Slings and Arrows
A month or so ago, my favorite newsman, Scott Simon of NPR’s "Weekend Edition Saturday" interviewed Canadian actors Paul Gross and Martha Burns (Gross, who is married to Burns, is best known to American audiences as dreamy constable Benton Fraser from “Due South”) about their series “Slings and Arrows.”
Simon compared "Slings and Arrows" to the "Sopranos" and told how critics have dubbed it "the best show ever on TV." Chances are you've never heard of it. The reason is that “Slings and Arrows” is a Canadian import that only aired on the premium Sundance Channel. Intrigued, I decided to Netflix the first season. Luckily “Slings and Arrows” follows the British model: a season consists of only six episodes. Even if you were to watch every episode of the show’s three seasons, you’d still come up several episodes short of a typical American season.
The show’s title is taken from Hamlet’s famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, and was co-created and co-written by former “Kids in the Hall” member Mark McKinney, playwright and actress Susan Coyne, and comedian Bob Martin, the Tony-award winning co-creator of Broadway's “The Drowsy Chaperone,“ all three of whom also star in the series.
“Slings and Arrows” is a moving love letter, simultaneously celebrating and satirizing the theater. It finds the clichés of backstage drama and spins them on their head. If you’ve ever been involved in the performing arts, you'll understand the art vs. commerce, boiling egos, and creative differences that go on behind the scenes of any production. Billing itself as a comedy about drama, “Slings and Arrows” is indeed side-splittingly, belly-laugh funny, but this blackly comic series has far too many moments of real, profound sadness to ever be considered a purely humorous concept.
The action is set at the fictional New Burbage Festival, a troubled Shakespearean theatre. In the first season, (trailer) New Burbage artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) is killed in a car accident and his replacement is none other than Geoffrey Tennant (Gross), who was once Welles’ protégé until he suffered a nervous breakdown playing Hamlet and was committed to a psychiatric institution. It becomes immediately clear that the once venerable theater company is now living on its laurels, and that Oliver sold out artistry for crass commerciality. It is a theme that rears it ugly head throughout the series and represents one of the fundamental artistic paradoxes of our time—how to sell without selling out. It’s not bad enough that Geoffrey inherits a festival rife with commercialization, but his first production is to be (or not to be!) “Hamlet.” Add to that, his former lover, Ellen (Burns) is the festival diva with a bad attitude, an American action film star has been hired to play Hamlet, the actress portraying Ophelia can’t act worth a lick, the festival's business manager, Richard Smith-Jones (McKinney) has been convinced by American executive Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) to remake New Burbage into a shallow, superficial amusement park, and up-and-coming ingénue Kate (the luminous Rachel McAdams just prior to her discovery in The Wedding Crashers) finds herself falling for her American co-star. Oh yeah, and Oliver has returned to haunt Geoffrey as a ghost. Sound familiar!?
In season two (trailer), the production begrudgingly decides to undertake “Macbeth,” a play historically fraught with bad luck. The guest lead actor, Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies) was once brilliant but is in danger of becoming a hack. Richard, desperate for money to keep the company going, agrees to an extreme rebranding by an avant-garde advertising agency, whose head, Sanjay (Colm Feore), initiates a series of shockingly offensive advertisements. Darren Nichols (Don McKellar), a ridiculously foppish director who was originally set to direct Hamlet in season one until Geoffrey drove him out of town at the point of a stage rapier returns to helm “Romeo and Juliet” with the postmodern concept that the leads never once look at each other and are dressed as enormous chess pieces. While Geoffrey obsesses over “Macbeth,” Ellen and the rest of the crew fear for his sanity when he begins regularly conversing with the ever-present Oliver, whom only Geoffrey can see.
In the third and final season, the festival follows its stellar production of “Macbeth” with “King Lear.” But almost as soon as Geoffrey’s secures the legendary theatre actor Charles Kingman (William Hutt) as Lear, everything begins to fall apart. Kingman is angry and abusive, an aging man with a heroine addiction hiding a far more tragic secret. When Richard and Darren team up to direct a musical—the singing/dancing cast of which clash violently with the cultured Shakespearian types—its success soon overshadows the troubled Shakespeare production. When Ellen quits—on opening night, no less—to take up TV, Geoffrey seeks therapy from an unlikely source.
I am inclined to say that there are no words to describe how much I have fallen in love with this series, but I will, of course, endeavor to find some.
The writing on “Slings and Arrows” is nothing short of brilliant, especially when you consider how wonderfully compact it all is. The narrative construction is impeccable. Like something from master writer Aaron Sorkin, the dialogue sizzles with a lyrical, poetic rhythm. Astonishingly funny, the script is always ready with a biting quip or a quotable one-liner. "Slings & Arrows" is that rare sort of program that doubles you over with laughter one moment and leaves you wailing in tears the next. Each episode stands as a masterpiece in miniature, and when taken as a whole, the big picture is flawless. And that big picture is, quite simply, perfect television.
Every season opens with a different theme song, a rousing, gather-round-the-piano-and-sing-a-long pub tune tailored for each season’s particular play. Witty and hilarious, they are not, in fact, long lost show tunes, but purely original numbers.
If the show business ideal is to leave them wanting more, then “Slings and Arrows” succeeds in spades. It’s not that the seasons are too short to properly deal with their respective plots—an American show dealing with this much plot would be hard pressed to fit it into the traditional 22 episodes—but that we simply want them to stick around longer. No sooner have they cast their magic than they vanish.
The writers have created amusing and touching characters, endlessly involving and endearing. The magnificent cast, truly one of the finest television has ever assembled, is an ensemble of fully formed, completely flawed, exasperating and enchanting individuals. Yet these foibles never hide the writers (and our) genuine affection for them. It is obvious these actors have all done Shakespeare for years. It is one thing to portray a Shakespearean actor convincingly, quite another to portray a Shakespearian character with equal if not superior aplomb. From the largest to the smallest part, the acting is simply peerless. Their performances, executed with nary an off moment, elevate, transform, and mesmerize.
Don’t be put off by the show’s Shakespearian subject matter. You don’t need to be a Shakespeare or theatre geek to enjoy it, though, as with viewing the film Shakespeare in Love you may get more of the many in-jokes. While theatre fans will rejoice, perhaps the best thing about the show is that those who would normally fall into the anti-anything to do with Shakespeare camp may well find the Bard accessible for the first time in their lives. The phenomenally poignant insights “Slings and Arrows” offers, into both the plays and their characters, is nothing short of breathtaking, the stuff of required viewing for students of any age.
Boisterous and sublime, “Slings and Arrows” is a winning combination of clever dialogue, knowing character studies, tight plot construction, and an emotional throughline that makes for a truly unforgettable series.