“Madness In Great Ones” (season one, episode 3; originally aired 11/17/2003)
In which the great Darren Nichols arrives…
One of the things that attracted me to Slings And Arrows as my follow-up to The Sopranos is the fact that it, like that series, is a complicated blend of tones that shouldn’t work together but somehow do. This is a series that goes in for heart-wrenching drama, then stacks it right up against very broad comedy. It’s a show where the first episode closes with a man whose seen better days realizing just how far gone he’s become, then by the third episode, it’s closing with that man’s successor chasing a rival out of a party with a sword. In the meantime, there will be an opportunity for a famous movie star to flub the “To be or not to be” speech in a Hamlet rehearsal, while Geoffrey directs some corporate nobody to something revelatory with the “out, out brief candle” speech from Macbeth. It’s a comedy about some of the world’s heaviest dramatic works, or it’s a tragedy about some very funny people. That it manages both mixes is what makes it great.
That said, I’m not always a fan of the show’s broader moments, and it pains me to say that I’m not always a fan of Darren Nichols. As played by Don McKellar, Darren is a hilarious spin on a particular type of theatrical personality. He arrives at New Burbage seemingly trailing the detritus of pretensions past, and when he’s assigned to direct Hamlet by a Geoffrey who’s visibly avoiding the task, he declares the play dead. It has been dead for 300 years, and the only way to spice it up, he says, is to make it the foulest thing the New Burbage stage will ever see. Later, we see him directing a very basic runthrough, pausing every so often to note where the flames on set will shoot into the air, and it becomes clear this is a man who’s lost the purity and beauty of the plays in favor of what he believes to be his own grandeur.
It’s not that I don’t like Darren as a character. I think he can be a very funny presence when used correctly, and I love how the show so precisely uses him to skewer the pretensions of people who believe that what Shakespeare really needs is their own particular interpretation of his work. What I’m not fond of is the way that the show uses him as a plot device, a way to push Geoffrey past his own shit and get him out there. (It’s a device the series will return to again and again.) One of the struggles of any program that’s dealing with artistic endeavors is the fact that, eventually, the audience is going to have to see said endeavors, and they will inevitably fail to compare to what the characters have said they are. We instinctively don’t want to watch shows about people who are just kind of good at their jobs; we want to watch shows about people who are the best, but when it comes time to raise the curtain on a fictional stage performance or musical act, well, everybody’s a critic. Slings And Arrows is generally terrific at making the moments it needs to sell count—see Terry the corporate guy reading that speech—but it also tends to hedge its bets, and it too often hedges them via Darren, the goofy stooge. Geoffrey might be a potentially insane person who sees a ghost, but, hey, at least he’s not Darren.
“Madness In Great Ones” is the first episode to dig into something Slings And Arrows generally handles very well: the rehearsal process. We watch as Darren’s version of Hamlet takes shape, and we watch as Geoffrey ensconces himself with those on the corporate retreat, all the while Oliver bugging him about how he should be the one directing Hamlet, not Darren. I’m going to try not to compare this show to some of the other shows that are about a similar milieu without succeeding as wildly as this show does, but I always thought that Smash had so much trouble because it tried to make the theatrical process subject to the character drama, instead of the other way around. When you’re telling a story about creative people, they’re going to express themselves (and their interpersonal conflicts) via the creative things they do, naturally enough. Smash always tried to force what was happening on stage to reflect what was happening to the creatives. Now, in a show about an original musical, maybe that’s possible, but in a show about Shakespeare, it’s much harder to do, which is why the true battles on this show arise over interpretation. Geoffrey wants to find the text’s heart; Darren wants to make it all about himself. Who will win?
It’s that approach to telling stories about creative people that works best. Hell, it even works when the people involved aren’t so creative. Richard is becoming further ensnared by Holly, who has this weird dream of turning New Burbage into some sort of Shakespearean theme park. (Hey, if the British can do it with Charles Dickens…) The two go on a date to see Mamma Mia, and they commiserate afterward over how they don’t even particularly like Shakespeare. They’d rather see a big, mega-musical any day, and they’re pretty sure most of humanity would agree with them, too. What I like about this is that the show has a certain amount of sympathy for their point of view. There are few things worse than poorly performed Shakespeare (as the series has already illustrated to us), and the series can sort of agree with that perspective, while stopping just short of full-on pity. (Well, in the case of Richard, at least, it sure seems like there’s a chance for redemption at this point; the show seems to have little use for Holly.)
Slings And Arrows is also very fond of the idea of the act of creation becoming a sort of foster process for the act of romance. In this season, the most obvious version of that is in the flirtation of Kate and Jack, which mostly plays out in the background of this episode. (Really, I remembered Kate being a lot more prominent in this season than she has been. She’s mostly been here to take the shit from that other girl.) Instead, we’re getting a courtship between a movie star and a regular girl that could feel like something out of a bad romantic comedy were the show not playing it so very sweetly. The final moments of this episode—after Geoffrey chases Darren from the room with a sword, no less—are spent with these two sitting on a bridge, Jack trying to teach Kate how to spit. It’s a lovely little moment, and it’s a nice reminder that new things are flourishing all the time, even as those who were a part of the old festival are rehashing their old arguments and tempests.
If there’s a grand, central theme to this series, it’s that debate over what art should be. Should it be something that exists mostly to celebrate those who put it on? Should it be a vehicle for commerce, that literal mug that Geoffrey holds up as an abomination? Or should it ideally exist outside of these considerations, exist outside of our thoughts about a long-dead man who wrote some beautiful things but is as unknown to us now as we would have been to him? Slings And Arrows is specifically about Shakespeare, but it’s actually about the ways that we try to celebrate the unknowable, try to pin down those elusive emotions that we feel when we see something transcendent, then maybe stick a price tag on them. Those who work at the New Burbage are in pursuit of that unknowable, but they’re also in pursuit of a way to make money from it and a way to turn that into a furtherance of their own career.
Why Geoffrey is our lead, then, is because he’s at once the one man with nothing to gain and everything to lose. When he had that nervous breakdown on stage all those years ago, he essentially forfeited this part of his life and decided to take up a new one. But now, he’s back. His legacy, such as it is, is secure. (Even if he becomes the most successful artistic director in the history of the festival, the breakdown will loom large over the rest of his life.) He really has nowhere else to go in his career; at the same time, he really has nowhere else to go. If he doesn’t succeed here, who else is going to take him? This is the end of the line for him, in so many ways, and it doesn’t help that to all and sundry, he appears to be cracking up. The company’s against him, Oliver’s ghost is pushing him to say stupid things at stupid times, and he can’t muster up the courage to do what he knows he must. And on top of it all, Darren Nichols has to be here to rub all of this in his face. Slings And Arrows does such a good job of pushing Geoffrey down that it seems almost impossible he could ever pick himself back up. Starting next week, we’re going to see if he can.
- Oliver is mostly somebody who plays the comic relief this week, but I really do enjoy the ridiculous sunglasses he wears when he sabotages Geoffrey’s interview with Basil. (Incidentally, just what outlet is Basil supposed to work for? It seemed like a newspaper in the first episode, but now, he seems to be a television reporter.)
- One of the reasons the show seems to have a little sympathy for Richard—beyond the fact that he’s played by a co-creator—is because that little monologue he gives about how much he loved all those cast albums is so sad. He’s a man who loves this stuff, but he’s never going to be able to participate in it to the level he would like, much like Kate’s poor teacher back in the first episode.
- Ellen continues to be a bit of a cipher in these episodes, but I do enjoy when she invites everybody back to her place. Except for Geoffrey. And then only the Hamlet people. She doesn’t have enough alcohol for everyone.
- The occasional bits and pieces we get of the other productions at the festival are always fun. It sounds like Gunther’s production of Cherry Orchard is just awful.
- Maria turns into one of my favorite characters in this episode, as she does her best to accommodate everybody’s wishes, then launches into a drunken rant at the party.
- It was apparent in the first two episodes, but this episode really drives home how the older gentlemen are going to be our Greek chorus for the series. If they’re saying something is the case, it’s probably something the show’s writers want you to think as well. It’s amazing how well this device works without ever becoming irritating.
- That’s co-creator Bob Martin as Terry, proving he does, indeed, have a role on the show at some point.
- According to some of you, Jack’s part in the New Burbage is supposed to be based on a time that Keanu Reeves was in a Shakespeare play in Winnipeg or something. I’m not sure I entirely understood why anyone would ask Keanu to perform in Shakespeare, but Geoffrey might get a good performance out of him.
- I am constantly amazed by just how confident this series is at setting everything up. We are at the midway point of the season, and we still haven’t gotten to the point where Geoffrey is directing Hamlet. That takes guts.
- Darren Nichols’ greatest hits: “Let’s read this corpse!” “Look out, people, or you’ll be burned alive!” “Horses don’t like fire. We learned that the hard way, didn’t we, Ellen?”
Next week: “Outrageous Fortune” reminds us of the other part of the quote from the show’s title.