“Fallow Time” (season 2, episode 2; originally aired 7/4/2005)
In which Oliver comes back
Perhaps the biggest task the writers of Slings And Arrows faced when starting the second season was the fact that the series had closed off its biggest conflict at the end of its first season. Geoffrey succeeded in staging Oliver’s Hamlet, and with no further need to be Geoffrey’s mentor, Oliver’s ghost (and/or Geoffrey’s hallucination of Oliver) ascended to the next life (and/or retreated into Geoffrey’s subconscious). Now, granted, it’s not as if the show sent Oliver off by walking through a glowing white door with angel choirs singing behind it, but the end of that first season puts a pretty damn big button on the whole relationship. Geoffrey has succeeded. He no longer needs Oliver. Oliver can go on to do something else. But Oliver’s such a big part of the series that there’s simply no way to do further seasons without the guy around to bounce off of Geoffrey. Indeed, even in the very enjoyable second season première, Oliver’s absence is palpable. This is a show built around that singular absence and how it drives all of the characters forward. Without Oliver’s ghost, the show is missing something.
What I hadn’t realized until I rewatched this episode with a critical eye was that this season is more or less a redo of season one’s main conflict. The show takes about an episode and a half to get back to the season one status quo, and then it’s off to the races. There’s another play Oliver dreamed up that Geoffrey has to take over. Oliver shows up to externalize both Geoffrey’s mental illness and his creative process. Ellen is Geoffrey’s leading lady, and even if he’s now sleeping with her (and the two make an awfully cute couple), there will still be the usual sorts of creative conflicts between them. Geoffrey clashes with the lead actor of his play, Darren Nichols eventually shows up, Richard is there to gum up the works, and everything descends into chaos. Rinse and repeat.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, to be fair. Most of television is about repeating the same basic conflicts over and over in brand new ways. The show I covered in this space before this one was another that more than proved that this process can lead to great art. Using the same basic elements repeatedly to place those elements in new contexts isn’t just something that applies to episodic television. It applies to poems written in rigid formats, many low-budget movies, and the same bunch of art students painting the same model. True genius will shine through under even the most restrictive of environments, and I don’t think anybody will doubt me when I say that the second season of this show features some grade-A genius.
But it is a bit surprising to see just how much this is reinterpreting season one through the lens of another play. Ultimately, I think that’s what makes all of this work. Shakespeare was also working through the restrictive format of reinterpreting stories that had been told in many ways before, then imbuing them with his own themes and interests. Slings does much the same with Shakespeare’s plays, and I think season two might be the height of the events of the play weaving themselves into the reality of the show. What’s more, the show does its level best to let us know exactly what it’s doing by staging a miniature version of Macbeth as performed by grade-schoolers. It’s sort of like the series’ own version of that bit in Titanic where Bill Paxton shows the audience how the boat sank on the computer simulation so that once the action happens up on screen, nobody has to explain just what’s happening. We already know. It’s the same here, and the kids’ play has the added benefit of showing just why this play is so unnerving to Geoffrey and just why it might be cursed. It’s a damned, foul bit of business, a story of evil that begets evil. Oh, and also witches. Can’t forget the witches. (And what they might be.)
Episode two of any season of this show is also one where the series begins to layer in the main conflicts of said season. (The first episode tends to be given over to more standalone adventures, whether because of design or circumstance.) Here, that means we meet the season’s two main guest players, the great Canadian actor Henry Breedlove (played by Geraint Wyn Davies with a terrific sense of oblivious pomposity) and Sanjay (played by Colm Feore), who heads up a marketing firm called Frog Hammer, which Richard turns to in an attempt to help focus the New Burbage Festival’s rebranding efforts. (Sanjay’s first suggestion is, “Theater that fucks with your head!”) The series doesn’t really run from Richard’s dilemma here. His audience is literally dying off, and it’s unlikely that he’s going to find a replacement audience out of the younger generations. He’s running scared, and he can’t just count on the fact that Shakespeare’s supposed to be one of those cultural vegetables everybody consumes. He’s dealing with generations who’ve never been made to eat their vegetables. But is Sanjay’s approach really the right one? Is making theater edgy somehow going to attract people to it? I’ve got a million Broadway shows with faux-rock scores that quickly folded (including my beloved Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson) to suggest otherwise.
I’ve seen some fans of the show criticize this subplot, and I’ll admit that Frog Hammer wouldn’t be at the top of my list when it comes to bits of Slings that I love. But I think it works as a weird commentary on what Geoffrey is perpetually trying to do. By attempting to interpret Shakespeare for a modern audience, Geoffrey (and, by extension, Oliver) is doing his level best to bring that play alive for generations that might not find it relevant to their current circumstances. The battle between Henry and Geoffrey—set up so succinctly in the final scene of this episode—isn’t just a battle between two strong-willed men who want to take a production being done in another man’s name and wrench it under their own grasp. It’s a battle between the easy showiness of Henry’s approach and goofy, stentorian performance style (which has its place in other productions) and Geoffrey’s constant need to reinvent something to create something new.
But this isn’t something as simple as a story about an artistic genius who crashes against the walls of the system, man. It’s also a story about how Geoffrey is scared shitless of this play, terrified of finding his way into it because, well, that way madness lies. The ultimate message of Macbeth is that life is too short and too weird and too meaningless, and even if you get everything you ever wanted—even if you have to kill dozens of people to get there—it just doesn’t matter. Oliver could deal with this, perhaps because Oliver lived in a bubble of his own self-imagined legend. (Even Graham Greene appears in his made-for-the-CBC biography!) Similarly, Henry isn’t scared of what’s at the play’s center because to him, it’s a fun story about a guy who sees something he wants and starts killing people to get it. Now, both men have obviously thought about the play on more than superficial levels, but they’re not properly scared of it. Geoffrey’s fear is so acute because he sees something inside of himself that’s reflected back at him up on that stage. Bringing back Oliver could have seemed cheap. Instead, the show earns the moment when he returns on that stage at that elementary school by grounding it in some of the most elemental emotional conflicts it has available. Geoffrey’s mental instability returning feels like something inevitable, like lifting up the rock of this play and seeing what’s squirming underneath would always erupt just like this.
“Fallow Time” is also, fitfully, a Christmas episode. In some ways, it’s a very strange episode, smashing together the happy togetherness and friendly moments of a Christmas episode with an episode that gets the Macbeth plot up and running. This could feel more problematic than it does, once again because the series grounds the two halves of the story in the same emotional stakes. Just as the series has disguised that it’s repeating many of the same conflicts of the first season by shifting the emotional and psychological stakes for its lead character (because it’s the internal stakes we really care about out in the audience), it ties together the two halves of the episode with the fact that Geoffrey’s unable to even enjoy Christmas because of how much Macbeth occupies his imagination. Similarly, Richard’s last-minute financial reprieve for the festival before Christmas gives way to his attempts to work with Frog Hammer, yet another strong-willed person who will override what small amount of good judgment Richard possesses. Again: A conflict from season one is repeated, but the internal stakes have shifted enough that it’s effectively a different story altogether.
I also like how the Richard and Henry storylines act as weird meta-commentary on each other. I have absolutely no knowledge of how successful this show was in the ratings in its native land, but the fact that it took 18 months to come back suggests it might have been a near thing for renewal. (The show was a big hit at Canada’s Gemini Awards, however.) Even if it wasn’t, though, the whole story of New Burbage trying to attract a younger audience is emblematic of a series based on subject matter that doesn’t immediately entice an audience. And what’s the other storyline about? It’s about the festival trying to boost ticket sales by bringing in a great Canadian actor. And who’s playing Sanjay? An actor who made his name as one of the best actors ever at the Stratford Festival that inspired New Burbage Festival and someone quite well known to the Canadian television audience for his other work.
“Fallow Time” takes on a lot of difficult tasks on a structural level, but it pulls them all off with surprising panache. What’s more, it’s a fairly dark episode—it’s about Macbeth and the return of a man’s mental illness, after all—but it never once feels like a dark episode, buzzing along with the kind of breezy efficiency and verve that the show always has at its best. And even if I’m suggesting that everything is repeating from last year, that’s not really true either. Geoffrey and Ellen are together, and she’s trying to help him through something she doesn’t understand. Richard really is trying to do his best for the festival as it already exists. And, hey, Anna’s office is filled with interns who weren’t there before and don’t seem likely to be much of a help at all. In its own way, that’s like Shakespeare or like real life. It’s the same basic stuff, repeated over and over, with a few small things shifting here and there. And when you look up from all of that, you realize you’re somewhere you’ve never been before.
- My love of Christmas episodes made me think I might spend all of my time talking about those elements of the episode, but outside of Ellen’s struggles with the Christmas tree and Richard and Anna exchanging mutual stress balls as gifts, the whole thing recedes into the background of Geoffrey’s quest. It’s well-handled, but nobody’s going to mistake it for a new entry on the TV Club Advent Calendar. Or, rather, maybe that makes it the perfect entry on the TV Club Advent Calendar…
- Feore is wonderfully funny as Sanjay. I love how he bamboozles and throws Richard almost immediately. He’s got him pegged perfectly after seeing his tie.
- I’d forgotten that Moira turns up more than once, and she’s here when things start to get weird for Geoffrey at the elementary school production of Macbeth.
- If Ellen’s sister and her husband live in New Burbage, how is it possible that the two see each other as little as the show implies they do? Just a weird little detail that doesn’t seem to add up.
- I love scenes where people discuss the intricacies of Shakespeare, but I also love how the show is already undercutting the idea of Geoffrey’s genius by having him be utterly unable to answer Ellen’s questions about Lady Macbeth or to give his idea of what the play is about.
- The decision to stage something in thrust can be a momentous one, for the reasons established here, and the show does a great job of making it feel like a momentous decision. All those seats lost!
- Anna’s criteria for picking an assistant stage manager to work with Maria: The girl she chooses showed up early. (Maria seems fine with this.)
Next week: The festival dives headfirst into Macbeth and all that blood in “Rarer Monsters,” the halfway point of the whole series.