlikely to massively change in their core outlooks, competencies and flaws. Both have existing fanbases and detractors, too, but whats most interesting - and makes them worthy of comparison - is how they're trying to address getting past the introductory series and the maturation of their characters. It's easy to put the gang together, but what do you do with them then? 

Arrow, Season 3
I recent heard Arrow described as the show you make when you're told you're not allowed to make a Batman show, but make one anyway, which was an astute observation and I wish I could claim I'd made it myself. Where The Flash has embraced it's source material, Arrow's relationship with Green Arrow is a little more wary, especially around it's Rogues Gallery, and this season it reaches deeper into the Bat-Pool to bring in Ra's al-Ghul, which amusingly it seems to have about as little idea how to pronounce as anyone else, so settles on "Raysh", "Raz" or "Rarz" depending on who is speaking at the time. However, he's not really the villain of the series, as Arrow tries for something braver. 

It seems every series eventually goes for the plot line were the "real villain" is the heroes insecurities and self-doubt. So a lesser threat, something they should be able to sort out, becomes overwhelming ultimately because the good guys have their heads too far up their collective arses to see it coming. Zoe calls it "oh dear, Buffy Season Six" and makes a sad face, and I'm hard pushed to disagree with her, because ultimately watching your heroes mope around the place has a finite lifespan before you want - need - them to get up and kick both moping, and villainhood, in the butt. And lets face it, Ollie is pretty mopey at the best of times. 

Which makes Arrow a bit of a mixed bag this season. It certainly falls back on it's soap-operatic character relationships too much at the expense of actual characterisation, sticking a number of characters in loops. Ollie and Felicity and Laurel and Quentin, probably suffer the most, strangely it's Laurel who ends up one of the most improved characters from it. Both Laurel and Thea have suffered from disconnect to the main story, and here they both get solid arcs that end up with then in costume on their own terms through their own volition, which is about a season too late, and costs us Sara Lance to do so, but at least she'll be back for Legends of Tomorrow, so there is that. 

Speaking of Legends of Tomorrow, the series other bright spot is Brendan Routh as Ray Palmer, who serves to remind us that he would have made much better Superman than Superman Returns allows us to see. Here he's a sort of budget Iron Man, but the ATOM suit's ultimate shrinking power is heavily foreshadowed, and Ray's chirpy, rapid-fire persona is a fantastic presence throughout. This season is far from a wash-out, but is overshadowed by it's partner show over in Central City, and I'm hoping we get a lighter touch next year to reflect that. 

Agents of SHIELD, Season 2
Last years' TV punching bag Agents of SHIELD really turned a corner in it's final run following the revelations of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, showing both the strengths and perils of Marvel's joined up approach. This season it's had a seemingly free reign, with the tie-ins to Age of Ultron less decisive on the season, and instead a focus on introducing us to the Inhumans, who are set to the MCU's solution to the problem that they don't control the rights to Mutants. It's a smart idea, opening the door to more super-powers on the show, whilst still keeping a low-key, spy focused tone. 

AoS also decides to answer the question of how to more it's cast forward by expanding it massively. Nominally "main" characters vanish for whole stretches, whilst supporting characters get full arcs, It also seems to embrace the "spy" element of the background, with double agents, secret agents, twists and turns galore, some pretty silly, and others less so, but all happening thick and fast enough that it carries you along. What I also find fascinating about AoS is that in an era when most of these shows are (rightly) criticised for treatment of their female characters, here most of the main emotional and story arcs are driven by women, and it's often the men left trailing in their wake. I don't think the show get enough credit for it at times. 

What this season has done for Agents of SHIELD has largely evened it out and that's no bad thing. It never really felt like it was marking time, or that it was drifting, but at the same time it rarely hit the high spots either. Ultimately the Inhumans plot worked as part of Skye's story, but less so as an "ultimate threat", which may in part have being a budgetary need to keep the action contained to two or three locations. The show does manage to attract a good line in supporting cast prepared to drop in a few episodes too, notably Edward James Olmos and Kyle Maclachan both making a lot out of key roles that could easily have fell flat. 

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So Arrow has tried to go deeper and Agents of SHIELD wider, and both get over the line, although not without the odd stumble on the way. I've enjoyed them both, and in a year that didn't have Daredevil, Agent Carter and The Flash in them I think we'd all have been pretty happy with them. Some of their flaws are too baked in to every change, I think, but I can but hope that we'll see a Greener Arrow next year, and the rise of the Inhumans, and looming Civil War, will keep AoS a little more focused. But I'll certainly be tuning in to find out.