Your incessant monologizing fills the castle with ennui
Your antic disposition is embarrassing to see
And by the way, you sulky brat, the answer is "to be!"
There's much to admire in any television series that opens every episode with a rousing sing-along rendition of "Cheer Up Hamlet." Haven't heard the song before? Neither had I, although it's so artfully written that when I first heard it, I figured it was some long-lost pub tune. It is instead a purely original number, lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Bob Martin, music by Greg Morrison (the trio would later team with Don McKellar to create "The Drowsy Chaperone" for Broadway), and this song, along with "Call the Understudy," the equally rousing gather-'round-the-piano song that ends each episode, informs the viewer right away that we're in for something special, something witty, snappy, intelligent, fun.
The series in question is "Slings & Arrows," a six-episode mini produced for Canada's Movie Central network (and rebroadcast in the States on the Sundance Channel) that follows the insanity that prevails backstage at a Shakespeare festival in the fictional town of New Burbage. It's a valentine to the theater and those who make it their lives, although you don't need to be a drama geek to enjoy it. (Of course, it doesn't hurt…)
The series opens with the festival putting on a rather uninspired production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), the show's director (and festival's artistic director), has run out of inspiration, and it shows. Meanwhile, across town, maniac artist Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross, from TV's "Due South") is struggling to keep a rundown theater open, going so far as getting arrested when he chains himself to the building. These stories collide as flashbacks reveal that Oliver and Geoffrey once worked together at the festival, until Geoffrey suffered an on-stage mental breakdown during "Hamlet." The third party in this once-close circle, festival diva Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns, Gross' real-life wife), has her own secrets; as the series unfolds, we discover what happened during that fateful run of "Hamlet" that tore apart three close friends.
These three characters hold the center of "Slings & Arrows," although they are not the sole focus. The series details the festival's next production, a return to "Hamlet." It's a return that on its own is enough to bring up plenty of bad memories and new fears, but there's more: in hopes of attracting bigger crowds, a Hollywood superstar (Luke Kirby) has been hired to play the lead role. (Production notes reveal that this was inspired in part by Keanu Reeves' portrayal of the same part in Winnipeg back in 1995.)
There's also some backstabbing on the part of the theater's business manager (Mark McKinney - yes, that Mark McKinney) and his corporate weasel girlfriend (Jennifer Irwin), who want to turn the festival into a more commercial venue - you know, less "Pericles," more "Mamma Mia!" And if that's not enough, let me add that a pre-famous Rachel McAdams has a meaty role as an up-and-coming ingénue, and the aforementioned Mackellar (best known as the filmmaker behind the indie fave "Last Night") pops by as a pompous, imbecilic director.
It all makes for a riveting series, airtight in its construction, its six hours flying by with ease. This is marvelous character stuff, funny and touching, endlessly involving. It finds the clichés of backstage drama and then it breaks them: the Hollywood star is more than mere comic relief, the corporate drama is more than cheap conflict. It's a brilliant mixture of expert writing and top notch acting, with everyone involved showing a genuine love for the material.
And oh, how the dialogue sizzles. This is the sort of series that depends on the sharpest of scripting; like the best Aaron Sorkin teleplays, "Slings & Arrows" has a rhythm that's downright lyrical, in both its comedy and its drama. Even throwaway lines (my favorite being a running gag involving a secretary and her inability to understand what "black coffee" means) get the utmost attention, and the result is a show that's a wonder for the ears.
It's telling that the only complaint about the series boils down to there not being enough. The screenplay (from McKinney, Martin, and Susan Coyne) drops the characters from Geoffrey's rundown theater once he's brought back to the festival, and it doesn't give us enough of the business executive (Martin) who takes a workshop and falls in love with the theater (a thoroughly moving subplot). And yet I can't figure a way to add more of these characters without disrupting the flow of the final story. Let's chalk it up to this series being so good that you walk away wanting more, and more, and more.
Others obviously felt that way, for although "Slings & Arrows" was intended as "a drama in six parts," it was brought back for a second season, which also ran as a six-parter (and which I have not yet seen). This is good news indeed. "Slings & Arrows" is excellent television, and six episodes with these people just isn't enough.
Acorn Media collects the first season of "Slings & Arrows" onto two discs. The discs are packaged in two slimline cases that are housed in a cardboard slipcase.
Disc One includes the episodes "Oliver's Dream," "Geoffrey's Return," and "Madness In Great Ones." Disc Two includes the episodes "Outrageous Fortune," "A Mirror Up To Nature," and "Playing the Swan."
The anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) presentation has a bit of broadcast softness to it, but is otherwise very acceptable.
Dolby 2.0 stereo, wonderfully showcasing the snappy dialogue and Ron Sures' jazzy musical score.
A rather long trailer gives away a little more of the story than you might like (including a chunk of the finale); I recommend saving it until after you've watched all six episodes.
A six-minute blooper reel is cute but isn't all that amusing, considering many clips go for quite some time before getting to the flub.
Ten minutes of extended and deleted scenes fare much better. While it's obvious to see why these cuts were made (again, it all goes into the show's airtight construction, and one of the scenes contradicts a bit of character development), it's nice to see just a little more of these characters. (Catherine Fitch's extended profanity-laced tirade is especially notable.)
Rounding out the set are production notes, cast filmographies, a list of the series' credits, and lyrics to "Cheer Up Hamlet" and "Call the Understudy."
While the extras are on the light side, the series itself is exceptional and very much worth hunting down. Highly Recommended without hesitation - "Slings & Arrows" is the sort of highly involving, highly addictive television that doesn't come around often enough.