ARROW: The Huntress Returns

Since its pilot first aired last year, Arrow has transcended its case of the week set-up, morphing radically in the manner of a previously regular citizen becoming a fully fledged superhero (see what I did there?). The pilot was a sure-footed, highly confident piece of TV drama, loosing its arrow and hitting with breathless precision the massively hard-to-hit target that is the perfect combination of dark, gritty, pulpy, pleasurably comic book-y, hyper-stylized, charismatic, compelling, funny, kinetic, and thrilling. And it’s only gotten better.

The Hood, the Huntress and the cop; tragic denouement not pictured

The Hood, the Huntress and the cop; tragic denouement not pictured

All the elements were there from the start: the hint of mythology (what really happened on that island?), the thrills and the action, the CW glossy / pleasing to the eye / highly entertaining veneer, the uniquely sharp and intelligent visual style. In the early episodes the show leaned on a case of the week structure (Oliver Queen’s father’s notebook of names) more than anything else, which did raise some concerns of repetition and longevity. It was obvious the show contained much more than that, was meant to be much more than that.

Fortunately, exec producers Marc Guggenheim, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg did a tremendous job of elevating the show rapidly beyond the original format into something harder, faster, more resonant, more powerful, more gripping; into a show that could easily last multiple seasons. They opened up the mythology, burned through story more quickly and thrillingly, and, crucially, started bringing more characters into the bat cave, as it were (hey, it’s a DC-based analogy, so it’s OK). First in was John Diggle (David Ramsey), creating a great buddy comedy pairing, which has proven to be an enduring relationship that sparks much gripping, compelling conflict between him and Stephen Amell’s Oliver. Several episodes later, the producers made the genius move of bringing in Felicity Smoak, played by Emily Bett Rickards. Her absolute ease with a snarky one-liner proved a perfect match for the show’s aesthetic; the episode that brought her into the Hood’s world (The Odyssey) was one of the best of the season. Rickards doubled down on her promotion and showed just why she needs as much screen time as the writers can give her, with an excellent performance in the subsequent episode, Dodger.

Felicity Smoak in mortal danger. Spoiler: she makes it.

Felicity Smoak in mortal danger. Spoiler: she makes it.

The overarching conspiracy (the Undertaking, brilliantly led by John “Captain Jack” Barrowman, AKA the Dark Archer) is gathering momentum, future Hood sidekick Speedy, currently known as Roy and played by Colton Haynes, has been successfully introduced in a manner that can only be described as,well, speedy, and Oliver has a now well-established nemesis in the Huntress, played with astonishing verve and electricity by Jessica De Gouw.

Which brings us to the most recent episode, The Huntress Returns.

It was a fantastic example of everything that’s great about the show: deep, resonant relationships that leap off the screen and grab you, making you feel them; mind-bogglingly original and intense action sequences that race past you; and a gloriously geeky joy in the dark angles of its comic book origins. It had zingy one-liners to spare, clashing relationships with ultimately high stakes, secrets, heartbreak, and a pulse-quickening chemistry between its core cast.

The always excellent Willa Holland, the sharply wonderful Katie Cassidy, and the ever-essential Colin Donnell. And a shitload of lens flares (Jimmy Muro would be proud!)

The always excellent Willa Holland, the sharply wonderful Katie Cassidy, and the ever-essential Colin Donnell. And a shitload of lens flares (Jimmy Muro would be proud!)

Guy Bee did a phenomenal job directing it. He’s one of the greatest directors working in TV today, having directed some of the best episodes ever of SouthLAnd, Supernatural, Revolution, The Secret Circle, The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, Kyle XY, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and many, many others. He has an unerring eye for this kind of gritty, thrilling “YA” genre TV (which is one reason why I think he’d be perfect to direct an adaptation of Altered). His true skill lies in blending a soulful, character-based approach with an extraordinarily intelligent visual eye for the depth of a shot. The visual architecture in his shots is remarkable, while always serving the characters in a scene.

Look at the incredible architecture in the composition of this shot; a lesser director would be close on the two characters; Mr. Bee shoots it Nolan-style, with the surroundings as character

Look at the incredible architecture in the composition of this shot; a lesser director would be close on the two characters; Mr. Bee shoots it Nolan-style, with the surroundings as character, bringing Starling City to life

And he shoots the shit out of Arrow‘s fast-paced, adrenalized action sequences, bringing an extra level of style. With that combination of visual structure and futuristic style in urban situations, he’s like the Michael Mann of TV, in the most original way.

Oliver's club, Verdant. Man's got style.

Oliver’s club, Verdant. Man’s got style.

He’s one of the show’s key creative forces, so he was well placed to bring us the tragic return of Oliver’s intense, possibly unhinged, nemesis, who may also be the love (or at least lust) of his life. It was a dangerous episode, with more than a hint of SouthLAnd‘s constant state of “unknown trouble” lurking in every scene; you knew bad shit was going to go down, you just didn’t know when or how.

Jessica De Gouw was magnificent as the Huntress, clearly relishing every second of her time on screen, fully occupying the wounded heart (and consequent vengeful fury) of her character.

Jessica De Gouw: in this life or the next, she will have her veangance

Jessica De Gouw as the Huntress: in this life or the next, she will have her vengeance

She held her own throughout, bringing a furious energy to her scenes with Amell; they are truly a heartbreaking couple, in their own way. Her revenge was brutal; and the scenes between Amell and Janina Gavankar (playing Queen’s current girlfriend/a cop who is hunting down the Hood) were beautifully played out by the pair of them.

Arrow is a show that, like Person Of Interest, is an outstanding genre show that has easily overhauled its case of the week structure and steadily infused it with gripping and compelling mythology. Both these shows have far outstripped their beginnings, while also retaining the ability to manipulate and return to more focused episodes when necessary. Arrow‘s momentum is increasing exponentially; its levels of excitement are following suit.

It’s basically brilliant, hypnotically good appointment television, powered by a hard-working and ridiculously talented cast and crew.

Just watch it. Or the Hood will put you on his list.

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ARROW: Deadly Precision

Yeah, I know, my title sounds like a Steven Seagal movie. But trust me. If you’re not watching The CW’s new show Arrow, you should be.

The Hooded Vigilante

The Hooded Vigilante

Adapted from DC’s Green Arrow source material, Arrow takes those classic pulpy comic elements and brilliantly locks them into blisteringly precise action, gritty atmosphere, edgy storylines, and CW-style relationship drama. This is a high velocity show that relishes its comic book origins even as it transcends them.

Also, it has John Barrowman.

Exec producers Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg have crafted a gloriously entertaining, moves-like-a-bullet (or should that be arrow?) narrative that revels in its darkly wrought drama, and isn’t afraid to have an incredibly stylized blast.

As the show’s star, Stephen Amell, often tweets… thwick.

Better than Katniss

Better than Katniss

The set-up is this: billionaire playboy Oliver Queen is lost at sea when the yacht he’s on with his girlfriend’s sister, and his father, disappears during a storm. Five years later, out of nowhere, he reappears and returns to his home in Starling City.

But he’s not the same.

The show deftly blends flashbacks to the devastating accident, the aftermath, and the mysterious island on which Oliver was stranded for those five years. These scenes are interpersed with his present day reality: spreading fear and justice as Starling City’s bow-and-arrow-wielding hooded vigilante. He’s cleaning up the streets, following the plan set out for him by his father, who gave him a notebook full of names: those who deserved justice. The show has morphed satisfyingly quickly from attack-of-the-week into deeper, more challenging and dimensional territory, as conspiracies unfurl, and complex relationships become more apparent.

Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) and Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell)

Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) and Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell)

Berlanti, Guggenheim and Kreisberg, like a team of superhero lawyers, have a killer eye for hiring directors, including the always legendary Guy Norman Bee (also known for directing Supernatural, SouthLAnd and Revolution). The action is blistering and razor-sharp; the shooting, lighting and editing is hyper-stylized, hyper-real, full of comic book angles, stark shadows, and blinding light.

But it’s all rooted in the characters.

Oliver Queen, the dilletante turned superhero, played with Tom Cruise-like movie star presence by Amell. Laurel Lance, an idealistic lawyer and Queen’s ex, the girl he betrayed by sleeping with her sister, leading to the sister’s horrible death, is perfectly played with soulful, sly sensuality and sharp-edged grief by Katie Cassidy. Queen’s sidekick John Diggle is given gravitas and no-nonsense attitude by David Ramsey. Queen’s sister Thea is played to perfection by Willa Holland, who nails the complex emotions that drive that character. Colin Donnell does a great job as Queen’s beleaguered best friend Tommy. And the mysterious Huntress, AKA Helena Bertinelli, who is played with tormented, broken-hearted angst by the superb Jessica De Gouw.

Oliver and Helena, AKA, The Huntress

Oliver and Helena, AKA, The Huntress

These actors are all brilliant; luckily, the scripts are equally  fantastic, thanks to the powerhouse writers room. The scripts are punchy, sharp, shot through with snark, easily balancing the past and the present, emotions and thrills, complexity and the simple pleasure of watching the vigilante deliver expertly choreographed smackdowns.

The Hooded Man

The Hooded Man

In short, this show is tremendously entertaining. Off the charts. A high octane blend off pop culture awesomeness.

Watch it.

Anticipating SouthLAnd Season 5

Rewatching SouthLAnd‘s great and groundbreaking season 4 got me thinking: where could or should the show go in season 5?

In the SouthLAnd, anything can happen

It’s a show that thrives on evolution, after all. In a Doctor Who kind of way, it regenerates with every season. And it does this boldly, fearlessly… SouthLAnd style. From Wednesday to Thursday (Jonathan Lisco’s rather brilliantly low-key titles for eps 1 and 10), the show took some pretty hardcore narrative leaps, and went to darker places than ever before. It was more distilled, its signature intensity crystallized into something even harder and more beautiful. It’s made up of shards that are brutally sharp and reflect the light, sometimes blindingly. I mean this narratively, visually, emotionally, psychologically. I was thinking to myself, how could they possibly do this again, but better, take it further, in season 5?

Then I realized.

The answers lie in what for my money were the two greatest episodes of season 4: Integrity (ep 6, wr. Jonathan Lisco, dir. Chris Chulack, DoP Jimmy Muro), and God’s Work (ep 8, wr. Cheo Coker, dir. Guy Norman Bee, DoP Dana Gonzales).

These two eps broke new ground, pushed the show further and harder: Integrity Check was a new kind of television, using the documentry crew device to access new depth and force, while God’s Work hit hard with powerful soulfulness. They both showed how SouthLAnd can do what it has always done: evolve yet again, and continue to stay hungry and focused.

How, I hear you ask!

I’ll tell ya.

It’s pretty bold though. Fair warning!

One element that the show did seem to struggle with in season 4, and it was really the only element, was integrating the detectives’ storylines fully. That is, making them relevant to the episode in general, and also making them resonant with what was going on in Lydia and Ruben’s lives. It didn’t happen often, but there were a couple of episodes where they seemed detached from the rest of the show, and even from the crimes they were investigating.

But in episode 6, Lisco did something brilliant. He put Lydia back in uniform, back in the patrol car.

Lydia Adams… a future in uniform?

Genius.

What if for season 5, they shifted entirely to patrol officers — and hold up all you angry Regina King fans, I totally mean that she should be one of them! If you look back, there seems to be an irresistible gravity pulling the show in that direction. One by one the detectives transfer out (of the force, of life… RIP Nate). And the show has already shown us that Lydia can handle a uniform and patrol car. It may be crazy, but it might just supercharge the entire season. And I know who I’d want to see Regina King in the car with; I’m sure we all have some good ideas about that.

Integrity Check was a stripped back and raw episode, a more intense, enhanced version of the show that I believe should be the template for season 5. Chulack and Muro took full advantage of the brilliant device of the documentary film crew to really push things forward visually and directorially. Just look at the depth of field and incredible detail of the precise shot composition below — think of that as an analogy of how the storytelling could accommodate a narrower focus:

Cudlitz, Liu, and some gorgeously detailed depth of field… Kudos to Muro & Chulack

But this is a show that thrives on diversity and balance. Underlying its surface immediacy and intensity are deep, soulful grooves of emotion and desire; the overwhelming force of what it means to be human. This show, more than any other, is utterly rooted in character. And God’s Work was the prime example of that.

Michael Cudlitz, Lawrence Gilliard Jr, and about a thousand lens flares courtesy of DoP Dana Gonzales

Coker’s wonderful script was elevated by some of the best directing in the show’s history courtesy of Guy Norman Bee, with Dana Gonzales shooting it all in a combination of a golden hazes and harshly desaturated glares… both reflecting the soul of Los Angeles, and of the show.

Shawn Hatosy and Ben McKenzie in a beautifully directed (and acted) scene

Although I’m proposing a detective-free next season, I must point out that God’s Work was the perfect and best example of how to pull patrol officers and detectives into one powerful, cohesive episode (which should be no surprise since Coker wrote it; he was the first and only writer to pull the entire original cast into one scene in Punching Water). But we could think of it as a goodbye… the best example of integrating the show’s dual levels, and the platform from which everything changes.

Can the show be soulful without detectives? It can. It just has to bring that soulfulness in via more focused means. Regina King’s eyes, Muro’s and Gonzales’ lighting, the brillliance of Lisco’s ideas, the ferociousness of Chulack’s directing, and the brilliance of Guy Norman Bee’s helming.

And, of course, the incredible, peerless cast.

I loved the show when it had the full cast spread out over patrol and detective work, but I’ve loved it even more as it became streamlined, faster-moving, more raw. I know whatever direction the writers and producers take it in, I’ll continue to love it. I can’t wait to see what they come up with, because from writers to producers to cast to crew, this is the best team in the business. They’ve earned our trust and loyalty a thousand times over. These are just the humble musings of a fan; I don’t doubt for a second that wherever the producers choose to take us, season 5 will be utterly surprising, and utterly brilliant.

SouthLAnd: “God’s Work” – Emotional Survival For Law Enforcement

If I made this review as brutally to the point as this episode was, I’d simply say this:

Cheo Coker wrote a beautiful, kick-ass script and Guy Norman Bee directed the f**k out of it, while Ben McKenzie turned in a devastatingly primal & raw performance.

But there’s so much more to say.

I’ll start with the obvious: this was one of SouthLAnd‘s strongest episodes. It was stripped back to the bleached bones of the L.A. landscape, and the most primal elements of the characters’ souls. It was beautiful in its simplicity, its refusal to waste time or words. As Cooper said in his final scene, “that simple?” To which his sponsor Lamar replied: “Yeah. All the hard things are.”

That stark sense of truth began with Coker’s script, which was one of his best. If his other script this season, Underwater, was a crazy block party, full of overflowing life and violence and jokes and energy, God’s Work was the head-pounding contemplation the next day.

It pumped out killer lines like bullets from an endlessly reloading shotgun, one after another after another (most of which came to Shawn Hatosy, who swung for the fences and knocked every single one easily out of the park with absolute style). It had Coker’s unique and fiery old-school soulfulness. And it thumped like a booming hip hop beat when it had to.

But it submerged all that in a deep, quiet calm, the serenity to accept the things we cannot change… a zen purity of purpose. We glided across the waters of this one, all the way to the perfect storm at the end, when the Kraken woke. This was like some classic Greek shit. Everyone contained the seeds of their own destruction and salvation, and the only question was what choice each character would make, which path they would take.

This was all great drama is supposed to be, and what so little drama actually is. It’s what SouthLAnd does better than any other show: forcing characters to confront their deepest flaws or fears, sending mack trucks juggernauting into their moral schemes and belief systems. It’s a show that will utterly demolish everything its characters believe in, because it’s about how we react when everything is on the line. Stakes are sky high. Officer Ben Sherman was on the receiving end of this treatment last season when the truth about his mother’s assault was revealed. And Sherman had to face the darkness again in God’s Work, and somehow keep his soul.

This was the finest work of Ben McKenzie’s career to date, which is saying something, because he’s a damn great actor. SouthLAnd is about raising the bar with every episode, every act, every beat. McKenzie was there all the way, showing us a man whose soul is being ravaged by his own inner darkness, the rage that he’s always keeping buried. It was a haunting and raw performance, as Sherman couldn’t stop, maybe didn’t even try to stop, himself from descending into hell.

Coker’s script took him there, along with the astonishing direction of Guy Norman Bee, a former steadicam operator on ER who has since gone on to direct Veronica Mars, The Secret Circle, The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, and, most regularly, Supernatural.

He brought an incredibly detailed and quietly unobtrusive eye to this episode. It was stark and architectural in its complex yet dynamic visual style. This was Michael Mann-level directing. Bee’s eye for the complexity of lines in the composition of the shot made every frame fascinating and kinetic, but in the most subliminal of ways, subsumed into the flow of the story (just like in the script). The descending concentric circles of the parking lot when Lydia looked down at “the splat.” The angles of the stairwell playing against the lines of Sherman and Bryant holding their guns going up the stairs in the squatter house. The frames and windows of the offices where Tang had her interview. It was all beautifully done, creating a stark, rotating landscape for the tense drama to play out against.

Bee was backed up by lighting maestro Dana Gonzales, who brought a haunting glow to the rough, over-saturated streets of L.A. The opening scene, as Cooper and Lamar talk, was simply gorgeous, as early morning light hung in a hazy gauze over the skyscrapers, and a thousand little lens flares rippled up from the lake. From there it got darker and starker, all the way to the primally lit scene at the end, when Bryant lays it all down for Sherman. It was eerie, spine tingling: the two men sat in deep shadow and the coldest, barest lines of light just lit their edges. Shawn Hatosy gave a stunning, Brando-esque reading of those great, classic lines: “you’re my partner…. I’ll back you up, punch for punch…”

It was f**king poetry on every level, like everything in this episode, from the largest moment to the smallest. As Cooper contemplated his own intense set of options in his briefer scenes, Michael Cudlitz brought the gravitas like a true master, finding the highest level of impact through the smallest of gestures and motions, making us feel the soul-shaking implications of his future choices. In his short scene, Tommy Howell brought a sinewy soulfulness to “Uncle Dewey”‘s meaningful and moving scene with Tang. And let’s take a moment to praise Jamie McShane, who always brings grit and steel to the role of watch commander Sgt. Hill, even in the space of a line or two. His ability to bring such presence to brief moments in some ways sums up the show: it’s all in the power of the details.

No review would be complete without a callout to the day players, including The Wire‘s Lawrence Gilliard Jr playing Lamar with a poetic, fresh rhythm; Oz Zehavi doing fine work in his first U.S. TV role as Eric Hanson; and Kelly Wolf as Cheryl Hanson, wringing huge emotions from the briefest of moments. They — and all the others — were great, bringing soul and heartbreak to the surface in perfectly fragmented, naturalistic ways.

SouthLAnd‘s toughest challenge is often to explode the traditional narrative, fragment it until the shards are still touching and connected, but just barely. It went above and beyond in this regard with God’s Work. Every scene flowed deep into all the others, but never in a contrived way. It was a masterclass in script DNA.

It’s getting harder to review this show, to be honest, because it keeps getting better, and it rarely misses a step. Remember how it seemed like it exploded out of the gate with the pilot episode, Unknown Trouble? Well, it did, and it was fantastic… but it’s undeniable, and kind of mind-blowing: it’s operating on a much higher level now.

It keeps finding extra gears, and it’s pretty clear at this point: it’s just going to keep finding more. Season Five seems all but assured when the show is rolling so hard. As Cudlitz likes to say, with this show, you have to expect the unexpected. But there’s one thing we can always expect, and we always get: greatness.

SouthLAnd “Fallout”

SouthLAnd continued its peerless run of emotionally intense episodes with Fallout, dealing with the visceral disintegration of key relationships on the show. It could equally well have been called Things Falling Apart, because it was brutal like the Nine Inch Nails remix album, and in some ways the show is remixing itself, foregrounding its more emotionally violent elements. SouthLAnd has always  challenged its characters by pushing them beyond their limits and confronting their personal hells. In this episode, it did so in even more unflinching ways.

Certainties crumbled and trust imploded as the foundation-shaking earthquake of Etan Frankel’s script met Allison Anders’ up close and personal direction; and the actors served up raw, phsyical, wounded performances, finding a way to peel back yet another layer of emotional skin and reveal their hearts and souls.

Frankel, a former playwright and Friday Nights Lights writer, who also writes for John Wells’ other brilliant show Shameless, wrote a perfectly spare and forceful script. It laid out the cases with the minimum of fuss, and gave the actors an actors dream of gut-punching, soul-wrenching, no-going-back-from-that dialogue.

The visceral script was coupled with Allison Anders’ inspired directing style, which is all about making everything richer: the framing, the light, and the performances. She brought the camera in close to the actors’ faces, giving the actors more physicality than usual, bringing us closer to their pain, their seething rage, their exploding passions. Now, SouthLAnd is a show that is all about motion and kineticism, but Anders showed us that this isn’t always about the camera chasing after Sherman or Bryant. Here, Anders made the bold choice (in the context of this show) to frequently hold the camera still, very still, and let the actors play out their discomfort. It’s like Anders has her own zen martial art directing style: the kinetic scenes were brutal; but the stillness hit even harder.

The performances hurt, even more than usual. Frankel’s venomous script gave Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy some painful, knife-twisting scenes. You truly felt Sherman’s growing frustration as he tried to make things up to Bryant after accusing him of being a dirty cop and facing Bryant’s almost showboating refusal to back down. But when Sherman dropped the Nate-bomb on Bryant, and told him that was the last apology he was getting… well damn son. That was extraordinarily awkward, deeply painful, and emotionally complicated drama, conveyed in true minimalist SouthLAnd style with a couple of perfectly written lines, some close-up camerwork, and unbearable intensity from both actors.

Even more intense were the scenes between Michael Cudlitz and Lucy Liu. Tang was having a very bad day, which got worse when she shot an unarmed suspect, and then tampered with the crime scene as Cooper showed up. Cooper may be flawed, damaged, full of demons, but he’s a damn good cop, and with exemplary cop’s instincts, he knew that Tang had been doing something she shouldn’t, something she didn’t even need to do. Lucy Liu did a tremendous job unraveling Tang’s tightly wired demeanor, and Cudlitz was fantastic as he wrestled with the no-win moral situation she had put him in, and then unleashed his fury on her after they’d both been questioned. Liu got a great coda, in which we saw her guilt and frustration blow up. And Cudlitz took every single viewer to the edge by making us utterly believe that he was about to start using again, when in fact he was meeting his sponsor for help.

Dorian Missick and Regina King had some soulful and compelling scenes, as Lydia still refused to admit her “condition”, even as Ruben showed his genuine, caring and supportive side. Frankel gave them some beautiful lines, Anders shot it in lovely fashion, and the actors were fantastic.

As everything falls apart, the show heads into its final three episodes of the season, beginning with episode eight, God’s Work, which features a Cheo Coker script directed by Guy Norman Bee. It promises to be an extraordinary continuation of the dark arcs that the show is playing out.