Call the understudy, I can't go on tonight
I'm drinking with my buddy, I'm getting good and tight
Before they raise the curtain I'll be higher than a kite
So call the understudy, I can't go on tonight!
I fell in love with "Slings & Arrows" with the very first episode, and by the end of its third (and final) season, I knew I had experienced something magical. Here is unquestionably the very best television series of this decade, a masterpiece of writing, performance, and direction that filled each of its eighteen episodes with more drama, comedy, and wonder than most series create in an entire run.
A key to the series' success is its brevity. While other shows managed to ramble past their expiration date, or stumble mid-season as the writing staff tries to figure out where to go next, "Slings & Arrows" was crafted in advance as a complete vision; knowing where each six-episode season would end up allowed the writers to weave intricate character webs that were not given the opportunity to go off the rails. I often use the term "airtight" to describe intricately constructed screenplays, and the term has rarely been as accurate as it is in describing the scripts from Susan Coyne, Bob Martin, and Mark McKinney.
Add to this one of the finest ensemble casts ever assembled, a talented bunch capable of handling both the solid Shakespeare sequences onstage and the wild comedy off. Then add Peter Wellington's whip-smart direction, which deftly handles the series' many mood swings without missing a single beat. Top it off with some of the catchiest music around (the wonderful score is by Ron Sures; the various theme songs are by Martin, Lisa Lambert, and Bob Morrison, the trio behind Broadway's brilliant "The Drowsy Chaperone"). And there you have it: the best series of the decade. No other show comes close.
I've written about all three seasons individually, and to avoid the risk of repeating myself with any further blathering praise, I'll simply point you to those previous reviews, plus a single quote from each that I hope best sums up my feelings toward the show:
Season one: "Slings & Arrows" is the sort of highly involving, highly addictive television that doesn't come around often enough.
Season two: This is some of the best television you'll ever get the chance to watch.
Season three: This is perfect television on every level.
So yes, I like the show. And, apparently, hyperbole.
The reason for this review, then, is to discuss the upcoming complete series box set from Acorn Media. Yes, "Slings & Arrows" is joining that long list of series that ask fans to pick up the dreaded double dip. But is it worth it?
If you heeded my advice regarding the earlier season sets, you should by now have all three collections on your shelf. I gave the second and third seasons the coveted "DVD Talk Collector Series" rating, and in hindsight, I probably should have done the same for season one. (I suppose I was feeling a bit conservative back then, unsure of what the future seasons would bring.) The only thing you won't have if you avoid purchasing Acorn's new "Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection" is a new disc of bonus material, handily titled "Bonus Disc." That's the only difference - not only are the six discs containing the eighteen episodes identical to the ones contained in the season sets, but the cases are the same slimline packs, too. (For my notes on video and audio quality and bonus features, click over to the individual season reviews; I'm omitting such information here in the interest of avoiding redundancy.) All Acorn does here is take the six discs from the previous season sets, toss out the individual cardboard slipcovers, toss in a new, single slipcover, one with room for one more disc (also in a slimline case).
Of course, if you don't have these season sets, then this new box is obviously the way to go. But fans are essentially being asked to pay sixty bucks for one new batch of extras, and it's just not worth it. Here's what's contained on that seventh disc:
"A Look Behind the Scenes" (8:58) features interviews with Susan Coyne, Stephen Ouimette, Paul Gross, Martha Burns, and Graham Harley, mixed with clips from the series and on-set behind-the-scenes footage. It sounds more impressive than it is - this is essentially an EPK piece, with the cast members offering only the fluffiest commentary on the series. The interviews were all taken in February 2006, during filming of the third season, and as such they deal almost entirely with the themes of that season.
That same day's footage is used for three longer interviews with Burns (8:50), Ouimette (9:33), and Harley (4:05). The actors discuss their characters, their acting methods, and their thoughts on the series, plus the sheer Canadian-ness of the series; disappointingly, some of what's heard here is repeated in the "Behind the Scenes" featurette.
"William Hutt on the Set" (2:35) and "Cast and Crew on the Set" (5:32) are collections of footage taken during rehearsals and filming. Captured mostly by digital camcorder, it's the equivalent of watching home movies (but with solid video quality). The Hutt featurette includes an voice-only introduction from Coyne explaining how exciting it was to get the theater legend involved in the show.
"Director on the Set" is divided into three parts (27:27 total), and like the other "on the set" bits, these are simply home video snippets of Peter Wellington at work during the third season. With no accompanying commentary to cover for the long stretches of shots of people just standing around, did we really need a half hour of this?
(Note: All the material on this bonus disc is presented in 1.33:1 full frame, with clips from the series properly letterboxed.)
While it's nice to spend a little more time with the show's creators, these extras just aren't worth sixty dollars. Heck, they'd barely be memorable if they were included in the original season sets, which makes me think these were leftovers from the season three box set.
So how does one handle a release like "Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection"? If this were the first time the series was landing on DVD, then it'd be an instant member of the DVD Talk Collector Series - the six discs from the season sets are top notch stuff, more than making up for the weak seventh disc. If you don't already own this show on DVD, this set's a must-have. But considering the duplicate nature of this release, plus the unimpressive material found on the bonus disc, and I will tell fans of the series, those who already own the previous sets, to just Rent the bonus disc just for curiosity's sake. Considering most people reading this are likely to be fans looking for information on that bonus disc, I'll aim my official rating at them. But again I must stress: if you don't have the earlier discs, this new set is Collector Series material all the way.