Geoffrey Tennant: I was in love with an actress. Beautiful, talented actress. And when we were together on the stage it was like, it was like having sex in public... and I have never felt as close to anyone. And we played all of the great love scenes and we meant it and people would stand and they'd cheer and then they would throw flowers and then we would go home and we would make love... And that, I miss that. Because life cannot compete with that.
I'll admit I'm not a huge Shakespeare fan. My high school English teachers managed to wring any feeling of enjoyment or appreciation out of his plays that we read (along with all the other books we studied... and this is coming from a book worm) and an amateur production of A Midsummer's Night Dream that my wife dragged me to when we were newlyweds confirmed my suspicion that the Bard just wasn't my cup of tea. When a review copy of the Canadian program Slings and Arrows arrived I was curious but had mixed feelings. I had heard that the show, about the trials and tribulations back stage at a theater that put on Shakespeare was wonderful, but I'd heard that about Shakespeare too. Yeah, it had won a lot of awards in Canada (13 Gemini Awards in fact) but what was it up against? The Red Green Show? But DVDTalk writer David Cornelius raved about the three seasons (read his reviews here) and that put the show on my radar. So I decided to take the plunge, and I'm sure my wife would enjoy it even if I didn't (she's much classier than me).
Wow. Never has a show so totally surprised me and wildly exceeded my expectations. Densely plotted without being confusing, full of deep characterization without becoming melodramatic, and wildly humorous while never getting silly, this is a remarkable show that deserves all of the accolades it has received.
Set in the fictional Canadian town of New Burbage, the show centers around the city's internationally recognized annual Shakespeare festival performed at the New Burbage Theater. Many famous casts have appeared on stage at the festival, and one of the very best actors was Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross). He had an amazing career until performing the lead in Hamlet seven years ago when Tennant had a nervous breakdown, on stage. He went crazy and was institutionalized for a time and as the series starts he's managing a rundown penniless theater that is about to be evicted.
The director of that infamous version of Hamlet that drove Geoffrey over the edge Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), and his leading lady/one time lover, Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns) stayed at the New Burbage Theater and helped the festival grow and expand. They increased attendance by making the stuffy old plays more accessible and business manager Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) added a gift shop in the lobby (where visitors can buy kitschy products like an inflatable version of the man from Edvard Munch's The Scream) and even wrangled a corporate sponsor! As the money and people started pouring in, compromises had to be made, naturally, and the quality of the productions fell.
As the first season opens the festival is underway and they're getting ready to start rehearsals for the showcase of that year's season, Hamlet. They've managed to get Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), a young American movie star who has had a string of successful action flicks, to play the tragic Dane. With a name like his on the marquee, every show is guaranteed to sell out. No one will notice that he can't really act.
There's the usual pre-show mania: problems with actors, problems with sets, and mindless meetings to attend, but Oliver handles it well. Until one evening when he gets drunk, starts to remember the old days and what happened seven years ago. He calls up Geoffrey to explain his role in the mysterious events, but Geoffrey doesn't want to talk with him and hangs up, repeatedly. Then Oliver, drunk as a skunk, passes out in the street where he's hit and killed by a truck carrying a load of pigs. (That's a nice example of some of the subtle humor that permeates the show: the theater director was killed by hams.)
Richard Smith-Jones positions himself to take over running the Burbage but after an impressive speech at Oliver's wake by Geoffrey, not to mention the Richard-created fiasco that follows, he's passed over in favor of Tennant who is named interim artistic director. The actor reluctantly accepts but it's not until later that he discovers he'll have to direct Hamlet, a play that drove him insane, with an action star as the lead. To make matters worse, Oliver, still upset over what happened seven years ago, is haunting him (or is he just mad?) The specter mainly gives advice, though usually unwanted, and goads the mentally fragile Tennant the way he used to way back when. Having a crazy director who shouts at thin air and a star who would rather make up his lines than follow Shakespeare's text is bad enough, but with the business director trying to pull off a coup and turn the town of New Burbage into a theater theme park (playing mainly musicals) and working to sabotage the production, it'll be a miracle if the whole thing doesn't collapse.
And that's just the first season. In the second season (I'll keep this short) Geoffrey tempts fate by putting on the cursed play, Macbeth, with a new lead actor Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies), and the two do not get along. Meanwhile Richard is scrambling to find funding and manages to get a government grant. The only problem is that the money must be used for "rebranding" and the campaign that's launched is, well... different.
The third and final season has the festival putting on a pair of shows: King Lear, directed by Geoffrey, and a new musical directed by Tennant's nemesis in the theater world, Darren Nichols (Don McKellar) who has unusual ideas about the theater.
The beauty of this show is the way all of the myriad plots (there are more than what I've listed here) are presented through each season without having to shoehorn them into to each episode. It's a marvelously written show that manages to fully flesh out the characters seemingly effortlessly in a minimum amount of time. There's enough going on in each of these six episode stories for a two or three full length 24 episodes seasons and the fact that they cram so much into so little time, without it feeling rushed in the least, is unbelievable.
If it was only that though the show would be very good, but the writers Mark McKinney (formerly of Kids in the Hall), Susan Coyne, and Bob Martin, take it a step farther by filling each season with a few themes that are reflected in both the play on-stage and the action behind the curtain. This is done with subtly and finesse too, without a character having to state the connections. A beautiful example is how they metaphorically passed the torch from one generation to the next at the end of the first season. After giving her first big performance, a young actress (played by Rachel McAdams) runs off stage and up to Geoffrey exclaiming "Is there anything better than this?!" Without waiting for a response she runs to her boyfriend, who was also in the production, and energetically kisses him. She wonderfully mimics the way Geoffrey himself said he felt a few episodes earlier (as is quoted at the top of this review) without actually using any of the same words.
Which brings me to the cast. Across the board they are magnificent. It's pretty easy to portray a bad actor, and there are several people who have those roles, but how do you get across that a character is a world-class, stand-up-and-cheer performer? You can't just have characters say "my, he's a good actor" you have to show it. And that means getting someone who is that good, obviously. They managed to find a how crew of talented thespians for this show. Paul Gross is amazing as the lead. He has such presence that it's impossible not to pay attention to him while he's on screen. In an early episode (the first?) he give a talk to a room full of actors about what theater is, and should be, and it's so impressive that I wouldn't be surprised if some people started acting because of that scene. He's joined by a cast that's equally adept at dark comedy as well as deep drama. Stephen Ouimette, Mark McKinney, and Martha Burns all do a superb job, but I even enjoyed the lesser members such as Matt Fitzgerald who played Ellen's dim-witted but very attractive (and young) boy-toy Sloan. With a few lines he established that he really cares for the older actress and also that he's not that bright. Of course the person who really gets the best comedic lines is Don McKellar who plays the pompous Darren Nichols to wonderful excess in all three seasons. Darren's ideas for productions are hilarious, such as his Hamlet, where he wants to get across that the play is old, decrepit and rotting by making the actors, the sets, and even the studio smell. For Romeo and Juliet he decides that the actors shouldn't touch, or even look, at each other. His first line in the series is a classic too: "I'm Darren Nichols. Deal with THAT!"
Rarely has a show been so well written and finely crafted as Slings & Arrows. A magnificent work that is truly great. Run out and get a copy.
The Blu-ray Discs:
All three seasons (18 episodes in all) arrive on 6 Blu-ray discs that come in three double cases housed in a slipcase.
The 1.78:1 1080p image looks very good, with the exception of the first season. Season one was upconverted and while it looks okay, it's not as solid as a true HD product. Seasons 2 and 3 however are great. The skin tones are accurate, the blacks are nice and solid and the level of detail is very good. There are some crushed whites in the first season, but that's not a problem later on. The show really comes to life in the full HD seasons and viewers who already have the DVD release may find it worth the upgrade.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track suits the show well. It really doesn't give your system much of a workout, there isn't much in the way of pyrotechnics as much as Darren Nichols would like there to be, as the show is dialog based. The voices are clear and strong and the background music and audio effects come through nicely without overpowering the actors.
Though I don't have the DVD release, it appears that all of the bonus materials from the earlier single season sets and the collected series box are included here. There's a short fluff behind-the-scenes piece, A Look Behind the Scenes, which was nice but too short and filled with too many clips from the show. Better were the brief (3-10 minute) interviews with the cast and crew including Stephen Ouimette, Martha Burns, and Graham Harley. There is also a longer, though less interesting Director on the Set featurette which is basically half an hour of someone filming the set as a show is being recorded. It's pretty dull.
There are also deleted scenes to several episodes, bloopers, a series of photo galleries for each season, production notes and song lyrics.
In addition there are three commentary tracks exclusive to this Blu-ray release. They are on the following episodes: Season 1, Episode 1 with Bob Martin, Mark McKinney, and Susan Coyne; Season 2, Episode 6 with Graham Harley and Michael Polley; and Season 3, Episode 6 with Paul Gross and Martha Burns and director Peter Wellington.
Simply put, Slings and Arrows is one of the best shows that I have ever seen. Like the plays that the fiction troupe performs, the show is tightly written with a cast of wonderful characters that portray a depth of characterization that is rarely found outside of novels. This show is dramatic with never becoming maudlin or over the top and features a healthy dose of comedy that will leave a smile on your face long after the episode is finished. It is very smart, but not pretentious, and deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Don't wait to check this one out. DVDTalk Collector's Series.
Note: The images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.