When people you trust tell nothing but lies
And kidnap your friend and gouge out his eyes
It's nice to take a walk in the rain!
The thing I failed to mention in my reviews of the previous two seasons of the Canadian dramedy series "Slings & Arrows" is just how stunningly multilayered the acting is. Sure, I have praised the performers before - this group truly ranks among the finest television casts ever assembled - but this praise was limited to generic comments relating to how they effectively handle the sharp script and how they fully create real people. It seems I forgot to praise them for their ability to, in the middle of all this dialogue juggling and character crafting, put on some damn fine Shakespeare.
For the third and final season of this outstanding television work (which ran in 2006 on Canada's Movie Network and was rebroadcast in the States earlier this year on the Sundance Channel), our old friends at the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival are putting on "King Lear." As with the earlier seasons, there are many problems along the way, but it would not be a spoiler to reveal that the show does in fact go on in time for the final episode. To make all this work, the cast must create believable characters worthy of our attention, people who are also able to show growth in their own acting abilities, so that over the course of the season we see their onstage work rise and fall in step with their offstage successes and failures, all culminating in a performance worthy of the fictional festival's reputation as North America's finest theater. When these actors play "Lear," they must do it as great Shakespeare, but they must also do it as great Shakespeare as put on by their characters. When stage legend William Hutt screams in agony in the final act of "Lear," we cry not only because Hutt is so great in the role, but because we have watched his character of Charles, the aging stage legend who wants to play Lear before he dies, work through his own demons to get to this point.
And yes, we do cry. Or, at least, I did. "Slings & Arrows" remains that kind of program, the sort that gets you doubled over with laughter one scene and shaken to the core the next. This third season dials down the comedy somewhat, with the humor less broad and more biting than before. There is a fresh anger here, which may darken the wry comedy, but it never dilutes it.
Following the events of the first two seasons, the New Burbage Festival is on a run of unexpected success. So why is nobody happy? Geoffrey (Paul Gross) weeps uncontrollably whenever he steps on stage, and his impotence follows him to the bedroom, threatening his relationship with Ellen (Martha Burns). Richard (Mark McKenney) finds himself afraid of accepting his own successes, and becomes depressed over the notion of forever being nothing but a bean counter. And where has the ghost of Oliver (Stephen Ouimette) gone?
Ah, but things quickly change, as Richard bumbles his way into managing the festival's musical, "East Hastings," a snarky parody of modern, shallow shows like "Rent." (One scene devilishly parallels the telling of the "Lear" story with the rundown of "East Hastings." As Charles eloquently explains the ideas behind Shakespeare's work, the writer of the musical stumbles through every modern musical cliché. We end with Charles quietly informing us that the moral of the story is for us to decide; cut to the musical, where a song's lyrics crudely blare its own moral into our heads, over and over again.) It's a show so terrible that only the idiotic Darren Nichols (Don McKellar) could direct it. And yet Richard somehow manages to make the musical a certified hit, while "Lear" languishes in failure upon failure.
It's appropriate, then, that series writers Susan Coyne, Bob Martin, and McKenney choose "King Lear" as the final production for their characters. If the run of "Slings & Arrows" can be viewed as a three-act trilogy (despite how well each season stands on its own, the series was apparently conceived as three separate-but-connected six-episode miniseries), then this final act is its darkest hour, a study of death and regret. As the Richards and the Darrens of the world take command, there is little room left for rogue spirits like Geoffrey.
This is art against commerce in the series' most acerbic manner yet. Festival newcomers Paul (Aaron Abrams) and Sophie (Sarah Polley) kick off a rivalry with the young cast of the musical; even when Paul falls for the musical's lead (Melanie Merkosky), the script makes her dimwitted and flighty. We meet Ellen's old friend Barbara (Janet Bailey), who gave up theater for a well-paying career making cheesy sci-fi. Richard's eventual acceptance of success ruins him - his new nickname of "Big Dick" may not be the flattering label he assumes.
And then there is Charles, who's not just playing Lear, as Geoffrey puts it, but "living it." His desperate avoidance/rueful acceptance of his own impending demise carefully mirrors the very themes of the play at the center of this third season. Add to this Oliver, whose ghost does indeed return; he questions his own purpose and prepares to move on in his afterlife. The idea of finality hangs over every episode.
It is rare for a television series to improve with each season, but "Slings & Arrows" is quite rare indeed. This final season closes the book on the New Burbage Festival, but first it lets its characters grow in all the right ways. This is perfect television on every level, and the perfect finale to a truly unforgettable series.
Acorn Media collects all six episodes of the "Slings & Arrows" third season on two discs, kept in slimline cases which are housed in a cardboard slipcover, matching the packaging of the previous two season sets.
Disc One features the episodes "Divided Kingdom," "Vex Not His Quest," and "That Way Madness Lies." Disc Two includes "Every Inch a King," "All Blessed Secrets," and "The Promised End."
Video & Audio
Once again, there is some broadcast-quality softness to the anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) presentation. The soundtrack is again offered in Dolby stereo, and for this release we also get a Dolby 5.1 track (although the sound is mainly limited to the front speakers, due to the talk-heavy nature of the series, leaving little difference between the two offerings). Both sound excellent. No subtitles are provided.
An interview with writer/co-star Susan Coyne (9:26) brings up such varied topics as the series' pure Canadian-ness, Coyne's thoughts on having Shakespeare reach a wider audience, and the reaction from the Stratford Festival, which served as an inspiration of sorts for the series.
Another collection of bloopers (8:51) delivers the usual gag reel silliness.
"Extended Scenes of King Lear" (10:59) is the gem of this set, as we get four scenes from the play presented without the backstage antics seen in the episodes themselves.
A photo gallery (1:59) plays production stills in slideshow format.
A "Slings & Arrows" DVD set wouldn't be complete without song lyrics, and so we get the words to "A Walk in the Rain," "I Played the Part," and highlights from "East Hastings."
All extras are presented in 1.33:1 full screen, with clips from the series presented in non-anamorphic letterbox.
This third season set contains less bonus material than its predecessor, but even then it still belongs squarely in the DVD Talk Collector Series. For three straight seasons, "Slings & Arrows" has delivered the very finest television you can get, and this final season is the series' best of all.
You can read my review of season one here, and season two here.