Premiering last season – and returning for its second season this October 9th – the CW’s program Arrow appears to be a straightforward adaptation of a comic-book character, capitalizing on popular trends in current movies. But is that all it is?
Arrow is a loose adaptation for television of the long-running DC Comics superhero Green Arrow. Created in 1941, for the first quarter-century of his existence Green Arrow was strictly a third-string character, little more than “Batman with a bow,” largely relegated to second-feature back-up stories in comics devoted to more popular characters like Superman. But in a seminal series of stories in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the character was reinvented by writer Denny O’Neil as a left-wing loudmouth who fought slumlords and corporate bosses rather than super-villains, and who spouted endless diatribes against “the Establishment.” Though not ultimately successful from a sales standpoint, these stories sufficiently raised the character’s profile so that Green Arrow eventually starred in multiple ongoing comics series and mini-series. With the ongoing popularity of superheroic characters in the movies, from The Avengers to The Dark Knight – and with the CW’s long-running superhero series Smallville having ended the year before – it is unsurprising that the network chose to capitalize on current trends by centering a TV series around another superhero.
The choice of Green Arrow as the center of a series was a canny one. In both concept and execution, Green Arrow has always been a “street-level” hero. Even in his earlier, more straightforwardly “superhero” days, the character typically fought ordinary criminals, only rarely battling gaudily-clad opponents. Since 1968, this facet has been even more emphasized. Green Arrow also possesses no “super-powers”; he is merely a skilled archer and athlete, thus obviating the need for glitzy – and expensive – special effects. The notion of a heroic character who sticks up for the “little guy” against the “one percent” is a popular one in the current political climate. Finally, the character offers ample ground for corporate cross-promotion; both the CW network and DC comics are owned by Time Warner.
But while it capitalizes on the popularity of superheroes, Arrow simultaneously retains the interest of CW’s previously-established young female demographic by carrying on the programming trends of such CW shows as Gossip Girl, 90210, and The Carrie Diaries. While the comic-book Green Arrow was a middle-aged executive who lost his fortune to an embezzler and was reduced to poverty, an experience which radicalized him and led him to fight for the downtrodden, CW’s version is a youthful pretty-boy who typically spends at least half of each episode shirtless, the better to show off his six-pack abs to an audience of presumably squealing girls at home. Too, this younger Oliver Queen (Green Arrow’s “secret identity”) lives in a palatial mansion with both his middle-aged mother and his younger sister, a situation which provides for plenty of both conspicuous consumption and soap opera entanglements involving the older woman’s marital problems.
The addition to the mythos of kid sister Thea is a particularly blatant move by the CW; by including a wealthy teenage girl, Arrow is assured of ample opportunities to show the young woman shopping for the latest fashions, using drugs, attending “raves,” and engaging in underage drinking and “hookups” with hunky guys…just like the rich kids on Gossip Girl did. Naturally, Oliver too is shown having sex with various women (including one who ends their “date” by telling him, “Thanks for the coffee…and the sex.”) And just in case Thea and Oliver don’t provide enough excuses for romantic drama, the show also introduced Oliver’s best friend, Tommy Merlyn, who is sleeping with Oliver’s former girlfriend Laurel…whom Oliver cheated on by sleeping with her sister Sarah. Finally, the show is guaranteed at least one scene of a “rave” per episode, as Oliver owns and operates a dance club as a cover for his activities as “the Hood”/“the Vigilante.” (The program shies away from calling it’s lead character “Green Arrow,” as that wouldn’t be “realistic.” Because obviously, it is far more realistic to show every member of a group of friends having sex with every other one. Just like real life.)
Arrow is an involving drama, though the quality of its writing and pacing lurches from the excellent to the abysmal. The events occurring in flashback and set on the island where Oliver learned his combat skills are uniformly compelling; but like any soap, it is amusing when what would be major, life-altering events in real life are casually forgotten for weeks on end, then just as casually brought up again. (“Oh Mom, it’s so sad that your husband was kidnapped six months ago. I’m sorry we haven’t talked about that lately. Is he still being held hostage somewhere, or is he dead now?”)
But if cleverly created, written, and implemented, Arrow is also a cautionary tale of the increased influence of the CW. Dismissed in its early years as a useless amalgam of cast-off WB and UPN stations, the CW has forged itself into a home for the youthful demographic. While for much of its existence the network’s goal was exclusively young women viewers (as witness shows like America’s Next Top Model), with Arrow the CW is moving to make itself equally popular with young men, by cunningly melding the sex-soap-and-fashion elements beloved by women with the heroic fantasy and graphic violence all the rage with males. There is nothing wrong with appealing to younger viewers, of course; but that Arrow is doing so by mixing its previous teen sex elements with a newfound appreciation for violence – all while branding itself with a comic-book superhero identity — is a fact which ought to give parents pause.