Monday Morning Critic: Why ‘Arrow’ is Suffering This Season
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
Oliver Queen is back in Starling City on ‘Arrow,’ and not a moment too soon.
After producing a stellar second season, The CW’s costumed superhero drama is suffering somewhat from what we in the industry call “Where Do We Go From Here”-itis. (Yes, it’s a real phrase. Look it up!) Most shows, if they are lucky, get one really good story that activates both plot and character. The Deathstroke arc was such a story, one that united the flashbacks and present-day action in a way that made narrative and thematic sense. But after deposing of Slade Wilson, both Oliver and ‘Arrow’ as a whole feel oddly adrift.
It didn’t seem that way at the outset, in which the death of Canary promised to bring The League Of Shadows into the world of the show in a more permanent way. The idea of having Ra’s Al Ghul as on screen presence also promised good things. But whereas Oliver and Slade had a built-in history (and therefore, built-in emotional conflict), Oliver versus R’as feels more like fanfic than actual conflict. I’ve judged ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ harshly in the past for settling for C- and D-level baddies when it has all of the Marvel universe at its disposal. But it would be equally a pity if Thanos showed up to kick Melinda May’s butt simply to gain attention for the show.
In short, there’s little reason at this point to have Ra’s Al Ghul on ‘Arrow’ except for the show to be able to say, “Hey, isn’t it cool that we have Ra’s Al Ghul on our show?” His presence has contorted characters to act in ways that make them do things for the sake of the plot rather than out of organic reactions to ongoing situations. No relationship has suffered as much as Oliver and Felicity Smoak, as the two have had obstacle after obstacle thrown at them in the name of ensuring they can’t smooch 24/7. The 180-degree turn that her character did in last week’s “Uprising” gave me whiplash: Felicity went from being ecstatic at Oliver’s return to essentially calling him a girlfriend killer within the space of five minutes. Oliver agreeing to work with Merlyn did not earn that strong a reaction, which sold Felicity up the river in order to push her back into Ray Palmer’s court.
I’m not arguing that Felicity didn’t have a point. Indeed, her rant about Oliver’s luck with the opposite sex was accurate, if a little on-the-nose, during her recap of his love life. But the moment didn’t culminate any long-gestating interactions between the pair. It simply happened as an independent moment, and that’s been a problem throughout this third season. Things simply happen in sequential order, rather than as a result of what came before. The show has fallen victim to what Trey Parker and Matt Stone would call the “and then” problem: In short, their philosophy is that between every beat of the story should be the word “therefore” or “but.” If “and then” belongs between the beats, the storyteller has failed at his or her job.
In fairness, you could argue the show does have that structure somewhat in place. It just has it in place way off to the side: Malcolm Merlyn tried to avenge his wife’s death with The Undertaking, but Oliver stopped it, therefore Ra’s Al Ghul ordered Malcolm’s death, but Malcolm brainwashed Thea Queen into killing Sarah Lance, but she can’t remember, therefore Oliver had to take the places of Malcolm and Thea in order to satisfy Ra’s Al Ghul’s code of honor. The thing is…that’s taken up about 10% of this show’s story this season. The other 90% has been a bunch of minor villains, secret ninja assassin DJs that think “Turn Down For What” is a deep underground dance track, and a three-episode arc in which Arsenal and the nascent Black Canary have been outmatched by Vinnie Jones.
Having the proper story structure in place ultimately means nothing if the emotional components of the show ring false. And that leads us to the ultimate reason this show is suffering: Few characters actually elicit any emotion at this point. The Olive/Shado/Slade/Sarah quadrangle anchored everything in season 2, and even characters like Moira Queen and John Diggle got chances to shine as a consequence. The tie between the Island and Starling City resonated at a frequency that amplified the other. But Hong Kong feels like “and then,” rather than “therefore,” and the show has suffered ever since that transition happened. There are no if, ands, or “but”s about it.
A few TV-related thoughts…
I finally watched Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ over the weekend. I hate to make any “TV versus movies” comparisons, because I’m not a film critic and often find comparing the two mediums to be pointless. But it did occur to me while watching that the sheer length of time that ‘Boyhood’ depicts, both in terms of its narrative scope as well as pure running time, simulates the act of watching a really good television series more than most films I can remember. Linklater has always been obsessed with conversation over incident, and the characters in his world could easily inhabit the type of short-episode season that US television has recently embraced. I’m not saying ‘Boyhood’ would work as a TV series, as the seamless cuts between years creates a momentum that episodic breaks would sever. But I would love to see what Linklater could do on the small screen at this point in time. His pilot for “$5.15/Hour” failed to reach series for HBO eleven years ago. But maybe the time is exactly right for him to bring his unique sensibilities to a network/outlet now ready to embrace his type of storytelling.
Tens of millions of TV viewers will be tuning into ‘The Walking Dead’ tonight. If even 10% of those viewers also made the decision to check out ‘Spartacus,’ which is now back on Netflix, then millions of people would finally see one of the best television shows to air in this century. Don’t worry: It’s only for people that like action, humor, romance, friendship, honor, heartbreak, and rigorous, character-based storytelling. If you don’t like those things, then ‘Spartacus’ probably isn’t for you.
My favorite performance on television right now might be the one Jamie Camil is producing on ‘Jane The Virgin’. Rogelio De La Vega should be, by all rights, a cartoon come to life. And yet, Camil brings just the right amounts of smarm, charm, childlike wonder, and genuine vulnerability to make Rogelio a fully-developed character at this point. His work now is not unlike what Matt LeBlanc brought to late-era ‘Friends,’ when Joey Tribbiani transformed from mere lunkhead into someone with surprising depth and perception. ‘Jane’ has affected this change in roughly a dozen episodes with Rogelio, and every scene in which Camil is a part is a constant highlight in my weekly television viewing.