Arrow Series Premiere Review: Pretty Close to a Bullseye

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Arrow S01E01: "Pilot"

In case my earlier recommendation wasn’t clear, I thought there was a lot to like about Arrow's pilot, and there are certainly a lot of reasons to keep watching, regardless of whether you’re familiar with the comics. But that’s really the test for Arrow: How do you strike a balance between bringing in television audiences that, very likely, have never even heard of the DC Comics character Green Arrow, while still making sure you draw in fans of the source material?

At least within the pilot, the show leaned a bit more toward bringing in new viewers. Sure, we saw Deathstroke’s mask on the island, and that'll get the comic fans excited and wondering where Slade Wilson is, but it was an easy touchstone to make. New audiences didn't know it was Deathstroke’s mask but will now keep an eye out for it, while comic fans are wondering where Slade Wilson is, and why he was on the island.

It's those kinds of subtle touches that the series should likely try to continue including, to keep both audiences happy. You don’t want to overwhelm or underserve either group, especially when you’re launching a series that has the potential for a broad appeal.

And as far as bringing those new viewers, the pilot served them well. Origin stories are always a pain to keep moving, but Arrow’s did so with confidence. It made quick work of the basic premise—Oliver Queen is a billionaire playboy who was stranded on an island for five years and presumed dead, and now he's back in Starling City—and then allowed him to establish himself as Arrow. Which he did, under the ruins of an old Queens Industry factory.

As Arrow, Oliver is hunting down folks from a list of names supplied by his father (before the guy committed suicide in front of him). The people on the list have wronged and corrupted Starling City, with the implied aid of the Queen family fortune.

But as Oliver, he returned to find his ex-girlfriend, Dinah Laurel Lance, working for legal aid and still angry with him; his best friend Tommy Merlyn missing out on all the good times they used to have; and his family in varying states of moving on (his mother, Moira) or struggling to keep it together (his sister, Thea).

So let’s get this out of the way, then: Yes, Arrow is borrowing heavily from the Christopher Nolan Batman films (especially Batman Begins) and that’s perfectly okay. In fact, it’s historically consistent with Green Arrow as a character.

When Oliver Queen appeared in 1941, he was Batman in Robin Hood garb. Queen was a billionaire playboy who fought crime as a hobby after surviving on desert island. He had a ward, Roy Harper, who was also his sidekick, Speedy. He had an Arrowcar, an Arrowplane, an Arrowcave, and even an Arrow Signal. Sound familiar? The only thing that Ollie lacked was the pathos associated with Batman’s origin (no dead parents to spur him into a life of vigilantism, which isn't the case in Arrow, of course). Green Arrow has grown out of this shadow, however, to become his own character and hero.

That the producers and writers of Arrow would draw on the tone and character of the Nolan films unsurprising. I mean, how much can we gripe about this when Smallville turned to Oliver Queen during the Warner Bros. Bat-embargo? When Batman simply isn’t available, you turn to Green Arrow.

This is not to suggest that Arrow isn’t incorporating Green Arrow elements into the pilot (it is), but I wanted to head off at the pass a critique of Arrow’s pilot being a lazy Batman riff (even though it’s already been made by other reviewers). It creates, in a way, an odd sense of faithfulness to the character who, essentially, was brought back into comics to cash in on Batman’s success.

A lot of making this work, and of moving past the Batman comparisons, falls onto Stephen Amell’s shoulders (and abs), and he succeeds. I like that pre- and post-island Olivers sound and move differently from one another. It helps sell this notion of transformation, and when pre-island Oliver is forced to creep into post-island Oliver, there’s a distinct uncomfortableness, a forced-ness, to Amell’s performance that really helps ground the character.

The rest of the cast is good, too. Amell and Colin Donnell (Tommy) have a surprising amount of chemistry together for this just being the pilot, and both play well off each other in keeping their characters' respective secrets. I also really like the complexity that Amell has with Willa Holland (Thea), and Holland really hits nice notes of happiness and anger.

Katie Cassidy as Laurel was the biggest question mark for me going into the series. I only know her from Supernatural, and I was never a big fan of hers there. I think she’s better on Arrow, and she and Amell nailed the pilot's conflicting emotion sequences well (since that’s all they've been given to do so far, that’s good).

Between all these folks, not to mention Moira’s scheming, there are a lot of opportunities for dramatic conflict outside of the green hood, and in addition to the newcomers vs. comic fans issue, that’s the other challenge that Arrow will face. If it can find a balance between the arrow-whooshing and various interpersonal workings, the series could likely be something really good for The CW, something in line with Supernatural and Nikita.

The pilot also benefitted from David Nutter’s direction. He kept things moving, and brought deft touches, like Oliver’s cat-like movements compared to that thug’s inability to hit the broadside of a barn, which set the tone for a strong action series. But he also made sure that scenes were visually striking regardless of their level of action. Lingering shots of Tommy at the party or the post-abduction police conversation at the Queens’ mansion maintained dynamics between the characters.

There was some bad stuff too, of course. The voiceover work was sort of dreadful, both in Amell’s reading and the writing of it. It was overly expository, the worst kind of telling and not showing. I’m hoping it’ll be scaled back in future episodes (I’ve only seen the premiere so far), or at least improved in its deployment. The CGI, especially things like the yacht and the island, was pretty wretched. (I’ll let you decide if its better or worse than the amazingly bad boat scene in Ringer’s pilot).

But those are minor stumbles, and this was a pilot. It was an assured, confident first episode, and I’m really eager to see more from Arrow.



NOTES


– Anyone else pick up on Revenge vibes? Father’s guiding hand, voiceovers, a revenge box. I’m half-expecting Oliver to plant a darter fish camera somewhere (because a dart is kind of like an arrow).

– No corny trick arrows, it seems, which I’m fine with (they’d be a tad out of place on the show). But I’ll happily take functional trick arrows, like the hacking arrow that transfers the money from Hunt’s accounts to those involved in the lawsuit against him.

– Drakon likely should’ve been shorter. He seemed taller than Hunt. (Drakon’s defining characteristic in the comics is/was being short.)

– I groaned a little bit when we found out that Thea’s nickname is Speedy, but I see it more as a way to incorporate with Roy Harper’s drug storyline from the comics than that Thea will be sidekick Speedy anytime soon, hopefully for at least a season.

– I’ll talk more into how Arrow is drawing on previous Green Arrow stories as we progress (though I’ll try not to overdo it). But if you’d like to pick up the comics, the series is borrowing from Andy Diggle’s Green Arrow: Year One limited run series from 2007, particularly Oliver’s playboy ways (and they even named a character after Diggle!), and Mike Grell’s The Longbow Hunters from 1987, mostly in tone and Arrow’s costume.

– Yes, I’m aware I didn’t mention Justin Hartley. No, I never really watched Smallville (I’ll get around to it eventually). People have told me he was very good on it as Ollie. I believe them. Feel free to compare and contrast Hartley and Amell in the comments if you like.

Arrow "Pilot" Photos

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