It's always nice to be pleasantly surprised.
Following the announcement that The CW would be working with the writers behind Green Lantern to craft a new series featuring a decidedly modern take on DC Comics' Emerald Archer, Green Arrow, anticipation was low, while skepticism shot through the roof. The early perception of Arrow did not improve much, as comparisons to The Bourne Identity were made and terms like "edgy" and "provocative" were thrown around with the kind of reckless abandon that often accompanies the hype machine of lesser known characters or franchises.
Perhaps the surprise then is not that The CW and executive producers Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim managed to construct a mostly solid pilot, but, despite the grim and gritty bent, the creators have managed to make Arrow a fun viewing experience, as well. And it's not just the fact that the series will be littered with Easter eggs, or that by episode three, two members of Green Arrow's rogues gallery will have popped up. The series (well, the pilot, anyway) is the kind of good time that harks back to the early days of Smallville with its sense of starting something new, while paying homage to the rich history of DC Comics.
That being said, regardless of the universe it is tapping into, Arrow will live or die based on its own merits; most of which are on display in the pilot episode. The first thing most viewers will notice is that they weren't kidding about the darker tone – which may be the first thing that will take some getting used to. Tonally speaking, the image of Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) breaking a man's neck to protect his secret identity was… different, to say the least. How this will play out with hardcore fans of the character will be interesting to watch.
This version sees Arrow pitted against an entire city awash in corruption that a young, spoiled Oliver Queen likely benefited from prior to being marooned on an island in the South China Sea for five years. The writers have taken this idea of a survival-based island rehab and put its lessons up against the industrialized crime of a major metropolitan area. Like the other locales in the DC universe; namely, Gotham and Metropolis, Starling City aims to be a character in its own right – but clearly, with its cold, urban setting, Starling is borrowing heavily from Christopher Nolan's Batman universe.
In fact, the whole pilot episode plays out not unlike Nolan's Batman Begins – both in tone and structure. The difference being, Oliver Queen's time abroad is steeped in mystery, and as has been pointed out, that mystery will unfold throughout the series' run. So as things kick off, they do so very quickly with a brief scene of Oliver being rescued from his island prison and returning home to a great deal of media speculation. The pilot moves at a pretty good clip, as it has quite a lot of ground to cover between setting up the main character, his transition into Arrow, flashbacks, villains and, of course, the significant players in his supporting cast. With that much information there's almost no breathing room in this one-hour premiere. And that's a good thing; no one wants a bored audience the first time out.
To that end, the pilot's primary goal is to set up a clear vision of the man Oliver was, and the man he's now become. It's the familiar premise that the pedestrian identity is the alter ego, but it's one that works largely because billionaire playboys like Oliver tend to be thought of as vapid and shallow, and, in his pre-island days, it turns out he was. So, after returning home, it's a disguise Oliver finds will take some time to get back into.
His arrival home further sets the disparity between pre and post-island Oliver by first introducing his family, and then all the people who'd grieved (or not) for him and moved on. First, there's his potentially duplicitous mother Moira Queen (Susana Thompson) and her new husband Walter Steele (Colin Salmon) – who is secretly eager to confirm that Oliver's father, Robert Queen (Jamey Sheridan, Homeland), is indeed dead. Meanwhile, in lieu of Roy Harper, Oliver has his little sister, Thea, played by Willa Holland, who Oliver still calls Speedy. Now she's young, impetuous, spoiled – everything her brother used to be – and she's also becoming a liability who (in a nod to the comics) is dabbling in some drug use.
Then there's Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell), an old pal who's eager to start using the Queen charm and wallet to bankroll his never-ending good times, as well as Oliver's new bodyguard John Diggle (David Ramsey), who, so far, seems to provide some painful levity to the proceedings when Oliver must slip out of a party to turn some bad guys into pincushions and swipe the funds of a major Starling City villain by the name of Adam Hunt (Brian Markinson).
Primarily though, the driving force behind Oliver's transition into Arrow is as much making amends with his former flame Dinah "Laurel" Lance, played by CW veteran Katie Cassidy, as it is fulfilling his father's dying wish. And from the circumstances at which things were left, cleaning up Starling City is going to be an easier task than making amends for cheating on her with her sister Sarah (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), who subsequently perished in the shipwreck that supposedly claimed Oliver's life. Adding to the family drama is Paul Blackthorne as Dinah and Sarah's father, Detective Quentin Lance, who has more than a few bones to pick with the newly returned Oliver Queen.
As you can see, it's a massive cast, and if there were one spot in this series that seems troublesome, this would be it. With some characters existing in flashback only, and the rest bouncing in and out of the plot within the span of forty-some-odd-minutes, the pilot is practically reeling from the amount of information and backstory that's required to just barely flesh these characters out. There's some concern that, as the series progresses, some of them might begin to feel marginalized – especially when you consider the likelihood of an additional villain each week. The pilot overcomes this by having a sort of hyper velocity to its storytelling. There is a lot of exposition that needs to happen, but Arrow understands it needs to happen at a full sprint – which manages to not only seed the mystery about Oliver's transition to Arrow, but also gets him into full costume by the episode's end. That's a lot to contend with, mostly because the expectations for the pilot are so high.
But that's a challenge for the writers to overcome by finding a way to continue an overarching storyline with an episodic season structure. Hopefully, as the series slows down and settles into the villain-of-the-week format, there'll be plenty of time to delve into the various characters in both Oliver Queen and Arrow's lives.
From the South China Sea to Starling City and even stately Queen Manor, Arrow clearly has a vast scope, and still quite a lot that's yet to be seen. As overstuffed as the pilot may have been, it doesn’t necessarily seem to be a detriment to the rest of the series, as all that pent up momentum can be carried over to the weeks and (hopefully) months to come. It's not a completely auspicious debut, but it is entertaining, and filled with enough possibilities to keep audiences tuning in.
Arrow continues next Wednesday with 'Honor Thy Father' @8pm on The CW.