Arrow Series Premiere Review: “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)

If the CW has proven anything, it’s that just because a show is shallow, doesn’t mean it can’t be efficient and fun too. Arrow embodies this philosophy, though not quite with the success of some of the network’s other flagship programs. It liberally borrows from myriad other comic book adaptations, but the starkest comparison comes from looking on the other end of the television quality spectrum.

Homeland‘s pilot was spent establishing the shock its main character felt after returning home from years in tortured isolation. He comes baring physical and psychological scars, to a wife who has moved on, a dysfunctional daughter who’s filled the father figure void with drugs, and a best friend who’s betrayed him. Along the way, flashbacks filled the audience in on what the hero was doing during exile, and a larger conspiracy was hinted at as the hour closed.

Arrow manages to cover pretty much all of these points in just its first act, jettisoning any attempts at measured development on the part of its lead, billionaire Oliver Queen, in favour of getting through Green Arrow’s origin story as quickly as humanly possible. The very first scene of the pilot sees star Stephen Amell being rescued off the island he’s been marooned on the last five years, and he goes from scraggly survivalist to clean-cut playboy before the credit roll is done.

Queen had a lot of time to think (and workout) while in isolation, ruminating on parting words from his father, who gave his life following the accident so that Oliver might live. His return to Starling City marks the end of his soul searching in the wild, and the beginning of his quest to bring justice to civilization.

So yeah, if you’ve seen Iron Man and Batman Begins, you already know every single beat of Arrow, though the latter comparison is more inherently tied to the source material. Green Arrow started off as essentially just “Batman with a bow” (complete with Arrowcar and Arrowplane), before differentiating himself as a more socially conscious and morally comprised character. None of that nuance or depth could properly be conveyed in 45 minutes though, so Arrow settles for plowing through all its setup in one shot, which it succeeds at, mostly at the expense of its characters.

Amell makes a better Ken doll than a lead, transitioning from wounded beefcake, to prep-school douchebag, to mourning hunk, to mysterious bad boy depending on who he’s sharing the scene with. The flat reading on his expository narration will make you pine for the self-indulgent musings of Dexter, and underscores just how little the first episode gives Amell to work with. He’ll have to prove himself more charismatic if future episodes try to get under layers of the character deeper than his shirt. But for the time being, hey, he’s got a six-pack, might as well show it off. This is the CW after all, and the playbook hasn’t changed; hot bods, flashy cars and sexy parties constitute 90% of the network’s budget, and they prove here that something as geeky as a comic book can be dressed up as lifestyle porn.

So yeah, Arrow is dumb, superficial and vapid, but rarely is it boring. Queen is in town for all of five minutes before getting jumped by a gang of halloween-masked thugs (“professionals”, as the police refer to them), which leads to five year’s worth of island fury being unleashed. While the action choreography rarely comes together in a logical fashion, and parkour in 2012 seems only slightly less archaic than archery, the scenes are flashy, and make for campy fun, since everyone takes the proceedings with a deathly seriousness.

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