The old adage is that film is a director’s playground, and television is a writer’s. It makes sense if you look at who the big names are in each medium: when the names Spielberg, Kubrick, and Bigelow pop up, you think director. Looking at the small screen though, the names that stick out almost always belong to showrunners, your Sorkins, your Shermans, and your Simons. While both jobs involve far more than just shooting the movie, or penning the script, the relative brevity of film means that every frame counts, while television has time to take the long view.
At first glance, you’d think comic books would be a much better fit for TV, seeing as, like an episode, your typical issue is meant to be short, readily accessible, and easily reproduced. Sure enough, trying to transfer characters with decades of history into a two-hour popcorn flick has resulted in plenty of disasters. Daredevil, Catwoman, and Green Lantern are only a few names on the list of would-be cape ‘n cowl franchises that died before they lived, but the reason there’s so much company among the also-rans is that so many other comic book movies turn out to be gargantuan successes. When they premiered, it seemed a little ridiculous that Batman Begins and Iron Man felt the need to make their millionaire playboy heroes into billionaires. Then, we all went and corrected that issue by giving them billions of dollars.
TV, on the other hand, has made few attempts at turning licensed superheroes into shows (Smallville being the major exception). Original takes usually don’t last long either: the high quality of Syfy’s Alphas did little to keep it from getting canned after only two seasons, and we all know what happened with Heroes. While the format of comic books might make them seem perfect for weekly network adventures, the scope of the subject matter usually far exceeds what you can feasibly film, given the budget of your average TV episode. Shows like Arrow (and one day, god willing, FX’s Powers adaptation) skirt this issue by A: starring heroes that are affordably super, and B: keeping their adventures set in a familiar, budget-conscious genre.
On a plot, and character level (your bread and butter as a writer), and episode of Arrow isn’t all that different from every other brilliant detective/crime unit show on TV right now. Most weeks involve Oliver following a paper trail of evidence towards the baddie of the moment, with a fight scene, shootout, and clue analysis montage slotted in somewhere along the way (CG explosions are saved for finales, and sweeps week). Seeing as it also happens to air on CW, the character beats rely on different tropes, including an abundance of loosely guarded secrets, lots of romantic yearning, and at least one scene where two people have a private conversation intruded on/overheard by a third party. Oh, and the parties. Never forget the party scenes.
Because of these necessarily procedural elements, the core of most episodes on a show like Arrow can often feel like it’s going through the motions, even with long form plots slowly advancing around the fringes. The quality of the “Bad Guy of the Week” plot often depends on the villain themself, so judged solely on this week’s offering, the show wasn’t much to write home about. Seth Gabel cranks the manic up to 11 on one of Green Arrow’s archest of nemeses, Count Vertigo, but the character never rises above the sketching of a campy sadist, The Joker as wardrobed by George Michael, with a motivation that’s only slightly less ridiculous than what Nancy Reagan’s idea of a drug pusher would be. I think it will shock approximately zero people if I were to tell them The Count’s plot ends with him nursing a grudge against the Hood from inside a holding cell (it does).
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