Call me superstitious or cowardly or weak
But I'll never play a character
Whose name one dare not speak.
I'll play Hamlet in dublet and hose
Or either of the Dromeos
But sorry, I won't play Mackers.
The six-part miniseries "Slings & Arrows," produced for Canada's Movie Central network and rebroadcast in the States on the Sundance Channel, was such a compact bit of wonderful storytelling that even though everything about it left you craving more, the idea of any sort of follow-up seemed iffy. After all, how could the show's creators possibly continue what was so delicately woven into six acts?
And yet here we are with season two of the series, another six-part set originally broadcast in 2005, and you know what? It's even better.
The genius of both the series and this season begins in the writing. Like season one, all six teleplays here were penned by Susan Coyne, Bob Martin, and Mark McKinney, who bring to us a witty insight into the backstage world of a Shakespeare festival in the fictional town of New Burbage. It is a combination of clever dialogue, knowing character study, tight plot construction, and a flowing wave of emotion that makes this sequel season as perfect as anything you've ever seen on television.
The six acts of this series are so expertly handled that those wishing to study screenwriting would do fine to study this closely. The season premiere, "Season's End," works as a bridge between the first and second seasons, picking up with the final performance of "Hamlet." Audiences have dwindled to fogeys and rowdy school field trips, and everyone's getting teary over the end of another fine season. We're allowed to glimpse an epilogue to the love story between the Hollywood star (Luke Kirby) and the ingénue (Rachel McAdams); the romance between diva Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns) and her affectionate boy toy Sloan (Matt Fitzgerald) reaches its own high point; and semi-insane director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) is convinced by all to put the dreaded, cursed, beloved "Macbeth" into next year's season. Just as the pilot from season one acted as a prologue, setting in place all the pieces of the story before formally launching them into action with the second episode, "Season's End" allows for the tying up of loose ends and the untying of all new threads. As a stand-alone piece, it's phenomenal. As the beginning of a whole new story, it's so much more.
The rest of the season follows Geoffrey's cursed attempts to merge his vision of "the Scottish play" with the vision of the late Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), who was kind enough to leave eight boxes of notes, and who is now kind enough to return once more as the spectre seemingly forever doomed to haunt Geoffrey. Meanwhile, Richard (McKinney), the theater's oft-frazzled business manager, gets to suffer an even greater fall than the one he suffered the first time around, as he's fast-talked into a questionable ad campaign by a marketing slickster (Colm Feore) hopped up on New Age good vibes. There's also the business of a snobbish bore of a theater star (Geriant Wyn Davies) landing the role of Macbeth, the stars of "Romeo and Juliet" (Joanne Kelly and David Alpay) finding unlikely magic, a familiar pretentious jackass (Don McKellar) returning to direct what just might be the world's worst concept ever, and the invasion of incompetent interns, among them a well-meaning flake (Grace Lynn Kung) with a penchant for crying over everything.
And yet I've barely cracked the surface of what goes on in this season, which builds and builds and builds to magnificent new emotional heights, although I'm loathe to ruin them for you by exposing them here. The writers take us on an amazing journey of character, a complex web that crisscrosses until it hits its peak, the fifth episode, "Steeped in Blood," which packs so much into its mere 46 minute running time that it feels like more than just another TV episode; it's a complete tale all its own. There's business with Ellen's tax audit and Richard's floundering ad campaign and even some possible romance for the mousy Anna (Coyne), and then we come to the preview night for "Macbeth," where there's some business with an understudy (Oliver Dennis) that brought tears to my eyes.
And then, just when you think you've hit the series' finest episode, you discover "Birnam Wood," the season finale, which actually tops "Steeped in Blood" in every way. "Macbeth" opens, and the results are mesmerizing. Characters find their place in the world. Hearts are broken, others saved. And then, just as we think it's all over and everything's all wrapped up nicely, we have a bit of an epilogue wrapping up the "Romeo and Juliet" subplot that's as radiant as it is touching.
Again, "Birnam Wood" works wonders on its own, telling a fully realized, dynamic story within its short running time. Which is the secret to "Slings & Arrows" as a series: each episode stands out as something of a mini-masterpiece, and you think yes, this is flawless storytelling. Then you connect the dots, step back, and see the big picture, everything fitting just right. The construction of this series is impeccable.
You can only do much with construction, however, and so we're also graced with some of television's sharpest dialogue. "Slings & Arrows" is continuously funny, never far from a biting quip or a quotable one-liner. This is only enhanced, then, by expert direction (from Peter Wellington, who also helmed the first season) that understands timing and rhythm and when to focus on laughs and when to back away to more tender matters.
The cast, then, completes the picture. It's tempting to spend paragraphs praising the subtle, powerful work of any one cast member, but that would only take away from the rest. Instead, I will simply announce that the entire cast here is jaw-dropping, never an off moment, never a hesitant beat. So careful are all of them in building fully believable and endlessly watchable people that it becomes so very easy to forget that Geoffrey and Ellen and Richard and Oliver are only characters in a story. These performances do what great acting intends: it elevates you, transports you to their world, makes you believe without effort.
The DVD production notes inform that despite its initial status as "a drama in six parts," "Slings & Arrows" was originally designed as a trilogy of miniseries; the third and apparently final season of the show aired earlier this year in Canada. (As of this writing, a Stateside broadcast has yet to be announced.) This thrills me, as I long for one more go with these wonderful people. And, like any good second act should, year two wraps up completely yet with a pinch of unresolved mystery. The final moments of this season, then, become both satisfying in the highest manner and haunting on a deeper level. The story is complete, and yet it is not over.
Acorn Media collects all six episodes of the "Slings & Arrows" second season onto two discs, kept in two slimline cases which are housed in a cardboard slipcase. The packaging matches the box set of the first season.
Disc One includes the episodes "Season's End," "Fallow Time," and "Rarer Monsters." Disc Two includes the episodes "Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair," "Steeped in Blood," and "Birnam Wood."
As with the first season's DVD release, there's just a hint of broadcast softness to the anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) image, but nothing at all that hinders the presentation. This is a fairly recent production, and the quality of the transfer shows it.
The Dolby 2.0 stereo is top notch. No subtitles are provided.
On Disc One, we start with a joint interview (14:10) featuring Martha Burns and Stephen Ouimette. It doesn't feel at all like promotional material - it's more heartfelt than that, and a delight to watch. Sadly, the interviewer appears not to be using a microphone, as you can barely hear the questions.
A series of deleted and extended scenes (14:19 total) help flesh out some of the story, but as with those featured on the DVD set of the first season, there's nothing here that feels unnecessarily cut.
A trailer (3:58) for the second season is a bit too long and a bit too eager to give away a few of the show's best moments; feel free to avoid until after you've caught all the episodes.
Disc One concludes with a set of production notes and cats filmographies, both text-only.
Disc Two begins with a rousing interview (7:55) with Michael Polley and Graham Harley, who play the series' charming theater vets throughout the series (and sing the show's theme songs). They're just as much a joy to watch in real life as their characters are on the show. As with the other interview, the questions are barely audible.
A set of bloopers (9:54) is a gag reel with long, long takes being shown before the slip-up arrives, edited together with two-second shots of quick goofs.
A photo gallery (1:35) plays out as a slide show set to music, a mix of production photos featuring stills from the series and cast group shots.
Finally, the lyrics to the cheery pub tunes "Mackers" and "Call the Understudy" (the latter returns to end every episode) are included.
All bonus material is presented in a 1.33:1 format, with clips from the show presented in flat letterbox.
This is some of the best television you'll ever get the chance to watch, plain and simple. Catch up with the first season if you need to (reviewed here, if you need further convincing), then grab this one immediately. After all, it's part of the DVD Talk Collector Series.