ARROW: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON
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"Pilot," "Honor Thy Father," "Lone Gunmen," "An Innocent Man," "Damaged," "Legacies," "Muse of Fire," "Vendetta," "Year's End," "Burned," "Trust but Verify," "Vertigo," "Betrayal," "The Odyssey," "Dodger," "Dead to Rights," "The Huntress Returns," "Salvation," "Unfinished Business," "Home Invasion," "The Undertaking," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "Sacrifice"
SUPERNATURAL: THE COMPLETE EIGHTH SEASON
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"We Need to Talk About Kevin," "What's Up, Tiger Mommy?," "Heartache," "Bitten," "Blood Brother," "Southern Comfort," "A Little Slice of Kevin," "Hunteri Heroici," "Citizen Fang," "Torn and Frayed," "LARP and the Real Girl," "As Time Goes By," "Everybody Hates Hitler," "Trial and Error," "Man's Best Friend with Benefits," "Remember the Titans," "Goodbye Stranger," "Freaks and Geeks," "Taxi Driver," "Pac-Man Fever," "The Great Escapist," "Clip Show," "Sacrifice"
by Jefferson Robbins Kindred shows in more ways than just their sharing a network, a Vancouver, B.C. shooting base, and a David Nutter-helmed pilot, The CW's "Arrow" and "Supernatural" also share a gestalt. Post-"The X Files", post-"Buffy", they grapple with family legacies, duty versus desire, and bonds (specifically male) threatened by the intrusion of a) monsters and b) lovers. Watching the debut season of the former alongside the eighth season of the latter, it becomes clear that "Arrow"'s showrunners, headed by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg, are just as steeped in the modes and methods of this youth-oriented action programming as "Supernatural" creator Eric Kripke. Both series find young, handsome protagonists consumed with the bloody twilight work left undone by their dead fathers; and both--despite "Arrow"'s roots as a second-tier DC Comics property straining for multimedia relevance--are better, and bloodier, and in some ways more relevant, than one has any right to expect.
As "Arrow" launches, Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), callow son of one of the wealthiest families in fictional Starling City, is presumed dead along with his industrialist father (Jamey Sheridan), lost when their pleasure craft sinks in the China Sea. In truth, Oliver floats ashore and gets stuck for five years on a richly-forested island, cultivating a mighty beard while dodging and bedevilling a vicious team of black-ops commandos. Along the way, he somehow becomes the best damn trick archer this side of...forget it, I don't know any trick archers. Geena Davis? Refined in this fire, Oliver returns home with his father's list of One Percenter ne'er-do-wells who've somehow "betrayed" Starling City and starts making pincushions of them while clad in a green hood and eyeshadow.¹
It's quite a bloody endeavour for a pulp character who got his start shooting arrows tipped with inflatable boxing gloves. COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, an outlet I sometimes write for, put together a stat-laden first-season body count with a total of fifty-five murders by archery. Starling City cop Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne, late of "The Dresden Files" and Bogart-ing his sibilants to distraction) leads the manhunt, complicating any thought Oliver might have of reuniting with the detective's daughter, Laurel (Katie Cassidy, whose brand of beauty is its own Uncanny Valley), a public-aid lawyer he cuckolded right before his disappearance. There's trouble at home as well as on the streets, with Oliver's younger sister Thea ("The OC"'s Willa Holland) developing a fondness for drugs and his mother Moira (Susanna Thompson) implicated in the citywide conspiracy he's vowed to battle.
Silly and rather by-the-numbers when synopsized that way (and aping the grit, pathos, and portentous score of a Christopher Nolan joint, like everything DC commits to film these days), "Arrow" nonetheless grows on you. Amell, a CW vet at first easy to dismiss for his good looks and exposed brawn, excavates depths in playing two versions of the same man. In action mode, he evokes Tom Cruise in his best years--streamlined for forward motion, deadly in his focus, implacable. (He's an admirably physical performer, too, visibly involved in much of the stuntwork.) In the parallel flashbacks to the stranded, pre-heroic Oliver, he's a whimpering panic queen who gives good schadenfreude as a shallow rich pickup artist cut off from home and wallet. (This despite an achingly bad wig.) That gets to another strength of the series: its synthesis of the old vigilante superhero--a reactionary construct even in its best iterations--with current questions of class and privilege. This antihero, variously called "The Vigilante" or "The Hood" (never "Green Arrow," a sobriquet Oliver dismisses as "lame"), strikes by and large at the upper echelons of Starling City society. Purse-snatchers and mafia dons can wait; Oliver has it in for the elite robber barons, who smother the city's disadvantaged residents by economic force. This theme unites the social-justice instincts of the 1970s Green Arrow comics--fomented by writer Denny O'Neil and artists like Neal Adams--with our late-capitalism/post-Occupy hunger to eat the rich.²
The supporting cast takes a while to coalesce, with some side players dominating early episodes and then fading back while new faces come to the fore. Colin Salmon, for instance, blinks in and out of frame as Oliver's ethically-compromised stepfather. Oliver's Arrowcave makes room for security expert John Diggle (David Ramsey), red meat for slashfic fans as the vigilante's shirtless sparring partner, and TV-issue hacker Felicity Smoake (Emily Bett Rickards), the most Whedonesque of the characters in her Willow-like verbosity and yen to buff up Oliver's dulled conscience.³ That description may make her sound like a producer's note, though like the show itself, she doesn't pall. A welcome presence--better with this heavy role than he ever was in the tortured "Torchwood"--is John Barrowman as Malcolm Merlyn, the other Richest Man in Starling City and father to Oliver's lifelong best friend, Tommy (Colin Donnell). Although Merlyn comes on like a cliché aristo villain, his arc ultimately lampoons the boiling class fears beneath the Batman mythos--the notion that loss at the hands of individual thugs validates vengeful thuggery on a grand, theatrical, well-financed scale.
Half The Dark Knight, half "Lost" (only coherent), "Arrow" disposes of many elements of the comics, subverts others, and retains just enough marginal fan-service notes to please the groundlings. There's an intersection of "O'Neil and Adams Street," a mayor named "Grell," a sidekick named for the comics writer who authored Green Arrow's prequel story...and is that Deathstroke?4 Chess pieces are situated for the follow-up season, like Skid Row parkourist Roy Harper (Channing Tatum-lite Colton Haynes) seeking a way to join the Hood's fight. If some of the boardroom drama wears, remember that roughly sixty percent of the B-plots in Nolan's Batman trilogy involve Bruce Wayne shooing off corporate raiders. As for the family soap scenes, shot under golden light in some impossible mansion that I'm convinced is Lex Luthor's house repurposed from "Smallville" (but with even more staircases), well, welcome to The CW.
Political-tech journalist Julian Sanchez mapped "Arrow"'s brand of heroism in a series of tweets back in November, saying the "heroic monster" appears to be a new normal in mainstream crimefighting entertainments. Oliver Queen, in this construction, "is just short of monster" compared to, say, Hannibal Lecter, or Raymond Reddington of "The Blacklist". What does that make the Winchester brothers of "Supernatural", who've bloodily slaughtered basically every flavour of unearthly oogabooga for eight solid seasons and caused a slew of human demises en route?
The show really hasn't thought much about that abyss-gazes-also element. Worn down as they may be after losing their demon-hunting father and subsequent father figures, seeing girlfriends burned alive by hellfire, and doing time in Hell itself, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) remain balanced and well-rooted. Maybe this is "Supernatural"'s internal rebuke to the darkness of its genre--not every Batman has to be Christian Bale. Dean remains the from-the-gut gearhead/pornhound, Sam the book-learned nice guy, and they occasionally glower at each other but never much despair. However grim the landscape they tread, the brothers hold their essential Midwestern goodness close. Maybe that's why, unlike happily hardbodied "Arrow", "Supernatural" more or less refuses to make them take their shirts off.
The drawback is that the characters don't undergo a significant journey from season to season--it's the same one each time with different waypoints.⁵ Even their own relationship doesn't truly change, although season eight--steered by showrunner Jeremy Carver, the second chief to succeed Kripke since the series midpoint--finds the brothers particularly snippy after Sam more or less abandons Dean to a term in Purgatory. (Fair play, since Dean presumed Sam dead a few seasons back, when in fact he'd been slurped into a pocket dimension and robbed of his soul...ah, nevermind.) Dean frees himself with the aid of vegan vampire Benny (Ty Olsson), putting him in debt to the kind of monster he was raised to hate and destroy. From there, the season thrusts in several directions--including a Manchurian Candidate arc for befuddled angel Castiel (Misha Collins)--before settling on a MacGuffin that would help the Winchesters shutter Hell forever and prohibit its current demon lord, Crowley (Mark Sheppard, always great), from preying on humankind.
It's a pretty haphazard season, so good thing the joys of "Supernatural" have seldom lain in its overarching mythology. It's the bottle episodes, the throwaway jokes, the brotherly ribbing, and the world-building that entertain. (Direct ancestor "The X-Files" was occasionally like this, too.) The two leads have a charming dynamic, in part because Ackles's gifts as an actor--particularly in comedic moments--compensate for Padalecki's series-persistent shortcomings. The latter has a bad habit of furrowed-brow "emoting" when his character comes under duress, here only reined in for the season finale. At that point, finally, he comes damn close to heartbreak. But the Winchesters have never been able to go it alone, and this season feels hobbled by the loss of the reliably engaging Jim Beaver as mentor Bobby Singer, who was bumped off in Season Seven. (Bobby gets a perfunctory "final" send-off in Episode 19, "Taxi Driver.")
Still, special guest stars--Hal Linden as a Jewish mage, geek goddess Felicia Day as geek goddess Charlie Bradbury, Curtis Armstrong in a crucial season-ending role as an angel--prop up the plots to good effect, and individual concepts sparkle. Castiel hides out from his fellow angels in a chain of burger joints, each so similar to the next that the forces of Heaven can't pinpoint him. Sam and Dean's time-traveling grandfather passes on the legacy of the Men of Letters, a Lovecraftian scholarly society. And I'd totally watch a show spun off from 8.13, "Everybody Hates Hitler," about a rabbi's grandson who struggles to command the Nazi-smashing golem he's inherited.⁶ Getting longer in the tooth every year and always dancing on the cusp of cancellation, "Supernatural" has yet to truly reckon with the toll exacted by battling with beasts. That stoic shrug is part of why the show is an enjoyable confection, never a classic.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Are we calling 1.78:1 the new TV standard yet? "Arrow" and "Supernatural" broadcast in that cinematic aspect ratio, presented on Blu-ray in 1080p, and are credits, both, to their directors of photography. Serge Ladouceur has lit "Supernatural" from the word go, finding ever more atmospheric ways to shoot in dark forests and dank warehouses, back alleys and catacombs. On "Arrow", Glen Winter and Gordon Verheul's cinematography and Richard Hudolin's production design unite to give a feeling of space where you know in your heart there's just a Vancouver soundstage. Shot with the Arri Alexa, "Arrow" doesn't have a vast palette going for it, yet it plays well with the prevalent shadows, and colour is used thematically: Oliver's industrial hideout always has green light coming from somewhere. Figures in the murk retain their definition without edge enhancement, while the image is keen enough to track every nighttime kick and throat-punch of James "Bam Bam" Bamford's excellent fight choreography. Visually, "Arrow" on Blu-ray has the clarity and continuity of movement that comic books had before people like Alex Ross started drawing them--sorry, painting them. The accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is sort of jagged when it comes to action, revelling in the vwip! of Oliver's CGI arrows without distributing them in such a way as to put us in the centre of the fight. It's a clean mix, though, with no dialogue lost in the scuffles or buried under the crisp music bed. (This being a CW show, moony pop tracks are often the viewer's guide to what we're supposed to be feeling in a given scene.)
"We were heavily influenced by the Christopher Nolan trilogy," showrunner Kreisberg 'fesses up in the featurette "Arrow Comes Alive" (29 mins., HD), but he's beyond deniability on that point. A lot of time is spent justifying the series and the creators' approach to it, as well as dropping hints where things might go from here, in the longest of the set's sparse extras. Over on "Fight School/Stunt School," (19 mins., HD), Bamford leads his charges through a complex fight sequence shot for one of the island interludes, while stunt coordinator J.J. Makaro maps and shoots a rooftop chase with Amell and his double, Simon Burnett. Amell himself is vexingly absent from interviews here, given his DIY approach to action scenes. The series has 27 minutes to charm in "'Arrow': Cast and Creative Team at the 2013 PaleyFest" (HD), a volley of questions from Geoff Johns as moderator that serves its PR purposes, fluffs Christopher Nolan some more, and offers the most chat from Amell found anywhere on package's four discs. There are no commentary tracks, though you do get 18 deleted scenes spread across the collection, all of them pared away for pretty obvious reasons of bloat. Speaking of bloat, "Arrow" boasts a two-minute gag reel so short and unfunny it barely merits a glance. (For a split second, you're misled to think you could see Amell fall off that decathlete-pullup rig he uses in the credits.) "Supernatural", based solely on its gag reels, has always looked like it would be an incredibly fun show to work on; "Arrow" looks like work. The five bundled DVDs replicate the Blu-ray content exactly, with an UltraViolet digital copy encoded for portability.
Despite a mid-series switch from 35mm to HD, "Supernatural" has essentially maintained its aesthetic since its 2005 launch, and Blu-ray has provided Ladouceur's work its best showcase. Each new environment the Winchesters explore--in this season, Purgatory--is granted its own balance of saturation and texture, grounding the viewer in place. Visual effects hold up nicely, as when demons get evicted from their human hosts in eruptions of light, or bodies flare up and burn away like newspaper. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundscape likes to bring the bass, and although my consumption was hampered by a shorting, since-replaced subwoofer, the living room nonetheless thrummed to the action scenes. The show's sound artists like jump-scares, letting a scene run silent until a noisy evisceration is called for, and the ambient elements are well-managed. At least on disc, "Supernatural" seems not to rely on classic-rock cues as it once did, but any music still arrives with force.
If the season extras for "Arrow" amount to a half-full glass, those for "Supernatural"'s eighth season add up to a full glass you willingly leave unfinished. Commentaries on three episodes--"Hunteri Heroici," "As Time Goes By," and "Everybody Hates Hitler"--fail to engage despite the best efforts of the writers and producers. (No cast members appear.) The track on "Everybody Hates Hitler," pairing writer Ben Edlund with episode director Phil Sgriccia, carries it off best, as there's a lot of warmth between the two men as they talk through one of their best outings together. "Finding 'Supernatural': Creating the Found Footage Episode" (26 mins., HD) looks at the assembly of 8.4, "Bitten," a college werewolf drama that keeps the Winchesters on the periphery. Director Thomas Wright sounds dubious about the whole found-footage concept but turned in a good episode nonetheless. The featurette, however, could lose ten minutes and disappoint no one.
"For the Defense of Mankind: The Tablets Revealed" (20 mins., HD) dissects the main quest objects of the season, tipping towards pomposity with the inclusion of religious scholar Phil Cousineau, who talks about the mythological significance of the storyline without having any other apparent connection to the series. Documents like this are one reason to wish Hollywood had never embraced Joseph Campbell. While "Angel Warrior: The Story of Castiel" (19 mins., HD) has series runners Carver and Edlund examining one of their more compelling side characters, the piece goes on too long and is mostly worthwhile for demonstrating that Ackles's and Collins's speaking voices are miles away from the ones they've constructed for their characters. Twenty deleted scenes again are spread among the episodes, accessible through the main menu and mostly superfluous. Finally, oh, that gag reel (9 mins., HD)--it really is time well spent with an obviously tight-knit group. Given time and leeway, maybe "Arrow" can become as joyful an outing as "Supernatural", or at least as joyful as a comic book. Follow Jefferson Robbins on Twitter.
1. I'm not hardcore on the idea that a comics vigilante must wear a mask, but Oliver's secret identity in this season involves not being able to look directly at the person he's talking to, which might contribute to incidents like, oh, getting shot by his own mom. return
2. Between this and The Dark Knight Rises, that's two Time Warner superhero properties that co-opt 21st-century leftist popular movements for a plot device. I find "Arrow"'s approach a bit less defamatory than Nolan's. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane uses the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street simply to garrison Gotham City with terrorists. "Arrow"'s rhetoric is internal to itself--to the act of killing the corrupt rich. The last in the Nolan trilogy came out in July 2012, when "Arrow" was three months from airing, so I'm inclined to think the parallels are coincidence, but again...Time Warner. return
3. "Buffy"/"Firefly" conspirator Drew Z. Greenberg is a co-executive producer with a hand in writing multiple episodes. Ultimately, it's hard to escape the Whedon school of scripting in genre TV these days. Something encouraging is the number of women involved in the show as writers and subordinate producers--six out of the twelve credited. return
4. DC Comics honcho Geoff Johns steps in as writer on two episodes--specifically entries that introduce other DC characters, like the Huntress and China White. Call it part of his job as DC's formal interface with non-comics media--but then, Green Lantern was part of his job as well--and Guggenheim's, and Berlanti's. If his bits don't suck, they don't say anything, either. return
5. Occasionally the writers seem to forget bits of their own backstories. For instance, Sam manifested weird demon-dispelling powers in early seasons, then shed them without much comment. return
6. Not so much Episode 16, "Remember the Titans," one of the worst entries yet put to air. return