Shakespeare goes Canadian
I currently live in Washington State, practically on the border of Canada. In fact, I live so close, it’s sad that I haven’t spent more time in America’s Great Coonskin Cap.
You know I’m not actually going to go outside, so what better way is there to explore a whole country than through its pop culture? Specifically, its TV.
I had heard of Slings and Arrows several times in the last few years, but I blame my close proximity to the show’s home country (okay, and the fact that it popped up on my Netflix suggestions) as the reason I finally got around to watching it.
This show began in 2003 and ran for three six episode seasons, using a Shakespearean backdrop to tell the story of a man who is grappling with the loss of his mentor.
Paul Gross plays Geoffrey Tennant, who takes over as artistic director of the fictional New Burbage Shakespeare Festival, after the previous director is run over by a semi transporting refrigerated hams.
Slight aside: when I first heard about this show, I translated “Shakespeare festival” to one of those weird medieval dress-up fairs. Turns out, it’s actually just a theater company. Silly, uncultured me.
Geoffrey almost immediately begins seeing Oliver’s ghost, who is very insistent on continuing his work from beyond the grave.
While Geoffrey is dealing with this in a very humorous way (lots of people giving him quizzical looks as he seemingly rants to himself), he must also deal with his past demons. Turns out, Geoffrey spent some time in a mental ward after literally running away during the middle of a production a decade earlier.
While dealing with the consequences of returning to the place that sent him off the deep end, Geoffrey must also face the woman that helped put him there: Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), who we slowly get more information about throughout the first season, eventually learning what her part in crazifying Geoffrey was.
Okay, let’s take a tally: We have Geoffrey seeing a ghost, getting over being crazy, taking over as artistic director, and dealing with the love of his life. Seems like a lot for a show to handle, but that’s only what happens to the lead character.
We also have a whole heap of supporting characters that play large roles in season one, such as festival manager Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney), who is working with a corporate sponsor (Jennifer Irwin) to turn the festival into a near-theme park, with musicals, restaurants, and a hotel.
Now that I’ve successfully explained the premise of this show, let me tell you why I love it so much.
First of all, you’ve got great comedy and drama, stemming from excellent, fully realized characters. This is particularly true in Geoffrey, who is brilliant and semi-mad, but full of great, biting one-liners.
Secondly, what sets this show apart from other workplace comedies is that it dives deep into the ins and outs of how a play is put on. I’ve always been a fan of shows that explore how things are made, and Slings and Arrows takes it to a whole other level, shadowing the process from casting to previews.
The writers are so successful at making you care about the plays and characters, that when they finally get to opening night, you’ll practically be biting your nails, hoping everything will go perfectly.
Not only does show the production process, but it also takes on the reasons why Shakespeare is so beloved. You’ll definitely come out of this show with a new appreciation of the Bard’s work.
Most shows will take these elements that made them successful and stick with them. However, Sling and Arrows is definitely not afraid to reinvent itself.
Each season takes on different productions: Hamlet in season one, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet in the second, and King Lear and an original musical in the final season.
Along with these plays come new characters. Each play has a specific set of actors that appear for the production and then disappear. While replacing beloved characters is dangerous work, the writers manage to pull it off by always creating compelling mini-arcs for the new characters (outside of the Romeo and Juliet plot, which is just plain weird – you’ll see what I’m talking about).
It’s amazing how well all of these elements, the characters, constantly changing productions and story lines, and even the amazing score come together to create something so fantastic.
Okay, I seem to be babbling at this point, so I’ll leave you with this: Go watch this show right now. If you don’t…okay, there are no consequences, but you will most definitely be missing out on something awesome.