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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The Nine Lives Of Chloe King

From Alloy Entertainment, the illustrious YA book/TV packing behemoth behind massive pop culture hits like The Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle, Gossip Girl & Pretty Little Liars amongst many others, comes The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, ABC Family’s contender for new genre show of the summer.

In truth, it’s much more than just a contender: it fully and skillfully owns its genre DNA, relishing it like few other shows on the air right now. Based on the trilogy written by Liz Braswell, both the show and the source material feel like YA Stephen King, with their rock-solid grasp of genre, and gleeful approach to story.

The show begins with a breathless chase sequence on the morning of the sixteenth birthday of Chloe King, a normal-seeming San Francisco teenager, who is being chased to the top of Coit Tower, from which she falls. And dies.

And then comes back to life.

As in all great YA stories featuring kids with extraordinary abilities, the supernatural changes that Chloe starts to experience dovetail smoothly with the turbulence of adolescence. This combination of the supernatural and everyday is one of the many things the show does brilliantly. Chloe’s relationships with her longtime best friends Amy and Paul, with her adopted mother, with her annoying boss in the store where she works, and with the mysterious guy Brian who shows up in the store one day — all these are given time, depth and convincing backstory. All those scenes have an easy, natural quality that grounds the more fantastic elements of the world.

But the show is about the fantastic. Aside from coming back from the dead, Chloe starts developing speed, agility… and claws. She discovers that she’s the key figure in a prophecy of the Mai, an ancient race of, as you may have guessed from the title, cat people. The Mai are engaged in a war with the Order of the Tenth Blade, a war in which Chloe is the unwilling focal point. The show follows her developing powers, her struggle to reconcile her human life with her new and extraordinary world, and, of course, a breathless and urgent love triangle.

Where this show succeeds (and others fail), is its ability to shift gears on the fly between episodic events, major story arcs, intense supernatural fight scenes, and small, intimate character moments. It has a great genre central story fueled by secrets, revelations and the many intense emotions that make up high school and complex family life. Its grasp of all these elements makes it a natural successor to Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

The writing, directing and soundtrack are all strong, propulsive and highly entertaining, but shows like this also need a solid cast, and in this respect, The Nine Lives Of Chloe King kicks major ass. The show’s star, Skyler Samuels, channels her inner Kate Winslet to portray the simultaneous power and quirky vulnerability of Chloe in a consistently winning performance. As Chloe’s best friend Amy, Grace Phipps is also front and center in terms of performance, bringing an engagingly live-wire chaotic charm and emotional intelligence to the mix. And Amy Pietz brings a complex, deep sense of emotional truth to her portrayal of Chloe’s adoptive mother: their scenes together are often painfully real, and are one of the important grounding elements in the show.

The show is a charming, entertaining mystery with claws, teeth, raging hormones, and a series of engaging plotlines that, thanks to the instinctive understanding of genre and awesome writing of original author Liz Braswell and now Daniel Berendson & his team, all successfully intertwine with the central war between supernatural species.

ABC Family has consistently provided a complementary alternative to the CW’s darker programming slate, by carving out a great track history in teen drama and edgier fantastical fare, such as Kyle XY (exec produced by The Vampire Diaries‘ Julie Plec). The Nine Lives Of Chloe King is another excellent example of that trend.

It’s a perfect summer show that successfully takes the supernatural teen baton from The Vampire Diaries and runs with it. Let’s hope the show itself has more than one life, because there’s more than enough intrigue and story potential for many more seasons.

Blood Streams: The Vampire Diaries

Last week’s episode, Klaus, only confirmed what we already knew: watching The Vampire Diaries is an exhilarating, exhausting, extraordinary experience that leaves you drained in the best possible way.

Thanks to showrunners Kevin Williamson (Scream 1-4, Dawson’s Creek, I Know What You Did Last Summer) & Julie Plec (Kyle XY, Scream 2&3, Cursed), and their excellent writers’ room, this show consists of non-stop live-wire storytelling, barreling along and aggressively evolving and phasing on the fly with maximum speed and acceleration. The pace of storytelling is relentless: it’s like a killer act out every 60 seconds. It’s brutal but addictive; which is also how the writers handle the show’s main theme: love. Because for all its velocity of narrative, The Vampire Diaries has a beating heart when it comes to romantic love.

The lushly unabashed romanticism of the show is brutally intercut with swift chest-punching heart-grabbing (literally and metaphorically, because the show is that good). To quote another iconic Warner Bros TV show (SouthLAnd, of course): love’s a bitch. Love will lift you up and enrich your life and take you to beautiful emotional and physical places, but you’d better believe it will kick your ass along the way. That’s just the truth about love (and also about writing, as it happens), and in The Vampire Diaries that huge, resonating truth just happens to be filtered through the awesome genre lens of vampires, werewolves, witches and beautiful people in a contemporary setting. This is a hardcore genre show that is so much fun it’s accessible to everyone.

Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec have taken L.J. Smith’s rich source material, and created a monster, with all the enormous fun and kicking aside of responsibilities that comes with it. There’s a “hell, yeah!” quality to every episode, act, scene and beat in this show. It goes all the way from the season arc through-line, down to the granular level of shots and edits. There’s such a huge, wild enthusiasm for high-octane, wild-eyed with exhilaration storytelling. They build storylines over months to an unstoppable momentum, and then slam you with insanely thrilling reversals that take your goddamn breath away.

The writers take those awesome WTF moments and pile them one on the other, detonating story-bombs with abandon, because they can, thanks to the bench strength of the writing room talent on this show.

From the beginning, the showrunners declared their intention to have an absolute blast. The opening words of the pilot script teaser described the boyfriend driving the car as having that “cute-I’m-probably-gonna-die-soon look,” and his girlfriend as having that “I’ll-probably-live-longer-than-my-boyfriend look.” From there, it’s only gotten to be even more fun, with Damon’s chest-punching and Elijah’s multiple heart-grabbings (again, you know, on more than one level), and the many, many British accents on display (as a Brit, I gotta love that — of course the accent denotes worldly experience, intellectual brilliance and general bad-ass awesomeness. Of course. It just does.).

Throughout, Williamson & Plec and their outstanding team of writers demonstrate an intense sense of glee with their slice and dicing of typical monster tropes, and their manipulation and reconstruction of genre. They’ve taken the twin concepts of genre and love, and spliced them, allowing each to transform the other.

At its heart, this is a show all about transformations, both literal and metaphysical: human to vampire, human to werewolf, innocent to aware, comfortable to world-shattered. Everyone on the show at some point has had to deal with the reversal of everything they thought they knew. This is why The Vampire Diaries transcends genre and achieves vertical take-off into the realm of great drama — it grounds everything in character.

When someone’s world gets upended or destroyed, they feel it, and so do we. And as quickly as this show moves, it knows exactly when to hold a moment too, as we saw in this week’s mind-blowing episode Klaus, which not only seemed to pack in more plot than a season of 24, but also finally gave us Jenna’s reaction to finding out about the existence of vampires and werewolves, and to the fact that everyone had been lying to her all this time. Sara Canning played the scene with simple, heart-rending truth, breaking down inside and out. It was beautifully done.

Thanks to the fantastic writing which delivers kick-ass genre awesomeness and brutal character work week after week, the show continues to work its way into our bloodstreams and has shown no sign of slowing its momentum. The show was just renewed for a third season, and like an insane but thrilling rollercoaster, it’s impossible not to come back for more.