“Geoffrey’s Return” (season one, episode two; originally aired 11/10/2003)
In which Geoffrey returns…
“Geoffrey’s Return” has a lot of balls to juggle. It more or less has to act as a second pilot for the series. It has to set up Geoffrey as the series’ lead, when it sure seemed like it would be Oliver for a good portion of the series’ first episode. It has to set up and establish a handful of other characters—like the movie star, Jack, who’s in town to play Hamlet—while also deepening many of the characters we met last week. It has to build to a fairly large setpiece, while also setting up the conflicts we’ll follow in the four episodes that follow. Basically, if “Oliver’s Dream” felt at times like a pilot for a show we won’t be watching, this feels like a pilot for the show we actually get. It’s amazing that the episode is able to pull almost all of the above off, and even the things it doesn’t quite manage do well enough to make us want to see where all of this is headed.
But let’s start at that funeral. One of the things I love about Slings And Arrows is the way that the series portrays how theatre folk are always looking to put on a show. Oliver’s memorial service can’t just be a simple chance for those who loved and worked with him to gather together and share memories. It has to involve a set and sound checks and Shakespearean sonnets. I, myself, was deeply involved in my college’s theatre scene, and this is, essentially, how even the most minor of occasions turned out for us. Theatre people are always looking to put on a show, even when they’re not quite aware that’s what they’re doing. Nobody involved in the planning of Oliver’s funeral would sit down and say, “Hey, let’s make this an elaborate production,” but they key things up anyway. It’s the only way they know how to be, and in many ways, it’s perhaps the most accurate way to mourn Oliver.
The memorial service needs to be there, because without it, the episode wouldn’t have much structure at all. Sure, you’d have the various intrigues around Kate’s audition (and her subsequent landing of the part), and you’d have the question of who’s going to take over the festival, which is the sort of thing that is easily answered by looking at the cast list. But the episode itself is very much about moving the characters together so they’re all in the same space, able to work through their own past issues together, rather than separately. The first episode of the series suffers a touch from having many of the characters in different locations, never to intersect (and even more by setting up a clear hierarchy between which characters will interact with which other characters), but episode two doesn’t immediately dive into pulling Geoffrey back into the world of the New Burbage to fill that hole left by Oliver. It takes its time. It waits. It pulls in a ghost.
The ghost of Oliver is by far the most theatrical device in a series full of them. Each season of Slings subtly plays around with the structure and themes of the play the characters are putting on, offering little winks and nods to the people watching who really know their Shakespeare (or even just know the broad, cultural touchstones of the Bard’s works). Therefore, in the Hamlet season, there must be a ghost of someone who went before our hero, and in that case, the only ghost who will make any sense is Oliver. What I love about the use of this device is that there’s next to no attempt to explain it. The ghost appears only to Geoffrey. Is he cracking up? Is it really Oliver’s spirit? Is this really an opportunity to mend the relationship between the two? Or is it just proof that the slow descent into madness that sometimes seemed to be in effect last week is going much more quickly now that he’s back in the place that first drove him to a nervous breakdown?
The answer, I think, is that we’re meant to regard Oliver’s apparition as a genuinely supernatural occurrence. Remember: The first time we see him wake up and realize he’s dead, he’s in the funeral home, where Geoffrey’s nowhere near to see what’s happening. Could this all be written up as some sort of fantasy of Geoffrey’s? If we really wanted to, I suppose we could take that tack, but it seems more likely to me that the show wants us to know it takes place in a space that’s not a fantastical one, precisely, but is a theatrical one, where the events that occur on screen will be heightened just so long as it’s the sort of heightening one could portray believably on stage. In addition, this is a way for the show to keep around the wonderful Stephen Ouimette, who would have been a real loss, and it’s a way for the series to deal with the questions it raised last week of artistic integrity and irrelevance, and whether the former even matters if the latter has arrived. Oliver has the most unfinished of unfinished business: He needs to take what he made and make it great again through the imperfect vessel of his former student and friend. And to do that, he’ll need to walk the Earth again.
It’s this matter of fact quality that sets Slings apart. Too many shows about artists and entertainers assume that they constantly have to tell us why the people at their center are drawn to their specific fields. Outside of the monologue from Geoffrey last week—a monologue that’s interrupted at its peak—Slings doesn’t really bother with that. In purely plot terms, the New Burbage Festival has to keep going because everybody needs to get paid. There’s a lot of money riding on the line, and the investors are going to make sure things proceed apace, even if that means installing a sort of enfant terrible as the festival’s artistic director, a decision Richard is none too happy about. But in terms of character motivation, the show treats as self-evident the idea that putting on a Shakespearean play could and should be wonderful. It mostly gets away with it, too, both because of our own cultural assumptions about the author and because the few times we see someone perform Shakespeare, it’s treated with real reverence.
But this is a show about the less lofty aspects of the theatre as well. There still need to be people making sure the trains run on time, and in this episode, we first get to really know Richard, the nebbishy business guy played by Mark McKinney. At this point in the show’s run, it’s interesting to see that it doesn’t really portray Richard as an antagonist—a lot of shows about artistic endeavors will portray the money men as at least people standing in the way of the artist’s true expression—but, instead, as an outsider, a guy who’s a part of this world, but not really a part of it. All of his interactions with the theatre people are halting, and he mostly wants to make sure Oliver’s memorial is a fitting tribute. He pulls in a minister and asks him to talk only briefly about God without really checking his credentials. He turns the whole thing into something almost… tasteful, with orderly transitions and light cues. But, of course, it all falls apart, because Richard doesn’t have the artistic soul. He can push numbers around on paper, but he’ll always be an uneasy fit in this world. (Contrast this with Susan Coyne’s Anna, who gets filled in a bit more in this episode; yeah, she primarily works in administration, but she’s also deeply moved by what’s happening. She has the artistic temperament Richard mostly lacks, even if it’s only in fits and starts.)
It’s not just about the business end of things, either. Kate heads off to an audition for some sort of cereal commercial, and even though the audition goes poorly, to her mind—since she seems taken aback by having to catch that soccer ball—she ends up landing the gig, only to realize that being a working actress sometimes has little glamour to it. New Burbage is a place where she can have a degree of security and safety, where she can only play fairies and maids, yes, and probably not get paid as much as she does for the commercial, but also a place where she can explore work that matters. She runs into Jack on the bus back to the festival, and it’s evident he’s been sucked dry by the work that makes him money. If he was ever a fine actor, that’s long ago in the past, and Geoffrey’s greatest challenge will be seeing if he can find an actor somewhere beneath the handsome veneer.
With all of the pieces in place, then, “Geoffrey’s Return” swiftly sets up the conflicts the series will follow going forward in its last few scenes. The constant push and pull between commerce and art animates just about every plot in this episode, right down to Geoffrey’s lovely little speech at the memorial about how what matters to the festival now is making sure the tourists keep coming through and making sure the cash registers keep ringing. But there’s another push and pull at work here, between the dream of what could be—that perfect, ephemeral moment that can only exist in the theatre for an iota of an instant—and what actually is—the backbreaking work of pulling this damned show together. Or, put another way, in a breathtaking moment, Geoffrey looks over from where he’s speaking to see Oliver’s ghost, waving at him. He smiles for a second, the mad smile of someone convinced he’s losing his mind. But when he looks back again, Oliver’s not there. It’s just his old, abandoned lover Ellen, the other ghost who still haunts him. There are things that are seen, and there are things that are unseen. Geoffrey Tennant’s philosophy will have to find a path between them.
- Thanks to so many of you for coming out last week for the first episode. Here’s hoping most of you stick around. I think we can have a lot of fun as the show goes forward.
- One of my few complaints about this series is its very odd sexual politics when it comes to homosexuality—we’ll deal with that more in season two—but it’s pretty clear that the series is more or less on the side of gays and lesbians in the almost too over-the-top sequence with the pastor condemning homosexuality at the memorial service. (Plus, the cringing of Cyril and Frank—the best argument in favor of the show’s treatment of homosexuality—is worth it.)
- There was a lot of talk about the three theme songs for the three different seasons last week, and I can’t believe I didn’t mention that “Cheer Up, Hamlet” is my favorite of the three, though I’m also a big fan of “Call The Understudy.” (I always make sure to play it through to the very end of the end credits.)
- Ellen has a lot of great moments in this episode, but especially when her new paramour is very concerned about the lizard and when he’s asking her advice on which video game system to buy.
- Much as I love Rachel McAdams as Kate, I think Sabrina Grdevich, who plays Claire, is also terrific at a part that’s got to be hard to play: an actress who’s terrible but just good enough to fool people like Oliver. It makes the rivalry between her and Kate—which Kate doesn’t seem to realize exists just yet—that much more interesting.
- Really, any moment where Geoffrey and Ellen come upon each other in this episode is gold. The show waits a long time to put these two together, and it’s always great when they happen upon each other.
- “I know some of you ladies and gentlemen are on deadline, but if you’d like, there are sandwiches.” Richard handles the press so well in the wake of Oliver’s death. I particularly like everybody’s favorite critic rushing off in search of said sandwiches.
- “Hamlet will be Hamlet: an ineffable tragedy of the human spirit that still resonates even today.” I like how this line from Nahum plays simultaneously as comedy and drama.
- “I would begin with the less reputable firms.” The undertakers attempt to help Geoffrey figure out where to get Oliver’s head rendered, that he might have the skull Oliver so wished for him to have. Man, I hope somebody leaves me their skull someday!
Next week: We get into the production of Hamlet—finally!—as we delve into “Madness In Great Ones.”