As of yesterday, the CW series Arrow, based on DC’s Green Arrow line of comics, has finished its fifth season. It marks the end of the show’s five year story line. Maybe now, more than ever, is it time to look back at what the series did right and where it, eventually, started to faulter.
The series started when I was at an interesting point in the autumn of 2012, just as the superhero bubble had reached its peak with the back to back hits of The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, giving us two very different interpretations of the superhero formula. A lot of people in comic fandom back then, myself included, were riding high on the ultra shiny Avengers bandwagon, grim and gritty was out, we said. It would still be a while until I soured on the whole genre myself, and eventually came to peace with simply liking a good story, regardless of whether or not it was dark or light-hearted.
Arrow’s first season is pretty much all we need to discuss in regards to whether or not people like this series, because much of the backlash against the series hasn’t really changed since. There have been ups and down in storytelling throughout the first five years, with seasons 1 and 2 still marking a personal highlight in superhero television for me, unrivaled by anything on network television and only surpassed by the excellent web material put out by Netflix in sheer size and quality. Season 1, from the very first frames, divided the audience up in people who liked and disliked the series, so much was clear from the internet groups and back chatter I participated back then. It’s easy to see why, the series very much changes up the entire Green Arrow mythology to fit it into a TV series format, cherry picking from a lot of older material from the 80s, inventing new characters, changing motivations, often combined with a main cast that was probably chosen because they fit the CW mold of being young and hot. And let’s get down to where a lot of people immediately called it quit: Green Arrow wasn’t called that and he killed people. Brutally so.
Regardless of whether or not you know comic book fandom, there are some pretty sacred cows, two of which are that you do not change anything about the source material, except when it’s okay, and you do not have non-lethal characters suddenly kill people, except when it’s okay. Another rule of thumb: no comic book character has ever had more old-school die-hard fans until the day his live action series/movie is announced. Far be it from me to say who counts and doesn’t count as a fan, but I needed to get this off my chest, because these little points have been the main points of contention for the first three or so years of the show’s existence before people started to ignore the series. In many ways it follows Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, and DC’s own Gotham in that regard. Maybe it wouldn’t annoy me so much if people didn’t actually ‘get’ what the show was about and how it, slowly, went off the deep end.
It’s hard to blame people, since it took myself, an incredibly smart and thoughtful person, close to half a season to realize myself how big this show’s balls were and how much they had actually planned, at least at the beginning. Arrow was not the show of swashbuckling arrow themed vigilante Green Arrow, but it was the story of Oliver Queen growing to become Green Arrow. A hero’s journey if you will. The show was at it’s best when it followed this story through and it did so for the first three seasons and managed to get back to it by season 5.
The first two seasons are thematically the strongest of the entire run of far, with a continuous story of Oliver growing more heroic and the setting growing more fantastical and comic book-esque by the season, to the point where time travelers, metahumans, and wizards become regular elements by the end of season 4. Much to the detriment of the show’s tone, but it did follow a straight line of escalation. Then again so does a train when it runs you over. Yet the first two seasons still pull it off beautifully, making the show more grounded while acknowledging the fantasy elements regularly found in the comic book universe, giving it a science fiction twist that is still ridiculous by other media’s standards but feels just believable enough to make the series a nice missing link between Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Batman and the later-day fantastical stories of The Flash, Gotham, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow.
The biggest strength of the show in the first two seasons was how it managed to fit the Green Arrow story into a handy 23 episodes a year format we know as the standard for network television in the United States. Many elements had to be twisted or reinvented to fit the constrains of that format, and the show managed to do it by combining a series long character arc for the hero with a seasonal story line and a big supporting cast that, while occasionally annoying as hell, especially towards seasons 3 and 4, that made for potentially dozens of good weekly outings.
It remained at dozens though, because starting with the end of season 2 and Oliver Queen’s character arc reaching the “Arrow” stage of his “Green Arrow” persona, the show started to run out of steam, while also being steadily mired in soap opera problems, mediocre writing from a stretched-thin writing staff, and official couple romantic plot tumors.
The big problem that all the superhero shows have, both on network television as well as Netflix, is that they all suffer tremendous pacing problems, especially starting with the second seasons of all of these shows. It’s in many ways an advantage that the first season that they get to tell additional stories that later seasons can no longer cover: the origins of the characters, the set up for the series. Arrow alone had, depending on how you count, a nine episode pilot before the myth arc really got started. Season 2 managed to buck that trend, but starting with season 3 the creative team was being stretched thin by having to work on two, later three, and finally four different shows all at the same time, with the older shows often receiving the B and C teams of writers. Coupled with story fatigue, this proved especially disastrous for Arrow.
It’s ironic that the one way Arrow mirrors its source material the most, is in story fatigue. Many comic books, before they were rebooted every other week, often ran for decades on end, and while the writers often changed, there was no finite conclusion. Arrow was able to curb that trend at first, but once Oliver’s arc towards herodom was starting to get rolled back or derailed by writers desperate to fill 23 hours of entertainment each year, they were running into the same issues.
Season 3 and 4 were in many ways the low point for that, and season 5 shows the limitations of the 23 episode format as well. It was it’s advantages in terms of pacing, giving you one adventure per week, helping with viewer fatigue, but it is disastrous for thinly stretched story arcs. Arrow season 5 is the third best season of the entire run and its story line could be reduced to 6-8 episodes if done properly for much greater impact. More shows need to adopt the arc format that Gotham and, from what I hear, Agents of SHIELD have managed to get working for itself (last time I ever say anything good about AoS, I swear).
And yet, like I said a while back in my post about how Arrow can still teach us something about serialized storytelling, I cannot deny that the show still has some charm over me. I still want to know how the story continues, even if the majority of episodes are not for me. Starting with this season I did something I have never done: I have skipped watching the episodes when they came out and with the second half of the season started to watch only the arc relevant episodes, using plot summaries for the rest. It has been a superior viewing experience because when the show hits its stride, goddammit is it still entertaining for someone who has been around since season 1.
And this is really what it comes down to: can you overlook the soap opera elements, uneven writing, terrible universe crossovers, tonal inconsistencies, mediocre acting, and character arcs that go in circles? Then congratulations, come and join me in an endless cycle of tiring and binging on superhero media. It’s quite ironic that this is the way that superhero adaptations have managed to become closest in mimicking their source material. Now excuse me while I go back to watching Girlboss and Taboo, because I’m complicated…