Straight as an “Arrow”: How the CW’s Superhero Show Is Hitting the Bullseye
It took half a season for Arrow to hit its stride last year. Lackluster character development and a villain-of-the-week formula did little to separate the action-drama from other genre programs on TV. Many shows face a similar sort of identity crisis in their premiere seasons, but by the latter half of Season One, Arrow overcame its growing pains to start delivering the strong narrative beats that most shows take several seasons to accomplish, a trend which has permeated the entirety of Season Two. So what is Arrow doing to find such critical success this year?
Arrow made it a point to set itself apart from its comic book continuities, right off the bat. While the likenesses of core characters were kept intact, the origins of Oliver Queen’s allies and enemies were drastically changed to make the show both an homage to years of “Green Arrow” comics yet something fresh for both television and comic book audiences. Characters like Felicity Smoak and John Diggle, Oliver’s “Arrowcave” companions, take on drastically different roles in the show, Diggle being a part entirely contrived for TV. Popular “Green Arrow” villains such as China White, Count Vertigo, and the Dark Archer appeared in Season One, but only the Dark Archer had any significant impact on the hierarchical plot of the show. While Season One introduced viewers to a diverse array of interesting characters, they did little to connect Starling City, the show’s main setting, to the rest of the DC universe.
The same cannot be said for Season Two.
Several big names have appeared this season, and several more are anticipated as Arrow gears up for its Season Two finale. The fan-favorite Black Canary has become a central character this year. It is revealed early on that Sara Lance, the Canary, is on the run from the League of Assassins, Arrow’s first outlet to the larger DC universe.
Last summer, it was revealed that Season Two of Arrow would serve as the launching point for the CW’s new spin-off, “The Flash.” Episodes 8 and 9 introduced Grant Gustin as Barry Allen who was struck by the explosion of a certain particle accelerator by the end of his guest appearance. His introduction is a huge leap for the series. Shows like Once Upon A Time and Once Upon A Time in Wonderland benefit from running parallel in the same universe, as the doors are open for crossover episodes where characters from one show can appear in another.
Telling Barry’s origin story in Arrow has helped the writers achieve a similar result. Future seasons of both shows are set up for seamless transition of plots and characters. This makes the show feel like a real comic book series where the arcs of different heroes are interwoven in a shared universe. It is not outside the realm of possibility for the Flash and the Arrow to be teaming up in future seasons.
In an effort to expand this universe even farther, the writers have introduced viewers to Amanda Waller, an A.R.G.U.S. agent who, in the comic books, assembles the infamous Suicide Squad, a ragtag group of villains picked from all corners of the entire DC universe. Episode 16 saw these characters assemble for the first time, and more even more surprisingly, the notorious Harley Quinn made a cameo in the episode.
Episode 17 broke even more boundaries as the focus shifted to the Birds of Prey, a group most-famously comprised of Black Canary, the Huntress, and Oracle.
If you haven’t noticed already, the Batman characters are coming in by the boatload.
Arrow has been digger even deeper into the DC universe, presenting fresh, exciting content for viewers who may be uneducated in DC lore, but opening up exciting possibilities for the die-hard, comic book fanatics to be excited about.
Flashback Material That Matters
Season One was Oliver Queen’s origin story. Origin stories exist to define a hero’s moral code and personal values, values which were defined in the climactic Season One finale with the death of Oliver’s best friend, Tommy Merlyn. Flashbacks were used as a storytelling device in each episode; Oliver’s struggles in the present day would be reflected by flashbacks to his years of isolation on the island. This device was effective, but all too familiar. Shows like Lost, Psych, Once Upon A Time, and How I Met Your Mother use the same tool in the same way.
In Season Two, the writers broke this trend by creating interesting flashback material that supports the hierarchical plot of the Arrow’s present day adventure. Mirakuru, a “miracle serum,” has appeared in Starling City, and two presumed-dead characters, Slade Wilson and Sara Lance, reemerge after years of Oliver Queen presuming them dead. Season Two’s flashbacks explain why these characters were presumed dead, where the mirakuru comes from, and how it all ties into Oliver’s second year on the island. While flashbacks to Oliver’s time on the island used to be just-bearable, they have become the highlights of many episodes this season.
Hierarchical Plot Structure
One of the biggest downfalls of the first season was the villain-of-the-week formula. This is often the case with serialized drama. Each week, a new, often lackluster villain would terrorize the citizens of Starling City, and Oliver would have to stop them. Some of his time on the island would be revealed – rinse, wash, repeat. It wasn’t until the second half of the season that this structure was all but abandoned, and for good reason. Season Two, thus far, has brought the overarching story to the forefront in nearly every episode. And even when new villains do surface, they exist primarily to push the main plot further.
Take, for example, the episode, “Heir to the Demon.” Nyssa, daughter of Ra’s al Ghul, arrives in Starling City to take Sara Lance back with her to the League of Assassins. Nyssa appears for just one episode, like most villains from Season One, yet she is complex and dangerous, and her appearance leaves repercussions for the rest of the Season. Sara reveals her identity to her Father, she reveals herself alive to her sister, and she becomes a permanent resident of Starling and a member of the Arrow team. Just about every episode this season has seen the higher plot and the characters take leaps further in complexity and development.
Higher Production Value
One of my favorite scenes from the first season involved Oliver parkouring across the rooftops of Starling, and then dropping down the side of a fire escape, floor by floor. Arrow saved its coolest scenes for the latter half of the season, but Season Two did not rest on its laurels. Quite the opposite, in fact; the production value has continued to take leaps and bounds. The cinematography is movie-quality in many of the action sequences. One of my favorite sequences is in Episode 5, “League of Assassins.” Members of the League track down Sara to Starling City, and they attack her while with Oliver in his mansion home. When the fight goes to the living room, Sara jumps up, grabs the frame of the doorway, pulls it off, and uses it as a makeshift bo staff (click the still below to watch the scene). Another scene that demonstrated the show’s uniquely high quality occurred in Episode 11, “Blind Spot.” Laurel convinces the Arrow to help her break into the city archives, but naturally, the police arrive on-scene to intercept them. Bullets fly as Laurel and the Arrow race through the labyrinth of bookcases. Episode 15, “The Promise,” delivered great action in the flashback material as Oliver, Slade, and Sara began their explosive assault on the freighter. Season 2 has not held back in its grand scope. If following in the footsteps of the preceding season, then the action is only just picking up.
TV often suffers from poor acting. It is justifiable for a few episodes when a new show airs – actors are really trying to figure out who their characters and what their motivations are – but it took lead actors like Stephen Amell and Willa Holland an unbearable amount of time to find their footing. However, by the end of the first season, they had really come into the roles to the point where I can’t imagine them being played by anybody else. The acting in Season Two jumped above and beyond the bar set by the end of Season One. Fans love the characterizations of protagonists like Felicity Smoak, John Diggle, and Quentin Lance. Shoddy dialogue can occasionally spoil otherwise excellent scenes, but instances where I have had to cringe are far and few between. The acting in Season Two has only supplemented the other improved aspects of the show and made it that much easier to be engrossed by the turbulent situations in Starling City. Arrow is finally offering characters audiences can invest themselves in.
Season Two of Arrow has set a new bar for the quality viewers should expect from serialized television. It has widened in scale by tying Starling City into the larger DC Universe, much to the pleasure of long-time comic book fans. It has also abandoned the hierarchical structure most shows suffer from by introducing a plethora of interesting, character-driven plot threads, and by showing flashback material that is more-relevant to the Arrow Team’s present-day problems. The villain-of-the-week formula has been completely replaced by a more-engaging hierarchical plot structure, where every episode pushes the overarching story forward. What makes the biggest difference this season might just come down to the higher production value. Intricate set designs are supplemented by strong lighting and well-choreographed action sequences, and the quality of acting has improved twofold.
Arrow is a success story. Instead of taking several seasons to get into the meat of the show and to embrace its DNA, the writers, actors, and crew have pushed it leagues ahead in just a year of airtime. Season Two hasn’t ended yet, but I am already anticipating the third.
What do you think? Leave a comment.