The (Modest) Rise and Fall of The CW, Part 4
The Arrow- Verse: Why I Think It Worked at First — And Why It Went Horribly Wrong
I need to make this clear going in: I would never have watched Arrow of my own volition for many of the reasons I had about comic books going in and will continue to make clear going forward. The major reason I ended up watching it — and several of the spin-offs that followed — was because of the raves of close friends of mine who are infinitely harsher critics of everything than I will ever be. (I will respect their privacy and not name them.) I think it was around the fall of 2013, some time after Season 1 of Arrow had finished that I heard them gushing — that’s basically the only word that comes to mind — about Arrow. I ended up watching the second season not long after and was a rabid follower of almost everything Berlanti ended up doing for the CW until roughly the spring of 2018. As I said to them fairly recently, for that I give them credit — and that they must also take all the blame.
To be clear, around 2013 I had no use for either comic books entertainment or, for that matter, the CW. The last series of theirs I had given any attention to was Ringer a messy but still intriguing mystery drama that marked Sarah Michelle Gellar’s return to TV, in which she play two very different twins who end up switching lives. After it was cancelled in the spring of 2012, I had no intention of having anything more to do with the CW, certainly not for a comic book based series.
And to be clear, at that time I was still pretty firm on my idea of comic books providing any true entertainment in pop culture. I had more or less entirely ignored Phase One of the MCU, I had ignored every incarnation of the Spiderman series that had gone on in the past decade, and the only comic books movies I had thought deserved of the term art were Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. As I mentioned in the previous article, while I was considering rewatching Smallville, I had more or less abandoned the show by the end of Season 6. Even if I was to consider watching a TV adaptation of a comic book series, they didn’t have a good track record to that point. The most recent adaptation Constantine had collapsed on NBC after less than a season, so why would I have anything to do with a character who I only had heard about through Smallville?
Because at that point, doing a series about the Green Arrow for television was as crazy an idea as to try to start a franchise around Iron Man. Both characters may have had their own comic book series for decades, but at that time both were at best third string franchises for the company making them. For Marvel, the big names at the time were Spiderman and The X-Men, and while both had been successful film franchises, at the beginning of the 2010s both were experiencing varying diminishing returns. Similarly, the big names for DC were Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. And when even David E. Kelley couldn’t get his pilot adapted for that version of the latter series, what hope was there for success for a writer’s whose biggest success to that point was basically family dramas? I’m certain when the CW developed Arrow they had no idea the phenomenon it would become; I certainly don’t remember any publicity about it in the fall of 2012. It wasn’t until well into the next spring that they began to realize what they had.
I’m relatively certain that when Greg Berlanti wrote Arrow, he was influenced strongly by the success of Nolan’s Batman movies. Much of Arrow was focused in darkness with very few scenes ever shot in broad daylight; Stephen Amell’s Arrow (he had many variations of his name over time but I’m going to stick with that for clarity) had a habit of using a much gruffer voice in costume the same way Christian Bale had done whenever he was Batman. Oliver Queen’s mission was basically the same as Bruce Wayne’s when he returned to Gotham — he was their to ‘save his city.” In the first season, he took on the characteristic of ‘The Hood’ a masked vigilante who killed those responsible for turning Starling City into a wasteland controlled by the criminals — which is more or less a mirror for what Gotham was. The longer his mission continued, the more it became clear that the presence of the Arrow may very well have just been making Star City worse, and causing a darker element to emerge (the key plot point to The Dark Knight) as well as the idea that any really victory was a lie (the precursor to The Dark Knight Rises) As the Arrow, Oliver Queen has a relationship with a detective named Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne was the only true great thing about Arrow) that mirrors the relationship between Batman and Jim Gordon in the trilogy. Oliver Queen has a past relationship with attorney Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) mirroring the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Rachel Dawes. (Of course, if you know the world of the Green Arrow, you know that Laurel Lance has a secret identity of her own. We’ll get to that). And if that wasn’t enough to make the point clear, many of the characters and villains who show up throughout the series have direct ties to Batman. A character named Huntress shows up in Season 1, Nyssa Al Ghul shows up in Season 2 and is a recurring presence from that point on, we eventually meet her father Ras and his other daughter Talia at critical points throughout the rest of the series.
Now I have to admit that none of this particularly bothered me when I was first watching Arrow during its peak which I would say lasts roughly from Season to the end of Season 4. If anything, the ties to the world of Batman gave me something I could hang my hat on when I failed to comprehend so many of the other DC references that were going on around me. I knew who Amanda Waller was and what the Suicide Squad was only because of what I had seen on Smallville and that’s the only reason I had a hint of who Deathstroke was. That is the only reason I knew that Laurel Lance would end up becoming the Black Canary, which was hinted at when her sister Sara appeared using the eventually label the White Canary. And of course when Barry Allen showed up in January of 2014 (by this point I was loyally following the series) I knew very well who he was and what was going to happen to him even if I hadn’t known that Berlant was using this as a back-door pilot for The Flash. (I’ll get to that too, trust me.)
I was engaged in Arrow far less for the comic book easter eggs which I frankly could have taken or left and more or less the human drama part of it, which was critically for Season 2 through 4. When Oliver was forced to choose between the lives of his sister and his mother at the hands of Deathstroke — and his mother chose to sacrifice herself — that was one of the most gut-wrenching deaths I had seen on television to that point. Coming up on top of a series of shocking deaths in the fall of 2013 and the winter of 2014 — Carter on Person of Interest, Will Gardner on The Good Wife and Richard Harrow on Boardwalk Empire — watching that was one of the best moments of the 2010s.
And Arrow worked, when it did, when it was at its most human. Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) was one of the most beloved characters of the 2010s. Essentially Team Arrow’s equivalent of Chloe O’Brian from 24 or Marshall from Alias — except of course, she was also hot — I found her wonderful to watch throughout the series, even when it was starting to slight. I rarely ship when I am watching any television series, I know I will probably get my heart my broken, but God help me I so shipped Oliver and Felicity when I was watching Arrow. There was something beautiful about this between the relationship between the hero and tech support that I could not resist, and every time they were put through the ringer — which as anyone who watched the series knows happened every season until the end — I prayed they would come out okay.
Some have rejected the idea at the core of so many of the Arrow-verse shows — the fact that all of these heroes, basically lone wolves in the comics — have teams, something that is a pure Berlanti invention. I have a feeling that Berlanti and his writers were trying to come up with some kind of mix between what was going on with The Avengers on film and everything Joss Whedon did on Buffy and Angel. (Whedon was still considered God by just about every TV writer to that point.) I actually didn’t find this objectional because, again, I knew nothing about the comics and because I was more interested in the people side of it. Not necessarily the romances outside of Arrow — I never truly bought in to the Barry Allen-Iris West romance on Flash or any of the relationships on Supergirl — but I am more interesting, at my core, in human drama than any accuracy to canon. This is also why, fundamentally, I did not object to so much of the race and sexuality-changing of so many of the characters in Berlanti’s version of them. I didn’t care if Iris West and Jimmy Olsen were black, that Sara Lance was bisexual or that Alex Danvers (Kara’s sister) would come out of the closet in Season 2. I don’t deny that for many of them it became increasingly heavy-handed, but I didn’t object vehemently to it.
And I initially thought very highly of many of these series, certainly Arrow and Flash. IN 2014, I put both series on my top ten list as a single entry, and I would regularly suggest members of both casts (particularly Blackthorne and Tom Cavanaugh for The Flash) for Emmy nominations. But over time, flaws began to become clear that would eventually cause me to abandon both of these series and by extension, everything Berlanti did.
I have to tell you that both of those fundamental flaws may have come to the fact that Berlanti was basically leaning too hard in to several of my least favorite comic book tropes. I’ll start with the most obvious one: no one stays dead.
As any youth of a certain age remembers, one of the most mind blowing comic book arcs came with the Death of Superman in 1991. The image of Lois Lane cradling Superman’s body as well as DC heroes standing over Superman’s coffin are among the most powerful of my memories as a child. But as any comic book fan knows, they didn’t stick with it. There will several ‘replacement’ Supermans for a period and then, less than two years later, Superman and Clark Kent, were back from the dead as if nothing had happened.
I sometimes considered comic books little more than soap operas where all the leads wore masks. And just as in soap operas, no one stays dead. The warning signs that the world of Berlanti was not going to be immune to this came early in Season 4 of Arrow. In Season 3, Sara Lance had been murdered in the season premiere and the consequences of that death were the starting point for basically the entire season. But early in Season 4, Laurel exhumed her sister’s body and took her to the Lazarus Pits to be resurrected. She came back messed up, but thanks to John Constantine (you don’t want to know) she was fine a few episodes later and leading her own-spinoff series that spring. (I will deal with Legends of Tomorrow in due time, trust me.)
I should have been prepared based on what happened in the first season of The Flash. Through most of that season, Barry Allen became aware that Harrison Wells (Cavanaugh) the man who had been mentoring him, was actually Eobert Thawne, another speedster from far into the future who had killed Barry’s mother as a child and had arranged for the particle accelerator explosion that officially turned Barry into the Flash. The season finale was a true masterpiece as Barry traveled through time to save his mother but chose not to defeat the ‘Reverse Flash’. Just as the Reverse Flash was about to kill him, Eddie Thawne, a distant ancestor of him killed himself in order to erase the Reverse Flash from the timeline. It was one of the great moments I’d seen on TV in 2015.
But by the second season of the series, it became clear the Reverse Flash wasn’t gone from the picture. Barry would travel through time to battle him; he eventually became a villain on Legends of Tomorrow and has since resurfaced on several subsequent seasons of The Flash (so I’m told).
I may not be a fan of the slaughter of characters that has made Peak TV simultaneously brilliant and excruciating, but at the very least I do respect the writers for sticking with the decision to kill them off. Say what you will about the mass slaughter that populated every season of Game of Thrones; when George R.R. Martin killed you stayed dead. (Yes, yes, except for Jon Snow; can we just acknowledge the overarching point?) If we’re supposed to accept that the death of a character is important than stick with it. The final episode of Arrow ended with Oliver Queen sacrificing himself and every character who died during the course of the series coming back to life at his funeral. Honestly, I liked it better when Lost did the same trick a decade earlier: at least they acknowledged everybody had died. (Yes, I have issues with that too; can we stick with Berlanti?) This meant that their deaths were meaningless along the way, but hell, this was a comic book series, death doesn’t count for squat.
This actually gets me to the second and equally galling point with every series in Berlanti’s world I watched. They followed the comic book trope that no matter what seismic changes are promised, the status quo will always be maintained. I’d say Berlanti made this worse in a sense because he would do the same basic season long arc.
This was clear in Seasons 5 and 6 of Arrow in particular. There is a major threat facing Oliver Queen. He concentrates on building a new team. A new villain arises. He goes out of his way to isolate himself slowly but surely from everybody he cares about. The villain puts everybody’s life in mortal danger. But everything’s back to normal by the start of the next season.
The ways the writer’s did could be galling. I’m not sure in retrospect what was worse: ending Season 5 by blowing up the island Oliver had learned his skills (sort of, we really don’t need to go in to that) with all the people he loved on it — and the next season, it turned out the only people to die were the villains or Season 6, where Oliver Queen did everything possible to prevent the world from learning his true identity — including giving the mantle of the Arrow to his ally John Diggle for a time — and ending the season by telling the world that he was the Green Arrow. Hell, he didn’t even manage to kill off the lead villain in the finale like he usually did.
It was actually worse in Season 2, which was in retrospect a mirror of Season 1 of The Flash. Barry Allen meets a former speedster calling himself Jay Garrick (yes, I know that’s the Flash in a different universe) claiming there is a great threat that will put everybody in danger. He spends Season 2 learning what that threat is — big surprise, the villain in the man calling himself ‘Garrick’ — and he ends up in another battle with him destroying him. Oh, and as added bonus Garrick ends up killing Barry’s father in the penultimate episode — the man he’s spent his entire life trying to get out of prison and only managed to do in the season premiere.
It was the constant repetitiveness of the same arcs combined with nothing ever changing (until this point I actually thought Shonda Rhimes was the biggest abuser of it) that led me to throw up my hands and abandon all-things Berlanti in the spring of 2018. Unfortunately, by this point the CW was more or less Team Berlanti, a factor that has done more damage to it than anything else.
Because I am an equal opportunity critic, I will follow up on this with another article. I will explain what I think the Berlanti-verse managed to do right in many of the other comic book based shows and how their relative success may have led to the continued existence of the two genuine diamonds to exist within the CW’s run.