“Arrow” And The Rehabilitation of Genre TV

I mean, jeez, do you know how hard it was to find a picture for this show where Stephen Amell was wearing a shirt?

I’m a little irritated with the CW, because it’s very difficult to make fun of them when they’re seemingly the only place on television that can pull off a decent genre show, especially when they’re so obnoxiously consistent about it. I would very much like to characterize them as the network of pretty people who spend a lot of time shirtless, and I can’t, since it turns out that a lot of those pretty people are fairly solid actors who spend their time in surprisingly good programs. But the things is, this makes sense, because it is that very quality of mockability which I am mourning the complexity of that gives them the ability at all to make decent genre television.

Let me explain. Genre television – that of the sci fi/fantasy/things you wouldn’t see on line at Walmart persuasion – is inherently ridiculous. Our lord and savior Joss Whedon knew this – “Buffy” is a stupid name, and “the Vampire Slayer” doesn’t really pull any punches in terms of what it’s about. In other words, the second you throw in the supernatural or supernormal or superheroic, you lose the right to hide behind reality, and the best genre television knows this. When it doesn’t, you get something like the sublime idiocy of I, Frankenstein (which I know isn’t television but watch that trailer and tell me you’ve ever seen anything that reaches those heights of delightful derangement). Or, even worse, it knows that it’s campy but doesn’t understand what aspects of the premise make it so, and you get the asinine silliness of The Cape, whose greatest contribution to civilization is as a hashtag for Community fans. And, sure, sometimes you’ll have a show that’s so determined to transcend its campiness that the campiness sort of cowers in terror and gets out of the way, and you get the four season adventure in soul crushing of Battlestar Galactica, but it’s very easy for that kind of single-minded focus to fall apart and so there aren’t very many Battlestar Galactica‘s (which is good, because whenever I watch that show I need to, like, hug my mother and be reminded that there’s still good in the world).

But for the most part, a good genre show is aware of its campiness, and then, more importantly, doesn’t wallow in it. Look, the last thing you want is for your genre TV to be embarrassed of itself – that is to say, Oliver Queen is a guy who runs around with a bow and arrow in the middle of a 21st century city wearing a hood that wouldn’t fool the blindest of Lois Lanes, and it takes a great deal of narrative confidence to just go with that. And the important thing – the thing that an incompetent show like, oh, Heroes forgets – is that that narrative confidence comes when everything else on the show is really, undeniably good.

Arrow is definitely another one of the “come for the abs, stay for the unexpectedly adept storytelling” shows, and, given how frequently the CW tends to pull that off, I should really be less surprised. I’m not gonna lie – the first half-season or so is a slog. The kind of slog that leads to that gnawing self-hatred for putting yourself through this. But once they settle in, it gets really good, really quick. Stephen Amell has some of the most reliable emotional scenes on television, to the point where I’m willing to excuse the cliche that his initial indulgence in the block of wood school of acting was the expression of the character’s PTSD. Even before he figures out how to make different facial expressions, though, the surrounding cast is so good you don’t even notice him too much – basically, if there was an actor you enjoyed on another genre show, they’ve guest-starred on this one (I mean, at this point, Arrow is singlehandedly keeping Spartacus alums employed). And the action scenes – I mean, shit, for a CW budget, their action sequences are often more clean, vivid, and intense than some major Hollywood blockbusters (coughThe Dark Knightcough).

And furthermore, this show has shown a consistent talent for rehabilitating their more problematic characters or aspects of the show. For example, this incarnation of Oliver Queen was given a little sister (I don’t want to pretend I know anything about comics because I’ll just embarrass myself, but I know this is a change from the source) who begins the show as the most bratty teenager you ever wanted to punch directly in the face. And then, somehow, so subtly I didn’t even realize it was happening, she became one of my favorite characters by the middle of the second season. Hell, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much disparity between how desperately tragic the death of another character at the end of the first season was, and how much I hated him at the beginning of the show. If something isn’t working (except for Laurel Lance, but nobody’s perfect), they kill it or change it or force you to stick with it until gets good, and they’re generally pretty aware of the difference between something like the rapidly-eliminated narration of the first few episodes and the increasingly-but-not-originally compelling and exciting island backstory.

But most of all, Arrow is a show that knows how to put a comic book on TV. And, yes, that comes out sometimes in the way they’re able to weave in references to the comics so that these nods are rewarding to long-time fans but not impenetrable to newbies, but more than that, it’s in the way you can see how much the people making this show really love it. Because, sure, they embrace the camp, letting John Barrowman loose to chew as much of the scenery as he can get his hands on, but it’s about more than just the camp, and it’s about more than just the source material. This is a show that zigs when you expect it to zag, that has an unholy amount of fun even when it’s ripping your heart out. And it’s clearly learned from its predecessors – Smallville was a 10 year long cocktease, so Arrow zips through plot faster than you notice what it’s doing; Supernatural treats its female characters like props, so Arrow takes time to pass the Bechdel test with developed, complicated women. I feel like I say this a lot, but I really didn’t want to like this show when I started watching it, and then it sort of grabbed me and said, no, look, I’m legitimately good and you will respect that. It’s a tricky balance, to put a decent genre show on TV, and somehow, the CW and Arrow have figured that science out.

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