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So, I did it. I told myself that I would marathon through all of Arrow over the winter hiatus from start to finish in December, in time to be caught up on the CW series when it returns in January, and I managed to do it with time to spare. Hype was the main reason I set out to check this series out, as my interest in the show was pretty minimal before that, but I’d heard enough good things about the show from people whose opinions I trust — our own Jesse Carp among them — and wanted to see if a TV viewer with limited interest in comic books or knowledge of the DC universe could get into a drama like this. The verdict is in, and I’m an Arrow fan. It hooked me, mask, arrows and quiver.
Enjoying the show didn’t entirely surprise me. As I said, I had it on good authority that the series was not only good, but getting even better in its second season. But not knowing exactly what to expect, there were a few things that pleasantly surprised me. Before we get to that, for those who haven’t seen it, the short and sweet synopsis is that Arrow stars Stephen Amell as Oliver Queen, a billionaire playboy who spent five years marooned on an island after a shipwreck and returns to his city presenting himself as the same partying, spoiled bachelor. But he’s secretly taken on a vigilante role, determined to right the wrongs of Starling. There’s more to it than that, and I’ll get into that with this list. But for the sake of newbies curious about Arrow, this article is spoiler free.
Here are the five things that surprised me most about Arrow, which help explain why this show lives up to the hype...
You really don't need to know anything about the DC universe.I feel like this point needs to be made first, because, apart from knowing some general things about DC Comics — Mostly Superman and Batman movie-provided trivia — my knowledge of the original story is pretty limited. I was as aware of Green Arrow as I was of Green Hornet, Green Lantern and Green Goblin, but I’m honestly not sure I could’ve pulled Arrow out of a line-up if his weapons weren't showing. And I’d heard enough about Arrow to know there are a lot of DC tie-ins with this series, so I was a bit concerned that I was going to be in the dark every time a new character was introduced. That hasn’t been an issue at all.
Yes, there are DC-connections to certain characters — from my understanding, due largely to their names, which match names of known characters in the DC universe — which may offer some clues as to what could be ahead for certain people on this show, but the series seems set up to introduce everyone to us as new characters in this story. Arrow makes no assumptions about its audience’s pre-existing knowledge of the story, the comics or anything that may or may not be set up to happen. The show plays like a completely original series, regardless of its characters being comic-based or inspired.
It’s not really a superhero show. Not like I expected anyway.The CW has shifted its focus a bit toward genre shows, with supernatural and superhuman characters becoming much more prominent in their programming. Arrow is certainly a genre show, however this series isn’t all melodramatic evil villains threatening to destroy the city each week, with Arrow flying through the night sky in a cape, lifting up cars or whatever. Arrow is actually pretty grounded in terms of the nature of its hero and the episode-to-episode conflicts that are addressed. Sure, some suspension of disbelief is required when watching Oliver Queen’s hooded alter ego fight multiple bad-guys with seeming ease and everlasting endurance, but his abilities are skill-based as opposed to superhuman — as far as we know, anyway. We’re still learning his back-story, but we’ll get to that in a minute. And many of the villains are men in suits or common criminals. They’re all actual human people.
If anything, Arrow is much more a vigilante story with superhero undertones than it is a full-on superhero show, which translates really well for a TV series not only in the way this story is told, but in the accessibility of its characters. There are overarching plots and mysteries, and Oliver Queen’s focus on righting the wrongs of his city makes for some thrilling and truly entertaining week-to-week storytelling as he sets his sights on his target and figures out a way to take them down, while also trying to maintain his secret identity and consider the moral implications of his motives and actions. Beyond that, he’s an actual man, trying to balance everything in his life, including his commitments to his work and his family, and the relationships he’s forming with people. Crime-solving and mystery really heighten the suspense, but it's the character-driven side of this story that's the huge draw for me. That brings us to my next point…
It’s not an overly angsty teen-focused primetime soap disguised as a superhero drama.The CW probably should have outgrown its soapy reputation by now, but in all fairness, Gossip Girl’s run only ended last year. And it isn’t like the CW has stopped airing programs that target a largely female audience. I say this not as a slight to that kind of programming. I am female after all, and not above some good soapy drama in certain contexts. Still, it’s hard to know what you’re going to get with a CW series from one show to the next, apart from the almost guaranteed young-and-pretty cast of characters, which can be found in any of the network’s dramas. Arrow does have that, though the age range of its stars is actually surprisingly diverse, ranging from late teens (Thea) to twenties (Oliver and his friends), to more than a handful of characters older than that, Moira, Detective Lance, Slade and Malcolm included, not to mention Oliver’s partner Diggle. They’re over thirty and they’re not even vampires. Amazing.
As for the soapy angst, there are moments when Laurel is staring tearfully into Oliver’s eyes that I find myself sighing and waiting for the scene to finish, but those are few and far between enough not to be a major problem. For newbies to the show, Laurel is Oliver’s ex-girlfriend from his pre-island years. He cheated on her (that’s barely a spoiler) so their relationship post-island has been strained and complicated to say the least. If I have one major complaint about Laurel, it’s that I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about her in terms of the purpose she serves to Oliver's story. Is she supposed to be the end-game romance? Or is she just a part of Oliver’s past that will eventually run its course? Maybe that's something I'm not supposed to be able to guess, but my interest in it is minimal by comparison to some of the other developing stories in this series.
Beyond my uncertainty about Laurel's story, I'd say that Arrow is staying the course in being character and story driven. Sex and romance play their part but the series doesn’t overly rely on either to remain interesting and suspenseful.
There are two great stories being told here.Oliver’s years on the island aren’t only relevant to the man he’s become in his post-island life. This backstory is a running plot within the series, as the show regularly flashes back to the island to take us through Oliver’s whole survival story bit by bit. How did Oliver go from being a spoiled, unmotivated rich guy to a super-charged vigilante killer out for blood? The island flashbacks are answering that question, introducing new characters to the story as we see Oliver's slow transition to the stronger version of himself. Among the island characters is Slade Wilson, played by the awesome Manu Bennett (Spartacus).
What I find most interesting and curious about the island flashbacks is that they set up the start of Oliver’s story as a vigilante, but we’re also seeing Oliver evolve as a character in his post-island life. He came back to Starling thirsty for blood and willing to do whatever it took to punish the people who failed the city. But just as he changed over the years on the island, we’re also seeing him evolve as a hero in the time since. Without getting into spoilers, I’ll say that it seems evident that the events that have transpired since returning to Starling and the effects the people in his life have had on him are shaping him even further. So I’m especially interested to see where the island story takes us, knowing that its end-point leaves off at what is actually a new starting-out point for Oliver in his evolution from man to hero.
It lives up to the hype.It’s not entirely a surprise that Arrow is living up to the hype. As I said, I’ve heard only good things from people whose opinions I trust, so I knew there must be something to the show. But I was curious to know if I’d get to the end of Season 1 and actually want to watch Season 2. As someone who watches a lot of TV, there's a difference between acknowledging the value of a good TV show and actually liking it enough to commit to adding it to my already packed TV schedule. In the case of Arrow, I knew I was hooked about halfway through the first season.
In its first season, Arrow takes a little while to warm up, though no longer than the average TV show will. The second half of its first season is when things really start to gel. By that point, Oliver’s finding his footing as Starling’s prime vigilante, while a bigger threat begins to heat up, which takes us to the finale, and brings the first season to an explosive close. Season 2 eases off the gas just a little bit at the start, which actually works in the series’ favor in terms of regrouping and setting up the story for the next stage. All the while, we continue to dip back into the island history to learn a little bit more about the events that changed Oliver so drastically. I want to know the end of that story as much as I want to see what happens next when the series returns in January.
I feel confident at this point in the show that Arrow is a series that's on the rise. The foundations for an excellent story were laid out in the first season, and we're already seeing the second season build on that in exciting ways. If it maintains its current pace, Arrow may not peak for seasons, which is all the more reason to check it out while it's still relatively new.
Netflix has the first season available streaming. I got the second season via Amazon, but I had to pay for the seasons pass. Well worth the money so far, in my opinion, but you can make that decision if you get through Season 1. Arrow returns for the second half of Season 2 on Wednesday, January 15.