One of the myriad responsibilities of an author is the need to engage the audience. You can have an interesting world with interesting characters, but if they’re not doing anything interesting, the audience has nowhere to hang their hat. If you don’t arrest your reader’s (or viewer’s!) attention, you’re 100% shit outta luck. Unless they’re very loyal to you, they will most likely go elsewhere to get their fix. Audiences are like junkies: if you don’t dish up the smack, they don’t have patience for your crap.
Nowhere can I find a better example of this than in the CW television series Arrow. Keeping in mind that I’m a HUGE fan of both Arrow and The Flash (though I don’t love either of them nearly as much as I love Legends of Tomorrow), they both have had some Issues with holding audience attention, particularly in their most recent seasons. The Flash has largely gotten over that hump. Arrow, of which I’ve seen only a handful of season five episodes… Has not, for me.
So, today we’re going to pick apart what worked to hold attention and what didn’t for Arrow. Because if there’s one thing I enjoy, it’s vivisecting media for didactic purposes. With this in mind, realize that there WILL be spoilers, possibly for all extant CW DC series. SO. Here we go!
Season one started off solid. We’re introduced to Oliver Queen Batman Begins-style, as he is rescued from the process of learning How to Be a Badass while stranded alone on the island Lian-Yu. We’re introduced to the cast in rapid-fire succession: Oliver’s sister, mother, stepdad (who anyone with an ounce of storytelling savvy IMMEDIATELY distrusts because we know how Hamlet goes), his buddy Tommy, his new bodyguard John Diggle. The pilot works its ass off and eventually brings us to The List.
The List was given to Oliver Queen by his father after their ship, the Queen’s Gambit, was blown up and they escaped on a life raft. Immediately after gifting Ollie the list, Ollie’s father killed the other guy on the life raft and then shot himself, leaving Ollie alone to survive using his wits and a highly questionable wig for the next five years. Five years which he does NOT spend on Lian-Yu in their entirety—whether we’re told that as a result of Ollie being an unreliable narrator (a distinct possibility, given the fact that he lies more than Sami Brady on Days of Our Lives) or the writers just not realizing that a tiny island in the South China Sea wouldn’t provide sufficient drama for five years’ worth of escapades is up for debate.
Regardless, The List sets forth a mission. This is the collection of men and women who are responsible for Ollie getting stranded on the island, for the death of his father, and (so far as he is aware) the death of Sara Lance.
Not that Sara Lance doesn’t make a habit of dying about as often as Barry Allen rewrites history, but I digress. Sara Lance can do whatever the hell she wants because she’s awesome.
The main mystery we have is what exactly the people on The List were up to that forced them to sink the Queen’s Gambit. This is a mystery that drives a good chunk of the season alongside checking off the names on The List one by one.
That is solid. That is how you kick things off with a narrative thread that the viewers can follow all the way through the season. The audience likes to have bread crumbs to follow, start to finish.
Contrast this with the more recent season. I am behind, so I’m only just now about five or six episodes into season five’s Ollie Joins the Bratva and Trains a New Team arc. But I can tell you that at this point, I’m just not into it. The new people are okay, I guess. There’s some interesting character stuff going on re: Felicity’s guilt at nuking a town, and Ollie makes about as good a mayor as everyone would have expected (that is to say, decent as long as he bothers to show up).
But the villain at this juncture is a guy named Tobias Church, who is just… Kinda boring? It’s no fault of the actor, who is clearly giving it the best he’s got to be a right and proper asshole. But he’s literally just a big-time gangbanger. After seasons where the villains were (in order) a League of Assassins archer, a literal super-soldier, the leader of the League of Assassins, and a League of Assassins warrior WHO ALSO KNOWS MAGIC plus can crack jokes, having just a guy with a lot of dudes and a lot of guns as our intro villain for this season feels downright… Disappointing.
I understand that there’s another villain due to show up, this Prometheus. But I don’t want to wade through several boring episodes in order to get to some new awesome villain. And that is what Arrow is currently forcing me to do. It’s treading water with these new characters (who I don’t particularly care about) until it can bring in the big guns. While seasons three and four sort of wandered a bit, you always knew who the Big Bad was, even if there were lesser villains kicking around. Your hero is only as good as your villain, and when you know who the Real Villain is, you can immediately kick into Give a Shit Mode as a viewer.
Right now, there’s not even any mystery as to how Tobias Church gets his resources. Even Brother Blood from season two needed backing from Slade to conduct his experiments. With Tobias Church, he’s got two things: a lot of guns and a lot of dudes. He steals the guns and he recruits the dudes. Bam. Mystery solved.
And the new characters aren’t holding much water either. One of the strengths of Arrow and its spin-offs has always been continuity, its habit of following the Law of Conservation of Characters, which is a subtrope of the Law of Conservation of Detail. Roy Harper had to go on the lam, so they needed to retire Arsenal and get a new sidekick. Hey, Thea’s been trained by that League of Assassins villain from season one who is also really her father! Perfect! That’s how we got Speedy.
The new team members have been introduced out of nowhere with the exception of Mister Terrific, which means that I literally do not give a shit about any of the others, up to and including knowing their names. Hockey Mask Guy (whose sole contribution to the show has been allowing Stephen Amell to lean on the fourth wall while talking about how fighting crime in a hockey mask is actually pretty cool), Shooty Arrow Girl, and Mummy Dude basically occupy zero space in my brain and only highlight exactly how much I’d rather be watching the Green Arrow working together with Speedy and Spartan again.
I like Mister Terrific, though. We can keep him, because he’s got solid roots in the series already. Everyone else is basically just there to play The Apprentice: Green Arrow Edition, which is tiresome for a whole host of reasons I won’t even bother enumerating here.
So, to sum up. Things that the first season of Arrow did correctly, leading to grabbing and holding my attention:
- Introduced a steady cast of characters and slowly, organically brought them into Ollie’s fold.
- Gave the audience an immediate throughline for the rest of the season (The List).
- Provided the identity of the season’s arch-villain up front (Malcolm Merlyn).
Things that the fifth season of Arrow is currently fucking up that are resulting in the complete loss of my interest:
- Introducing new sidekicks out of nowhere (with the exception of Mister Terrific, who is cool).
- Not having an established thread to follow, which is making the season feel disjointed and confused.
- Faffing around with a minor villain of no real interest up front (Tobias Church) while holding the arch-villain in reserve (Prometheus).
With this in mind, here are my (suggested) ingredients for maintaining an audience’s interest. This is presupposing that we’re dealing with a very specific and pulpy action-adventure genre, which will naturally have different requirements for maintaining attention than other kinds of stories. Also remembering that these are 100% my opinions and should be taken, as everything I say, with a grain of salt:
- Only adding new characters when necessary. You’ve earned love for your existing characters, so don’t discard ’em unnecessarily.
- Continuity, continuity, continuity. Everything needs to be linked by a plotline that is visible to the audience, otherwise it all seems meaningless. Real life has jack shit for continuity. That’s part of why we turn to fiction.
- The up-front introduction of a respectable, credible, interesting threat. Bonus points if they’re played by Neal McDonough.
So what do you guys think? Am I off the mark? Did I hit the nail on the head? Does anyone else out there watch Arrow? Am I alone in the universe? Let me know in the comments!