A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the disappointing early returns from “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD,” which has thus far come across as a show designed by focus group to appeal to the broadest group possible, and which as a result appeals deeply to no one. In response, several readers suggested I give another shot to the CW’s “Arrow,” primetime’s other current superhero series, which I had all but forgotten about after a few competent but unremarkable episodes last fall, but which they insisted was succeeding at so much of what “SHIELD” was struggling with.
Having watched a handful of season 1 episodes(*) and all of season 2 to date, I can say that they were right. “Arrow” isn’t perfect, but it has a much better understanding than “SHIELD” of what it wants to be and what its strengths and weaknesses are. The folks at ABC/Disney/Marvel might want to take note.
(*) For the “Arrow” obsessives among you, I watched (in addition to the first two episodes, which I saw when they aired), “Year’s End,” “Dead to Rights,” “Salvation,” “The Undertaking,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Sacrifice.” Why those? I wasn’t going to have time to watch them all, so I asked executive producer Marc Guggenheim to suggest a handful that he felt represented their best work and/or would be most useful to understanding what’s happening in season 2.
Initially, “Arrow” struck me as an attempt to do another Batman TV show without actually having permission to use Batman, with Stephen Amell as playboy-turned-vigilante Oliver Queen as an impressively-torsoed Bruce Wayne stand-in. But even in the comics, Green Arrow was often used as a Batman copycat before evolving into a more unique left-wing crusader. Similarly, “Arrow” has made class warfare one of its major themes, with a scion of the elite turning against his fellow 1%ers to fight for the less fortunate. (The first season built to Queen’s wealthy arch-nemesis leveling most of their city’s poorest neighborhoods.) It’s an approach that gives the series a specific point of view, even as Oliver is hanging out in his Arrow-Cave and speaking in a lower register to threaten bad guys.
Amell’s abs got all the early attention, and he certainly looks the part and moves well in the superhero moments. (Though for some reason, as Oliver Queen he almost never seems to move his arms.) Amell’s greatest strength, as it turns out, is his ability to play with others: specifically, Oliver’s two sidekicks, military veteran John Diggle (David Ramsey) and hacker Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards). There’s an easy sense of camaraderie between the three of them, and they can be as serious or light-hearted as a story requires. Where “SHIELD” struggles to develop its characters into anything beyond their basic types, “Arrow” has delineated its lead trio into specific, likable, compelling people, so that Felicity and her not-so-secret crush on Oliver doesn’t just play out as every other “Why, without your glasses, you’re beautiful!” geek girl.
“Arrow” is an unapologetic melodrama, with characters often speaking in grand, self-defining pronouncements rather than dialogue. It works because the superhero genre lends itself to this treatment (though it’s far from the only approach that works with the capes-and-tights set), and because there’s a consistency of tone to it. Despite the modest budget of your average show, “Arrow” does its best to play big with its scope and with its emotions, and if the moves don’t always work – the writers seem to constantly be struggling with what to do with Oliver’s ex-girlfriend, attorney Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), for instance – the effort is usually there.
And where “SHIELD” comes across at times as afraid of its own comic book roots, “Arrow” – which, to be fair, is on the CW and therefore a niche show by design – has turned itself into a Petri dish for the idea of a TV universe for DC Comics characters. Tomorrow night’s episode (it airs, as usual, at 8 p.m. Eastern) is even attempting to set up a spin-off around super-speedster the Flash, here introduced in his civilian guise as police scientist Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), but well before that, “Arrow” has played with a wide range of DC characters who have little to no Green Arrow comic ties. Now, it may just be that DC is more relaxed with letting their creators play with all the toys in the box than Marvel – and also that the likes of Brother Blood, Professor Ivo and Bronze Tiger aren’t likely to be in demand for the next three dozen Superman films – but I suspect that even for non-geeks who, prior to the series, couldn’t tell Deadshot apart from Deathstroke if their life depended on it, the use of these villains and supporting characters creates a sense of a more filled-in, colorful world.
There are times, however, where the world of “Arrow” feels a bit too full. The series employs a structure that’s the opposite of “Lost,” with lots of action on the mainland accompanied by flashbacks to the five years Oliver spent trapped on a remote island in the Pacific, picking up the skills (and scars) needed to become a hero. These scenes have Amell wearing an unfortunate wig and at times feel like unnecessary distractions from the main action. The new episodes, at least, have been using the island better, as those scenes tie in more naturally with what’s happening in the present and seem to be building to something bigger. Tomorrow’s episode, in fact, was the rare occasion where I wish we had spent even more time on the island. (And I say that even though I was intrigued by the introduction of a more boyish Barry Allen.)
There are also a lot of supporting and recurring characters of varying degrees of usefulness and interest, and at times the show spends too much time shifting between them all, rather than just focusing on giving Oliver, Diggle and Felicity an interesting adventure. Summer Glau, a nerd icon in her own right from her time on “Firefly” and “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” (and, to a much lesser extent, “The Cape”), has been hanging around all season, mostly wearing business suits and frowning, which seems a silly waste of having Summer Glau in a comic book show. (I’m assuming she’ll get to kick butt down the road, but better to just save her til we get there.)
Overall, though, “Arrow” is a lot of fun, and even if there are just as many cooks stirring this broth as there appear to be on “SHIELD” (which also, in fairness, hasn’t been through a season-plus worth of learning curve yet), it doesn’t feel timid and designed-by-committee in the same way. It’s just trying to be the best, boldest version of “Arrow” that it can be.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org