Friday, November 15, 2013

"Arrow" and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

Let's start with the fact that I am not the obvious target audience for comic book based TV shows.   I don't read comic books.  I've never read comic books.  Not because I have anything against comic books but because I just don't read them.

But I have watched superhero television.  And enjoyed it.  I haven't seen that many movies.  But between the few movies I've seen and the television, I can identify some of the major superheroes.

For instance, Superman.  I know Superman.  Of course I do.  Doesn't everyone?  I watched every episode of the old George Reeves television show in reruns during the 1960's when I was a child.  I think I watched it with my dad sometimes.  I can still recite:  "Look! Up in the sky!  It's a bird.  It's a plane ..."  You know the rest.  I also saw at least the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie.  I saw quite a few episodes of Lois and Clark in the 90's.  And I saw a few Smallville episodes, but probably not more than 10 or 15 over the entire run of the show. I know enough about Superman and Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson and Lex Luther that I don't feel left out of a Superman conversation.

I can also identify a fair number of characters in the Batman universe.   I watched every episode of that show multiple times when I was a child.  Yes, yes, I know.  The TV show was a camp version of Batman and that the comic books were "darker".  But from that TV show I know Batman and Robin (and Joker and Catwoman and Riddler, etc).  I don't know the whole back story though.  I saw the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton movie version that came out when I was in my 20's but I don't remember much of it.  I've never seen any of the Christopher Nolan versions.

I think I know Spiderman pretty much only from the Sunday funny pages.  But that gave me a pretty good knowledge of Peter Parker.  I never saw any of the Spiderman movies.  I must have watched a Spiderman cartoon on Saturday mornings too because I can hear  the Spiderman song in my head as I type this. 

I'm pretty sure I saw a few episodes of Wonder Woman, but I really don't remember them. 

Finally, I know the Incredible Hulk from the Bill Bixby TV series.  I don't know much because I was in college when it was on and didn't see much television.  But I have a general idea of what the Hulk is. 

So I have a history of superhero TV but not really a true understanding of superhero universes.  When I went to the movie theater to see The Avengers last year, I went only because it was a Joss Whedon movie and I like to support Joss.  Sitting in the theater with some friends, I turned to them right before the lights went down and asked if they had seen any of the other Marvel movies.  They hadn't.  "I hope we have a clue what's going on and who these people are," I said.

We did.  I figured out that Iron Man didn't have any powers and was just a rich guy with a suit.  I figured out that Captain America was (surprisingly, at least to me) from World War II and had been frozen (or something) and was now thawed (or something).  I knew enough Norse mythology that I could follow the Thor/Loki thing.  I loved the Hulk - but that's probably because I knew who he was.  I never really understood what Black Widow was or who that guy was who she was so upset was kidnapped by the bad guy.   But it didn't really matter.  It was light hearted fun.  I'd never want to see it again, but I enjoyed it enough that I didn't feel like it had been a waste of money.

So when ABC announced that there was to be a new TV show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., to be produced by Joss Whedon,  I decided that I would watch it.  After all, I watch all things Joss.  And I've enjoyed superhero television in the past even though I haven't watched a full season of anything superhero related since I was 8 years old.  I also decided that I would give the show one full season because I knew that most of Joss's shows take a while to get started.

Let me be honest.  After watching a couple of months worth of episodes, I'm having a hard time imagining that I will actually watch this for the rest of the season.    

The main problem I'm having with the show is that there is not a single character that I care about.  Not only that, I find that I actively dislike Agent Ward and I truly find Sky and the two scientists annoying.  It's a bad sign when you find yourself wishing that all the characters will be killed off in a disastrous event.  I can tolerate Agents Coulson and May.  I'd be fine if they kept Coulson and May and started over with just the two of them.  But I'm ready to write off the other characters.

I also find that I don't care at all about the crisis of the week that they have to solve. The villains aren't that villainous and the crises are just too .... big.  We all know that the world isn't going to end every week. 

I have wondered if I my reaction would be different if I were a real Marvel comics book fan.  I mean, it's one thing to watch Lois and Clark as an adult (yeah, I know he's DC comics and not Marvel), but that was essentially a romantic comedy.  But this is supposed to be a true tie-in with the Marvel comic book/movie universe and I don't really understand that universe.

Maybe I'm just not able to tolerate comics book based TV anymore. 

Then, scrolling through Netflix to find something to watch, I happened upon Arrow in my Netflix to-be-watched list. I had put it on the list because I had heard that some actors I enjoyed on Doctor Who were appearing in it:  John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Colin Salmon (Doctor Moon, from Silence in the Libarary) and Alex Kingston (River Song).  I remembered hearing that it was based on a DC comics character called Green Arrow.  I knew nothing about Green Arrow.  Literally nothing.  I hadn't even heard of him until this TV series premiered.

So, on a cold, damp night when I had nothing better to do, I decided to watch a couple of episodes.  I settled in at 6:30 that night, intending to watch 2 or 3 episodes - about 2 1/2 hours of television (without commercials).   I would be finished by about 9:00 and then I intended to read a book.

At midnight I told myself that I had to stop watching TV and go to bed.  I've basically mainlined season 1 of Arrow on Netflix over the last  couple of weeks.  Then I went to the website of The CW and caught up on all the episodes of season 2 that have aired so far.  In fact, last Tuesday night I skipped Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to watch episodes of Arrow so that I could watch Arrow in real time on Wednesday night.

It is really a fun show.  Not a perfect show.  You certainly have to suspend disbelief, but that's ok.  There are some issues with some of the women characters.  But aren't there always?  On the whole it is really a fun show that keeps my attention with characters that I care about.

If, like me, you know nothing about Green Arrow, here's how The CW describes the premise of the series:

After a violent shipwreck, billionaire playboy Oliver Queen was missing and presumed dead for five years before being discovered alive on a remote island in the Pacific. When he returns home to Starling City, his devoted mother Moira, much-beloved sister Thea, and best friend Tommy welcome him home, but they sense Oliver has been changed by his ordeal on the island. While Oliver hides the truth about the man he's become, he desperately wants to make amends for the actions he took as the boy he was. Most particularly, he seeks reconciliation with his former girlfriend, Laurel Lance. As Oliver reconnects with those closest to him, he secretly creates the persona of Arrow - a vigilante – to right the wrongs of his family, fight the ills of society, and restore Starling City to its former glory. By day, Oliver plays the role of a wealthy, carefree and careless philanderer he used to be - flanked by his devoted chauffeur/bodyguard, John Diggle - while carefully concealing the secret identity he turns to under cover of darkness. However, Laurel's father, Detective Quentin Lance, is determined to arrest the vigilante operating in his city. Meanwhile, Oliver's own mother, Moira, knows much more about the deadly shipwreck than she has let on – and is more ruthless than he could ever imagine.
 That description really doesn't give any spoilers, most of that is revealed in the pilot. 

Why is this show different from S.H.I.E.L.D.?   (For one thing it doesn't have periods to type, which is a relief).  It has a compelling lead character that I bought into from the first episode.  I wanted to know what happened to Oliver on the island to turn him into the man he is.  Clearly there is more than he is letting on.  The flashbacks show him how he was and we see him now how he is.  His body is covered in scars.  He is a deadshot archer, where he had no such skill before.  He now has amazing physical fighting skills.  He also now speaks Chinese.  And Russian.  And he is ripped.  No, I mean seriously  ripped.  I'm not really into guys with big muscles but Stephen Amell, who plays the Arrow character ... whoa, baby.  

The other thing about him is that he is maybe a little bit of a psychopath.  Or at least has tendencies.  He is a killer.  He can lie like anything.  And yet, he is also a nice guy and as a viewer I really want him to become a hero and not a psychopath. It is not, however, clear at the beginning of the show how he will get to the point where he can be a hero.

The villains are also much, MUCH better than on S.H.I.E.L.D.  I've already outlined my entire knowledge of the comic book universe and clearly I don't know much.  I'm pretty sure Superman isn't going to show up in Starling City, or Batman.  But apparently the show has a lot of latitude to bring in DC Comics characters and do what they want with them.  (Similar to the latitude that Once Upon a Time has with Disney fairy tale characters.)  Most of the time I can't tell if the villain is a DC Comics character or someone made up for the show, but it doesn't matter.  They are very villainous.  And they have defined personalities (maybe being in costume helps).  S.H.I.E.L.D. villains always seem ... bland.

The people who the Arrow producers have found to play all these weekly villains are often actors I know from other series.  Ben Browder (Crighton from Farscape), James Callis (Dr. Baltar from Battlestar Galactica), J. August Richards (Gunn from Angel), Seth Gabel (Lincoln from Fringe).  Just to name a few.  And that was who they got in Season 1.  It was exciting to see them show up.  They really ought to think about finding a character for Tatiana Maslany that can recur on this show - she'd be great as a supervillain (or other superhero who shows up from time to time).

On S.H.I.E.L.D. the guest stars haven't been bad, but the characters they play don't seem fully developed.

Arrow has a multi-layered story and the writers aren't leading us along slowly.  We have been immersed in the island story from the first episode.  At first I was doubtful about how they could maintain the flashbacks to the island without it becoming a combination of Lost and Survivor.  But I soon found that part of the story as engrossing as, and sometimes more engrossing than, the present-day story.  On S.H.I.E.L.D. there is clearly supposed to be a back story to Coulson's death and resurrection.  But they just refuse to go there.  At this point I pretty much don't care. 

The stakes always seem higher on Arrow  than they do on S.H.I.E.L.D.  I'm pretty sure the writers of S.H.I.E.L.D. aren't going to kill off any of the cast members this early in the series (not even Joss does that) and I'm pretty sure that the Earth isn't going to be blown up, etc.  So there is never any real tension in the episodes.  On Arrow the threat is never to the world, it is always to something in Starling City or to people that Oliver cares about.  So the stakes are lower but that means that there are stakes.  Maybe if S.H.I.E.L.D. were in a smaller universe the plots would mean more.  Maybe having them on the plane is the real problem.  If you have a big plane you have to travel.  Maybe the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  need to stay in one place.

In Arrow, Oliver has a version of the scooby gang that I've grown to know and love.  I won't give too much away but over the course of season 1, Oliver ends up with a few people who learn his identity and begin helping him while also trying to keep him on the straight and narrow.  Each of those characters is a likeable and interesting character in their own right.  They don't seem to be types.  On S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Coulson's entire group all seem like types and not real people.

Finally, Arrow has a Big Bad.  The Big Bad  isn't a supernatural Big Bad, like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer days.  But the Big Bad exists and you have someone to root against. This gives the overall season a story arc that's very good.   S.H.I.E.L.D. has yet to introduce a Big Bad.  There is not yet any story arc, although there are hints of one with the mystery of Coulson's death and resurrection and now the mystery of Skye's parents (but really, I don't care about her parents because I don't care about her).

Mostly, the character of Oliver Queen is interesting.  He has had mysterious things happen to him.  He has demons.  He is a good person who is also a killer.  He is complex.  There is no one like him on S.H.I.E.L.D..

As I said, Arrow isn't perfect.   Sometimes I get tired of the fight sequences.   Everything looks a little too much like the Pacific Northwest (as most Vancouver shows do).  And some of the women characters are annoying - especially the character of Laurel, the girlfriend Oliver cheated on before he disappeared.  I admit that I regularly hope that Laurel will get killed off.  Oliver's sister Thea was also somewhat annoying at the beginning of the show, although she does get better as the show goes on and the writers finally figured out what to do with her.

But these are fairly minor complaints.  Is this great television?  No.  I'm sure it's no Breaking Bad.  It's no Orange is the Next Black.  But it's entertaining television.  Hope they can continue to make it so.

Here's a taste of why I say "whoa, baby":