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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Friday (8/1/14) 1:17am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Arrow [1x01-1x06]
Books:  <none>
Other:  Uncle Vanya [audiodrama, L. A. Theaterworks]

Arrow [1x01-1x06]
This is the CW comic-book adaptation about Oliver Queen, a pampered, über-rich playboy who returns from a mysterious shipwreck intent on saving his city by moonlighting as a masked vigilante.

This is surprisingly not-bad.

I was expecting badness.  I often don't like comic-book adaptations.  I am not the target audience of the CW.  And with Arrow in particular, everyone warned me that the first half-dozen episodes were crap.

But it wasn't that bad.  I mean, sure, these episodes are limited in a lot of ways.  It's kind of hilarious that Queen has a list of names of the villains keeping Starling City down, both because it's a transparent mechanism to create a villain-of-the-week for the show, and because the very notion of fixing a city by  putting a few Snidely Whiplashes out of commission is sadly hilarious.  (Yes, that is the hollow laughter of David Simon that you hear.)

And yes, Arrow is very much a CW show.  If the actors' faces were any smoother or shinier, the whole thing would fall into an uncanny valley of weirdly-plasticine CGI.  The actors deliberately go for the stilted intensity of teen soap operas, which goes well with the soundtrack that constantly blares at you how you're supposed to be feeling.  Anyone above the age of thirty gets efficiently pushed to the periphery of the story.  Every episode delivers hilarious levels of exposition -- at one point someone sees a photo of a character we have seen literally six minutes ago, and they patiently flash back to show us that footage again, in case we've suffered some sort of blunt head trauma.

But I honestly don't mind all of that.  The key word in the above paragraph is 'deliberately' -- Arrow builds a neat, fake world, which has neat, fake solutions to its neat, fake problems, and that's *fine*.  The characters rarely hang a lantern on the ridiculousness of that world, so I can pony up my suspension-of-disbelief and go along for the ride.  At this point, Arrow has no pretenses to being anything *more* than a CW superhero show, and so I get a show that's fun the way, say, Xena: Warrior Princess was fun or The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. was fun.

And there's a lot to like here.  The structure of periodically showing us flashbacks to Oliver's time on the island is a neat crib from LOST[1]  The mystery surrounding Oliver's shipwreck and Island Fun Times is engaging, and I appreciate that these mysteries are presented much more like "Huh.  That's odd.  Wonder why that happened." and much less like "THIS IS AN UNSOLVED MYSTERY OMG HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE".  They have done a nice job of slowly exploring that mystery, and keeping those tidbits relevant to the current story.

The acting is just fine.  It's not great; it's not awful.  Everyone warned me that Stephen Amell takes some time to get into the role, but he's already leagues better than Agent Ward on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..  Thea and Tommy are already pretty winning side characters, and the actress who plays Felicity is great at portraying very natural awkwardness.[2]

But the real highlight is the directing.  They direct the hell out of this show.  They pace their shots beautifully in the action sequences -- fast enough to stay interesting, measured enough to avoid Bayhem.  And there are little things, too -- they let the camera move, often in a way that has elements moving in the foreground and background, helpfully conveying the three-dimensionality of the space.[3]  And there are well-constructed static shots:

That's an attorney-client meeting in a prison that, with a lesser director, might stick to a balanced two-shot -- or worse, the usual alternation of close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots.  Instead, the director breaks free of that with a clever shot from a low corner of the room, putting a passing guard in the foreground, the prisoner in the background, and the attorney in the middle.

Choices like this don't cost them tons and tons of money.  They don't require clever and expensive CGI.  They don't require tons of extras or carefully-constructed sets.  But they make the show fun and refreshing to watch even when the story feels a bit rote or the soundtrack isn't letting the actors put in a good performance.

So I'll be happy to see how the rest of this comes out.

Uncle Vanya [audiodrama, L. A. Theaterworks]
This is an audio recording of an L. A. production of the classic Chekhov play.  It is listed as "an adaptation by David Mamet," which somewhat puzzles me.  How much adapting does the original play need?  And is Mamet your immediate go-to for Chekhovian drama?

I suspect I would have gotten more out of this if I were very, very familiar with Uncle Vanya.  As it is, I only know the vague outline of the play.  And the thing is, this audio recording is just that -- not an audiodrama, but just a recording of the stage production.  So it doesn't do any hand-holding at all -- you're essentially watching the play with your eyes closed, and if two voices sound similar, well, good luck sorting it out.  The best I could manage was to enjoy it moment-to-moment, sort of like, "I like this scene.  This is a great scene.  There's some good acting in this scene.  I have no earthly idea how this scene relates to the rest of the story.  Ah well."

All that said, this is part of my continuing preparations for the Chekhov auditions in a week and a half, and for that, it's worked well.  Sometimes it's just good to get the language rattling around in your head, and let the tone kind of wash over you.  Now, if I can just pick out a monolog....

For next week: more reform-school movies, as I prepare for the Wayward Girls show, more of Arrow, and maybe another Tufte book.  Hopefully I'll start reading Tapworthy (it's about iPhone app design, not dancing).  Meanwhile, I've started listening to the excellent audiobook production of The Final Command, the last Star Wars novel in Timothy Zahn's "Thrawn Trilogy".

[1] ... though I could easily see the flashbacks showing diminishing returns after a while.  Fortunately, I think they could phase out the flashbacks without breaking the show.
[2] Oops, that's a paradox.  Perhaps a better way to phrase it is that she doesn't strain to *signify* "I AM BEING AWKWARD"; she just lets the clumsy conversation play out like it would in real life.
[3] This is used to great effect in, of all things, the establishing shots in The Wire, which all track just a little bit, in a way that's visually engaging and conveys three-dimensional space.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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