(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
Full disclosure: Although I have enjoyed Arrow on more than one occasion, The CW went out of its way to establish that I am not a member of its true, core audience last week, with the announcement that Emily Bett Rickards is being promoted to series regular, a move that came with the news that her hot-tech-nerd character is an officially recognized “fan favorite.” I must confess that between her affected delivery, her mugging, her comic awkwardness, and the whole “Oops, did I say that out loud?” routine, combined with the staleness of the character itself, I’ve always regarded her as a bit of a showblocker, and from the first time she tottered into Walter’s office reeling off unintended double entendres, I’ve been looking forward to an episode where she Learns Too Much and tries to blackmail the family, an episode that would ideally end with her getting on Oliver’s bad side and ending up lying in the street, doing her best impression of a pin cushion. Turns out she’s beloved, and now, having been inducted into Oliver and Diggle’s little secret society and risen to first-runner-up sidekick status, she’s gotten more confident: The only sign of the comic malapropisms that were originally 75 percent of her character is a nightmarish teeth-grinder of a line about Oliver’s “family jewels.” Now, secure in her place in the world and more than happy to give Oliver and Diggle advice about both crime-fighting and their own love lives, she’s got spunk. Lou Grant would have had three words for her.
This week’s guest bad guy is the Dodger, a thief with a “trained eye” and superb taste who specializes in priceless antiquities and museum-quality jewels. Played by James "Gaius Baltar" Callis, who upholds Arrow’s well-established tradition of villains whose superpower is unbearable smugness, the Dodger has a flashy M.O. that handily establishes his callous attitude toward human life: He forces innocents to do his thieving for him, by locking them into explosive collars that he will only disarm once the loot is in his hands. (Insanely, it’s explained that he got the name “Dodger” because “he avoids getting his hands dirty.” First off, that makes it sound as if his super-villain name ought to be “Howard Hughes.” Second, that’s a really peculiar way to sum up the approach of a guy who basically tells people that, if they don’t give him what he wants, he’ll blow their heads off. Why not call him “Migraine Man” or “Cronenberg”?)
In the opening scenes, the Dodger establishes either how overrated his reputation is or the narrow limits of the quality of precious items in Starling City by going to a great deal of trouble to acquire an enormous, plastic-looking object that could be a 50-pound cherry fruit chew that was left on the dashboard and melted into a funny shape, though I think it’s meant to be Super-Ruby. Having collected this prize, the Dodger goes to see a Paul Bartel wannabe who has agreed to fence it for him. This guy turns out to be my very least favorite kind of stock character in lazy crime fiction, the asshole who inexplicably goes back on his word and tries to rip off the person with whom he’s meant to have an arrangement, despite the fact that this kind of behavior would seem likely to ensure that his criminal career will last about six hours, tops; of course, the real reason he's doing it is just so that the betrayed party will have an excuse to kill him. The Dodger does so, but not before saying, I shit you not, “I am not to be trifled with!” Usually when I hear a line that campy-hackneyed on TV, I have to cut the character delivering it some slack, because the rehearsals for their Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe are not going well.
In the end, the Dodger plotline takes up a lot of space without really coming to much, which is a recurrent problem on this show: It’s a comic book show, and it seems to feel that it has an obligation to serve up flamboyant villains for its hero to fight in self-contained episodes, and periodically, it makes an effort to come through in that department. But unless their storylines expand for a couple of episodes, as was the case with the Huntress story arc, the guest villains tend to seem like a distraction from the two big ongoing conspiratorial-mystery plotlines—one set in contemporary Starling City, one in flashbacks on the island. The show already has so much else going on that these interludes, which by all rights ought to be the most entertaining part of the show, almost get lost in the noise.
This one really whimpers to its conclusion, because in the big action climax, with Oliver, on a motorcycle, chasing the Dodger in a car, the show barely tries to create the illusion that the main actors are even on the set. There are only a couple of fleeting shots of James Callis’ face in the rear-view mirror to indicate that he’s supposed to be driving, and Oliver’s face is concealed in a big helmet that makes him looks like the Phantom of the Paradise. One thing that helped to give this show’s early episodes a charge was Stephen Amell’s physicality, and the fight scenes were specially constructed to keep you aware that this was the real guy, not a stunt double, going through the kick-ass moves. The biggest trace of that here is Oliver’s shirtless impression of Elvin Jones when he’s doing his workout in his secret lair.
As I alluded to earlier, there is also a romance theme: At the urging of the damnably spunky-ass Felicity, Oliver asks Detective McKenna out on a date, and Diggle makes his play for his dead brother’s widow. The main upshot of all this is that nobody in Starling City knows how to make small talk on a date. Diggle can’t wait to mention his brother, and all McKenna wants to talk about is Oliver’s Lord Of The Flies experience. “What did you eat? Where did you sleep?” she asks. “Those years—they must have changed you!” It’s as if she’s trying to trigger a flashback. Then, they both have to go their separate crime-busting ways, and when Oliver shows up to ask her out again, they both seem to be under the impression that he’s the jerk.
But the meet-cute prize goes to Speedy, who gets her purse stolen by Colton Haynes, of MTV’s Teen Wolf, and goes to the trouble of tracking him down. (She describes him as having an “Abercrombie” face. Haynes got his start by modeling for Abercrombie & Finch. I guess the unofficial motto at The CW must be, if your show has become so overpopulated with insanely pretty-looking people that it’s getting ridiculous, make an inside joke about it, and maybe you’ll at least appear to be self-aware.) Once he’s sitting in the interrogation room being raked over the coals by Chief Detective Hard-Ass, his beautifully featured tale of woe stirs her heart, and she drops the charges. Then she shows up at his hovel in “the Glades” in the middle of the night, asking for her purse back. She doesn’t offer him a job as her personal shopper or something so he’ll have an excuse to hang around, but presumably, that’s still to come. Arrow may not be sure how to proceed on all its fronts, but it does seem perfectly determined to keep getting more complicated, and even prettier.
- I got really freaking excited when Kelly Hu’s name appeared at the start of the opening credits, but she doesn’t show up until the last couple of minutes, when Oliver’s mom hires her to kill John Barrowman. But, you know, if there are any X2 fans out there who needed an excuse to get excited about next week’s episode: Hey, Kelly Hu, everybody!
- Last week, Oliver’s mother fucking shot him. This week, they have no scenes together, which really disappointed me, since I was looking forward to seeing whether he would be able to stay cool around her after she shot him, which is something I could never manage if my mom taped over Twin Peaks before I’d watched it a second time. But the show can’t keep them in separate rooms forever, so maybe chalk that up as one more thing to look forward to next week.
- Another thing that happened last week was that Manu Bennett really came into his own as Wilson Slade, but now he’s injured, so he doesn’t have anything much to die but lie there and grimace. I was impressed, though, when he jokingly asked Oliver to bring him back “a copy of Maxim, or maybe Sports Illustrated.” Even the guy’s imaginary newsstand is pure 24-hour energy drink.
- Most of the island scenes this week are devoted to Oliver meeting a bloody, badly beaten man who tells him that he was captured, tied up, and left for dead by the mercenaries, who are presumably coming back to finish him off unless Oliver frees him. Oliver opts not to, just to be on the safe side. The whole point of this interlude seems to be to show that island Oliver has been forced to become a ruthless badass. It is a point that the show has made before, but with fewer close-ups of a man with a bashed-in face crying in despair.
- Not that I think anyone is watching this show just because they're fanatical fans of the Green Arrow comics, but now that Jeff Lemire is writing the comic, I trust we can all agree that this show is officially the second-least important ongoing version of the adventures of Oliver Queen?