“Oliver’s Dream” (season one, episode one; originally aired 11/3/2003)
In which a new chapter begins
One of the things that makes Slings & Arrows such an outlier in the last decade of great dramas—and one of the reasons I wanted to follow Sopranos up with it—is just how small its stakes can seem. In the last decade, most of the great TV dramas have been life-or-death affairs, shows about people who meant to do other people harm or shows about people facing cataclysm. Some of that was the long arm of The Sopranos. Some of that was just a lot of TV writers getting bored with cop, lawyer, and doctor shows. And some of it were the profound after-effects of Sept. 11, which colored just about everything produced for the period following (and continue to this day). The most frequent classification of Slings & Arrows by its fans is “comedy,” both because it can be wildly funny and because those stakes are so small. Ultimately, if the characters fail to put on the show, all that will happen is the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival will lose a lot of money. That’s no “the world will end” in any way, shape, or form.
Yet when Slings & Arrows was nominated for Gemini Awards—Canada’s equivalent of the Emmys—and when it was sold to American audiences by the Sundance Channel, which imported it, it was always classified as a drama, and that’s how I’m most comfortable thinking about it as well. Is it less immediately “weighty” than a Deadwood or a Breaking Bad? Sure, but that’s only because viewers are trained to think of “life and death” as the only scenario worth pondering. Dig down beneath the surface, and there’s plenty going on in Slings, which is not about life and death, but about the quality of that life before death, about the rigors of aging and the problems of renewing relationships after they’ve been dead for years, about what it means to be an artist and what it means to make money. The show’s stakes might seem small to outside observers, but to the employees and performers of the New Burbage Festival, they’re very large indeed. (And, of course, if nothing else, each season is based around a new Shakespearean tragedy, using the play as a very loose framework to examine some of the same themes and issues. I won’t spoil what season one’s play is, but you can probably guess from having seen this episode.)
I’m sort of talking about the show in general, because I’ll be honest: It doesn’t start with its best foot forward. No one would ever mistake “Oliver’s Dream” for a bad episode of television. It has far too much wit and clever storytelling for that. But it can certainly be a slow episode of television, one that seems intent on establishing a status quo that it then immediately blows up in the episode’s final five minutes. To a degree, this is necessary. In order to fully feel the rifts that developed between Oliver, Geoffrey, and Ellen in the past, we have to see how miserable—or misguided—they all are in the present. But that makes this first episode a lot of exposition, exposition that’s elegantly expressed but part of a story that only gets going by episode’s end. (Things immediately perk up in the next episode.) Again, this is all very well done, but there’s certainly a sense of when the characters are going to get to the fireworks factory. We’ve seen enough television to know our central trio will be drawn back together and forced to work on one last production.
That’s the peril of the first episode of a TV show. In a movie, this sort of setup work would be accomplished in the first 15 minutes, to give us a better sense of what the protagonist is facing. But in a TV series, accomplishing that setup in such a short amount of time can fail to give proper weight to the situation the characters are in before the show begins. For the rest of Slings to work as well as it can, we really have to feel that Oliver’s reached the end of his rope creatively, that Geoffrey’s chased himself down a rabbit hole of poverty in the name of refusal to compromise, and that Ellen isn’t sure how to handle being a woman who’s getting older in an industry that has no place for an older woman in it. The first episode cannily juxtaposes all of their concerns opposite the very young, very green Kate (our other main character, played by a very young Rachel McAdams), who’s honored just to work with Oliver and must seem to reflect right back at Ellen what she can no longer be.
That’s all well and good, of course, but it’s not really a story. It’s a set of situations. Even on a show that’s serialized, like this one is, the first episode generally provides the suggestion of a story, and the best we get here is in those last five minutes, when we get the titular dream that flashes us back to the time when Oliver, Geoffrey, and Ellen were all working together at the New Burbage. Oliver had just mounted a production of Hamlet with Geoffrey in the lead, one that took critics by storm and proved to be the greatest thing either man would do up until this point. Ellen and Geoffrey were in love, talking of babies. Something happened—a freakout by Geoffrey live on stage during a production of Hamlet, we’re told—to drive them apart from each other, and none of them are as good without each other as they were with each other.
This is all driven home by the listless presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that makes up the episode’s centerpiece. Oliver seems bored by it all. Ellen is completely disconnected from the role of Titania, remarking to a critic once the show’s over that once she ages out of this bracket, the few Shakespearean parts left for her will be those of the witches in Macbeth. The crowd is uninterested, either dozing off or paying attention to sports instead of the play. (Hell, the crew is watching the game up in the light booth as well.) The aforementioned critic tells Oliver that his shows are “comfortable, like an old boot,” and though Oliver shrugs it off, it has to sting. These are people who were once great, attained a certain level of success, and have now become comfortable. And being comfortable is the enemy of true art. Those canned sheep bleats may be the only thing the audience laughs at because they recognize the sheep as props and the sound effect as real, but it’s also one of the few things that seems recognizable in this production of Midsummer, a show about young people that manages to feel very, very old in the few glimpses we get of it.
And where’s Geoffrey, the man who once animated Oliver and Ellen in different ways? Geoffrey is far away, chaining himself to the doors of a theatre he can no longer pay the rent on. Geoffrey gets a phone call from Oliver and hangs up on his old mentor and friend, three times (a number of some significance, in both the Bible and Shakespeare). Geoffrey gives us the one moment in this episode where we see the power of the theatre—a monologue about, uh, the power of the theatre, delivered with crashing thunder and booming lightning—but he’s also a man paying rent on a terrible little space, rent he can’t even afford. Once his monologue is done, he still has to go back and unclog the toilet. Paul Gross can be downright hypnotic in this part, and this monologue is the first indication we get of Geoffrey’s mad genius, expressed so well by the actor.
What ultimately elevates “Oliver’s Dream” is that it ends in a place of incompletion. We’ve seen enough television to know that these three are going to be drawn back into working together; we haven’t seen enough television to know that Oliver will die at episode’s end, run over by a truck after Geoffrey denies him thrice. (He stumbles out of the phone booth, drunk, and into the street.) The project of healing this relationship can never be completed, now, because these people are getting older, and death has claimed one of them, as it inevitably must. No matter what comes after that death, they’re now stuck with a life unfinished, with a spat that might no longer seem so important. The theatre is a wondrous thing, capable of binding these people together or of spellbinding Kate’s old teacher to the degree that he gets a little sad about never pursuing his acting dreams. But it’s also a thing that introduces dissension, that tears people apart. And now, that rift will never be knit back together again. Regardless of what viewers “know” must happen going forward, Slings & Arrows opens a gap in its first episode, a gap that can never be filled, and that tension drives everything else.
- Welcome to TV Club Classic reviews of Slings & Arrows, which will post every Wednesday at 1 p.m. Eastern, one episode per week, until the series is finished. If you’re looking to watch the series, it’s available on Netflix instant, and I’m sure there are other, extra-legal measures you could take if you were curious. (Acorn Media also put out a lovely boxset of the whole thing a few years back, which I reviewed here.) We’re taking kind of a chance on a show this small and cult-ish—to say nothing of a show from Canada—so if you could tell your friends, etc., it would be much appreciated. And if they seem uninterested, consider their sexual orientation, then tell them that Paul Gross and Rachel McAdams are both in this, at their peak handsomeness/winsomeness. That should do the trick. (Hey, I’m not above appealing to prurience to get people to watch this show.)
- I’m sure we’ll talk more about the greatness of the acting on this show in the weeks to come, but I particularly like the way Martha Burns plays Ellen as a slowly fraying nerve. (Also, now that you’ve watched one episode of this show, you’ll be pronouncing “sorry” in her thickly Canadian fashion until the end of time.)
- I love the many little side characters we’re introduced to throughout the run of the series, who fill in the bits and pieces of the show’s story, like Shakespearean background players. I think Nahum may be my favorite, but there’s plenty of good fun to be had with most of the tech crew, too.
- I somehow went through all of that without mentioning Richard, played by Mark McKinney, who often provides the series with its comic moments and has an absolutely fascinating character arc for the whole of the series. Also present: Jennifer Irwin, who has some great comedic timing as Holly (though I could do without the scene where she slaps Richard on the ass).
- McKinney’s one of the co-creators of this series with Bob Martin and Susan Coyne, who plays Anna, a character who will gain in importance as the show goes along. Martin doesn’t appear on camera—though I may be misremembering that—but he was a Tony nominee for his work in The Drowsy Chaperone, and you can see him in that show here.
- The truck that crushes Oliver reads “Canada’s Best Hams.” How appropriate.
- “Without the bleats, there's no irony, Maria!” Oliver knows comedy!
Next week: Geoffrey returns, in an episode helpfully titled “Geoffrey Returns.”