Okay. First, I’m not going to say that ARROW is a great tv show. It’s not. It’s flawed in some pretty glaring ways, unconvincing in others, and not exactly brimming with complex insights into the human condition.
However, it is a compelling show, and I think there’s something to be learned from it.
First, let’s contrast Oliver Queen in the comics and in the show. They have similar origins: billionaire playboy asshole is marooned on an island for five years, where he’s forced to learn how to survive and learns to shoot a bow and arrow with inhuman accuracy.
In the comics, Oliver Queen is blissfully unaffected by this. He puts on a green suit and little Robin Hood cap, then heads out with his bow and trick arrows to play superhero. Worse, most everyone writes him as an old, annoying hippie. I guess there’s a New52 version that’s a bit different, but let’s come right out and say that, according to Science, Green Arrow sucks worse than Aquaman.
The show handles it differently: The pilot opens with his rescue and BOOM, he’s immediately returned to a hospital room in his home city. His mother stands anxiously at the door while the doctor explains that he’s covered with scars and has obviously suffered numerous broken bones. Whatever happened to Oliver Queen while he was marooned, it was really, really bad. The doctor warns her that he won’t be the same guy who vanished five years before.
As Jim Butcher would call it, Oliver Queen has exotic position in this world. He’s famous and infamous. Every new character he meets recognizes him instantly and most think they know everything they need to know about him. Also, the story slowly builds up “the island” as Hell-on-Earth and deliberately does not go into much detail about it. Oliver refuses to talk about it with his family, and as he pursues his plan in the current timeline, flashbacks cover his time on the island where he learned all the skills (and earned all the scars) he brought home.
So he’s a ninja, he’s Robin Hood, and he’s the Scarlet PTSD-pernel (except he targets the upper class instead of rescuing them). Who he is sets him very much apart from the other characters on the show. Exotic position.
If you followed the “exotic position” link above, you saw a note about “Exaggeration,” too. Oliver Queen isn’t just regular guy, he’s heir to billions. And he wasn’t just a spoiled jerk before being marooned, he was a complete asshole: When his ship went down, he was in bed with his girlfriend’s sister. Not only did he cheat on her, it was her kid sis and he’s responsible for her death. Also, the dead sister? Her dad is the detective who ends up investigating the vigilante.
It’s not just one thing working against him, it’s several all woven together. The vigilante isn’t just pursued by the cops, he’s pursued by the cop with a deep hatred of Queen’s family. Queen isn’t just pining for the girlfriend he betrayed (who’s picture he mooned over on the island) he’s forced to keep his distance from her because he’s got the whole vigilante thing going, and she has no respect for him because of the Scarlet Pimpernel-ish playboy act he puts on, and his best friend is in love with her and trying to make it work, and the more she learns about the vigilante the more she admires that dude, who’s trying so hard to help others.
Every complication is multiplied as much as possible. It’s deepened and made more complicated so that the relationships between the characters are incredibly twisty. (More on that in a minute)?
Another smart choice is that rather than just follow the usual model and creating a character who fights whatever generic crime appears, the show’s creators have given him a list of bad guys to take down. In fact, it’s was his father’s dying wish that Oliver undo Papa Queen’s wrongs.
Comic books are generally bullshit when it comes to portraying families. Bendis manages it pretty well, if you can stand the dialog tics, but most comics are all about jumping and kicking and massive battles. In the midst of all that, hashing over family drama is trite as hell.
On TV, the most cost-effective screen time you can get is two characters talking to each other on a pre-built set. There is no better special effect than an actor’s face. There just isn’t.
Of course, there are a lot of shows with friends and family squabbling at each other, but Arrow is really well cast. What’s more, although the dialog is trite and the drama is too often “Second Act Shouted Accusations/Fourth Act Reconciliation”, the actual drama itself is pretty fresh.
There’s a love quadrangle with Laurel, the woman Oliver loved like crazy but betrayed and hurt, his best friend who loves her, too, and the vigilante, who has all the traits (basically, acting like he cares what happens to people) Laurel wished Oliver would show but never does.
Oliver’s little sister grew up into a teenager while he was away, and now she’s becoming the party girl asshole that he was before he disappeared and still pretends to be in his Scarlet PTSD-pernel persona.
What’s more, that list his father gave him of bad guys to take out? Oliver’s mother has the same list, because she’s part of the conspiracy. In fact, it’s clear very early on that there’s a real conspiracy here, not just a catalog of assholes, and it takes a long while for Oliver to catch up.
Finally, the main villain is motivated by revenge for the loss of someone he loved very much.
Back when I was still trying to figure out how to be a successful writer, one of the earliest skills I mastered was the exciting action scene. I could make them inventive and weird, full of unexpected twists and odd moments.
What I couldn’t do was assemble them into a story. I couldn’t connect them.
Once, my friend and (although he might not know it) mentor Bill Martell talked about using theme to create character. Actually, I think he meant the lesson to be “using character to explore theme” but we take our lessons where we can grab them.
As an example: an author is writing a mystery about a wife suspected of killing her husband in a marital dispute. Marriage, amiright?
So, in creating a cast of characters, the author consciously explores every facet of marriage she can think of: maybe the detective is still mourning the loss of their own spouse, who died of Spouse To A Sad Cop Syndrome. The bride’s parents have been happily married for thirty years. The groom’s parents refuse to divorce even though their relationship is a DMZ. The bride’s best friend is in the middle of a divorce. The groom’s BF never married and is ecstatic about it. The neighbors are ooey-gooey newliweds. The detective’s partner is bored with his wife.
And so on. It doesn’t have to be obvious (in fact, better if it isn’t) but it gives the story unity.
On ARROW S1, the theme relates to (as Helena Bertinelli says) “going through a crucible.” Oliver was shipwrecked, watched his girlfriend and his father die, and struggled for five years to stay alive. When he returned home, he was transformed.
The other characters in the show reflect that theme: Thea responded to the pain of losing her father and brother by trying to grow up just like Oliver. Worthless billionaire bf Tommy had never gone through any kind of test or transformation, and he starts the show as the same boy-man he was five years before. Moira Queen, for her part, mourns and moves on with her life, marrying again. Diggle can’t get past the death of his brother. Finally, there’s Malcolm Merlin, the season’s villain, who can not get past the pain of his wife’s death.
Yeah, there are problems. Too much of the dialog is trite and on the nose; people complain about the actors, but I think the scripts are the real problem here. The first two episodes have a really unfortunate voice over, which doesn’t work at all. And the pilot introduces the Queen’s house maid, who was supposed to… actually, I’m guessing here, but I think she was supposed to humanize our good-looking billionaire hero by showing he could be friends with a poor, but it was really weird to see him be so warm with the maid when he was so cold to his mother and sister.
Also, if you can’t get past the idea of a ninja archer who can’t be hit with machine gun fire while he nails baddies with arrows, this ain’t the show for you.
There are also shallower pleasures. I showed my wife a video compilation of all the workout scenes from S1 and she was all “When is this show on again?” Fit, muscular dudes with their shirts off. It’s a feature.
Another thing they’re doing right: integrating existing DC characters and concepts into the show, after retooling them for TV, which is something I said AGENTS OF SHIELD should have done but they haven’t. Deadshot is an obvious addition, and The Huntress, too, (although I thought they miscast the father). They even retooled the Royal Flush Gang, cutting the budget so much the gang only had four members.
(Of course, the head of the Royal Flush Gang had his own crucible, and he made his own choices because of it. More unity.)
So, yeah. There are clumsy flourishes in the execution, early missteps, and action scenes that require reinforced scaffolding for your disbelief.
But! The show handles the lead character’s exotic position really well, and ties everything back to it in a unified, intelligently exaggerated way. That’s why a show I expected to be a dime-store BATMAN BEGINS is one of the few must-watch programs on my schedule.