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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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.

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.