Matt Ryan is going to be on Arrow this season as Constantine, and I’m a big Constantine fan. Since I’m going to be dropping in to see him fight demons with Oliver, and since the first two seasons of Arrow are streaming on Netflix, I thought I’d take a look back to see if time and distance have changed my views on this show.
Yep, they have.
Here’s the thing about Arrow: It’s a comic book show. I happen to like comic book shows but they have some real drawbacks for writers: There’s already a history for the characters, that history is often chaotic and contradictory, and it tends to be about the fight between good and evil, which doesn’t lend itself to a lot of layers. However, they are also active, colorful, and moving, all good things in storytelling. When Arrow remembers it’s a comic book show, it’s excellent. When it gets confused and tries to segue into soap opera, it ranges from fun to awful. And when it gets addicted to flashbacks, it’s throw-something-at-the-screen time. The first three seasons were great when they stuck to their comic-book roots. But then . . .
So here’s my review of the first three seasons of Arrow.
Please note: Massive spoilers ahead.
I know the conventional wisdom is that Arrow started weak and improved, but I think it was consistently good for the entire first season. It was bright and colorful and it kept moving, it showed the origin of the Arrow Team (Oliver, Diggle, Felicity), it had a great conspiracy and a great antagonist (lots of great antagonists in this season) and a cast that was stellar. And it set up the framework for the rest of the seasons: Oliver is driven to save his city (extra points because he fails in the climax), family is a strong trope (the personal analog to the city that Oliver protects), and romance is going to be a big subplot throughout.
The family arc is introduced adroitly in this season, first Moira the Destroying Mother; Thea, the angry little sister; and Walter, the perfect stepfather, all welcoming Oliver back and reacting with various degrees of disapproval at the change or lack thereof in their favorite son; this also starts Arrow’s most annoying trope, Oliver lying to people to protect them. Knowledge is power, Oliver, share the wealth. Although the Queens are always good value, even better is the Arrow family Oliver makes, bringing his bodyguard Diggle into his secret and then IT girl Felicity. The three of them become the center of the series by the end of the first season, probably saving it from becoming the Bad Guy of the Week because their interactions in fighting evil are so much more interesting than most of the actual fights, the Count and Malcolm Merlin always excepted.
And then there are the romances. Big surprise: I didn’t mind Laurel as much this time around. She was cold and driven, and she and Oliver were awful together, but she had motivation for her actions and no reason to trust him since he was being Ollie The Playboy around her. Felicity provided much needed light, so I can see why viewers latched on to her, but Laurel-and-Tommy was a compelling subplot, so I think it was more that Felicity brought the bright to Oliver’s dark, whereas Laurel was as tortured as Oliver and Tommy provided her relief. The Oliver/Laurel disaster would have been repeated if Felicity and Tommy had gotten together; their love theme would have been “Everything is Awesome,” and we’d have been throwing things at the screen.
And then there are the flashbacks. For the first half of the season, the writers kept the island scenes brief and that helped a lot, as did the focus on the central three and fighting crime. In the second half, the flashbacks and back story became annoyingly omnipresent, especially as they pushed that toxic I-slept-with-sisters subplot, the biggest mistake of the entire series.
But overall? Very watchable and a lot of fun. A-
If you ever wanted evidence that Back Story Kills, this season is it. The flashbacks to the island are long, convoluted, heavy-handed, don’t make much sense, and destroy the momentum of the now of the story while repeating things we already know, making them prime I’ll-go-to-the-bathroom-now moments. Where Season One’s flashbacks were focused on explaining how Ollie the Playboy became Oliver the Arrow, Season Two’s interminable history lessons exist to provide Slade with a reason to bedevil Oliver (except Oliver didn’t choose which woman would die, so the whole thing is a crock), which takes away story real estate from the present which has problems of its own. Blood is a Mastermind! No, Blood is a Minion. Slade has come back to ruin Oliver! No Slade has come back to kill Oliver’s family in the most inefficient way possible. Also Sara’s alive! And the League of Assassins wants her back! Also the League of Lances, still stirring that toxic sisters plot. And Roy’s on Mirakuru and losing it. And Thea, former substance abuser, is now running Oliver’s nightclub even though she’s only 19. Also, Moira’s on trial for mass murder! No, Malcolm bought off the jury, so now she’s running for mayor! Also Thea is not Robert’s child, she’s Malcolm’s! OMG, Oliver has a child somewhere in Central City (there’s a plot line that got dropped like a three-day-old flounder). Also . . .
Just stop. This is a story about a grim-dark avenger, his black driver (joke), and his girl Wednesday (lame joke). Everything else is just story sludge, and this year the plot was all about Oliver, the Jerk. I particularly love Oliver’s rebuke to his mother: “You lied to me about Thea’s parentage, and I’m disowning you for it, but you better keep lying to her.” Because lying is bad unless Oliver is doing it, and the only person who shouldn’t know Thea’s real father is Thea. Makes perfect sense. Right up there with going with Sara to the reunion of the family he helped shatter when he invited Sara to go sailing six years ago; yeah, Oliver, they’d LOVE to have you at the reconciliation dinner. And then he tells Felicity he loves her and sees the light in her eyes and presses the syringe into her hand to let her know it’s All Part of His Plan. Because . . . I have no idea. Year of the Jerk.
Add to that the WTF-ery of motivations that boiled down to “Because the writers said so,” and Season Two really does pancake. Laurel, who’s been saved by the Arrow multiple times, decides he’s a criminal because he couldn’t save Tommy, who died because his father dropped a building on him. Then he saves her from the Dollmaker and she decides he’s a hero again. Katie Cassidy must have gotten whiplash trying to sell all the twists and turns in her character including the saintly Laurel who gives Sara relationship advice about Oliver. And then there’s the infamous “My mother’s a whore/ My sister’s a bitch/let’s have sex” move that came out of nowhere and annoyed everybody, although it did give rise to one of my favorite memes:
They really needed to take that I-screwed-sisters subplot, put a stake through its heart, and bury it in unhallowed ground.
And of course there’s Slade’s vendetta against Oliver, which he evidently parked for six years while he was amassing a fortune even though you don’t need a lot of money to kill somebody’s family (although it helps if you’re trying to destroy a city); he’s the perfect example of the Illogically Evil Antagonist (although points for casting Manu Bennett who growls his way through the plot with gusto).
There were a lot of good things in this season: Diggle and Felicity got more screen time, Isabel went to Russia and made Felicty jealous (“I thought what happened in Russia stayed in Russia,” “WE’RE STILL IN RUSSIA”), Diggle reconnected with Lyla and met the Suicide Squad and found out he was going to be a father (very fertile group, those Arrow people), Malcolm came back (there is no such thing as too much Barrowman) and was so proud when Thea shot him, Moira took on Felicity and lost, Slade showed up to snarl through the end of the season, Isabel got hit by a truck (never sleep with Oliver, it always ends badly), Moira got a terrific death, and Oliver actually said, “This started with the three of us and it ends with the three of us,” acknowledging the Arrow Three at the center of the story. Good stuff, but not enough to keep the season afloat under kilotons of back story and toxic subplot. Focus, people; this is Arrow, not How Sarah Came Back and Slade Got Pissed Because It’s Oliver’s Fault That Shado Died Except It Isn’t.
In the end, the back story strangled the main plot that was already staggering under its suffocating subplots. This was particularly evident in the last two episodes when there was hella good stuff going on in the Now and nothing at all interesting (except for the Russian) in the back story, and they kept cross-cutting. ARGH.
A for the first half of the season, D for the second.
I was warned by many people that this season was not good, but I queued it up anyway so I’d be prepared when Constantine showed up. Plus the first flashback is in Hong Kong, and I thought, At least they got off the goddamn island. The first half of the season was good except for the flashbacks which had absolutely no relevance to the present except for the existence of a virus, which could have been taken care of by somebody saying, “Hey, there’s a virus.” I hear they’re doing flashbacks again this year. (headdesk) Then they went back to the “because I said so” motivation. Oliver decides to rescue Malcolm Merlin so Thea won’t feel guilty for setting him up to be killed? Uh, no. Also, the writers really have to stop that “Somebody once told me” line, followed by some dumb platitude. Either that or turn it into a drinking game. When Ra’s said it, I distinctly saw a shark jumping in the background.
And there’s Arrow’s family trope, this year driven so far into the ground it’s in China. Well, Hong Kong anyway. Felicity has to deal with Mama Smoak (we need more Mama Smoak; I ship her and Detective Lance), Diggle has a daughter now and gets married; Thea goes looking for a new family with her real daddy, Malcolm; Laurel reconciles with her sister and lies to her father; Oliver saves his host family back in Hong Kong over and over again until he doesn’t; Nyssa defies her father because he’s betrayed her; and characters say, “There’s nothing more important than family” and then lie in their teeth to each other. It’s one of the most annoying tropes of this series, not because the whole family thing is weak but because they undercut it over and over again with people lying to each other, justifying as it as protection instead of controlling paternalism. (Points to Nyssa for lampshading that.) Really good families don’t lie to each other (which means the ones we can keep are the Smoaks and the Diggles).
Don’t get me started on the romances. Okay, Diggle and Lyla work really well, and I got a tremendous feeling of sadness whenever Thea and Roy were on screen together being supportive of each other and still apart, and it was truly heartwarming when they got back together again for that nano-second, and I really liked Felicity and Ray together even though they were both chipperish, but the whole Oliver-and-Felicity “I can’t be with you” ridiculous story line? The best part was when Felicity said no to him and walked away. Then she went back because she loved him, walking away from Ray who doesn’t lie. THINK THINGS THROUGH, FELICITY.
But the worst part was that Nanda Whatsit stuff at the end. Here’s the problem with trying to create tension by convincing the audience that your hero has gone bad: they know it’s a gotcha and it annoys them. So they pretty much sit there with their stale popcorn waiting for inevitable “I was just pretending to be bad” at which point they can throw it at the screen. Then there’s the whole “the city is under attack, it must be May,” lampshaded by Captain Lance; it’s like Christmas in London for Doctor Who. There was no tension in the last episodes because there was nothing at stake.
So the last three or four episodes were generally worthless and often really dumb (what kind of transport plane only has one parachute?) except for Laurel and Nyssa having milkshakes and french fries like normal non-lethal women. Oh, and I liked Thea becoming a badass; after years of being lied to and then not-quite-dead-yet and then dipped in the supernatural hot tub out of which she leaped snarling, Thea has some stuff to work out. Might as well do it with violence in a hot red leather outfit. Also, Malcolm Merlin continues gleefully to be the biggest dick on TV, explaining to Thea that he set her up to be killed because he loved her, saying it with such conviction that you actually believe he means it, while Thea stares at him in disbelief. It must be nice on Planet Merlin, but I wouldn’t want to visit. And then Barry showing up, that was great. And Felicity saving the day. Also, new Arrow team: go, Nyssa and Speedy and Ray and Laurel . . . you know, it’s getting crowded in the Arrow Cave. Plus now they’re all mad at Oliver for being a jerk (they hadn’t noticed before?) so he rides off into the sunset with Felicity, literally driving down the road into the setting sun, saying “I’m happy,” which is a nice change, so I’ll forgive the cliche.
So this season had real problems, but some really good stuff, too. And it definitely nailed the whole comic book thing. I’d give it a C-, the minus for the gotcha ending. Never do a gotcha that lasts longer than one episode, it’s always a disaster.
Okay, first let’s deal with that tagline: “Aim. Higher.” Yes, everybody is making “A little higher and to the left” jokes, so as taglines go it’s about as bad as “Lean in.” If it hadn’t been for that middle period, it would have been perfectly acceptable, but that pause . . . . Just, no.
And now Constantine, if only for one episode, something about Sara coming back from the Lazarus Pit changed because she was definitely completely dead, not just sort of dead like Malcolm and Thea. Or something. No worries, Constantine will sort it all out. This show launched The Flash, it can relaunch a series about a bi-sexual demon hunter with a smart mouth, a tortured soul, and a nicotine jones. Also I’m dying to see the romcom that will be When Connie Met Ollie . . . . Bring Barry in from Central City to run faster than a fiend from hell, and I will put extra butter on my popcorn. Plus Merlin/Barrowman is now head of the League of Assasins, so that should be good value; instead of chewing the scenery, he can torture and execute it. I’m still missing Moira, she was a Lady Macbeth for the ages, but look, Jeri Ryan is running for mayor, a position that needs the same health warnings as the missionary with Oliver. Oh, but Oliver and Felicity are together now, kissing in the suburbs, so that’s nice, except that I think he’s still married to Nyssa; that could be a problem. Diggle’s wearing a can on his head, so that’s odd, and Felicity evidently has an assistant now and oh, look, she has an automatic weapon she’s firing with her eyes closed, and Thea’s back in red leather and pushing her luck, but I caught a glimpse of Nyssa in there, probably going after a divorce or, knowing Nyssa, a widowhood, and CONSTANTINE!
Sorry, sorry, didn’t mean to squee. What else? Who cares? CONSTANTINE!
Hi, I’m Jenny, and I have a snarky comic book hero problem: I just love ’em. So I’m going back to Arrow for the start of Season Four, even though they’re going to do more damn flashbacks. Maybe this time Oliver will be at Club Med. Or in Hades. Somewhere interesting where all the hot women who turn up to die for him won’t seem so out of place. PLEASE STOP WITH THE FLASHBACKS.
Unless they have Constantine in them.