The warm, deeply humane TV series Slings & Arrows uses stage traditions and Shakespearean nuances to create one of the great series no one watched when it first aired in 2003. Originally run on Movie Central and The Movie Network, Canada’s rough equivalents to HBO, the show spread to the Sundance Channel, where it picked up a small but vocal cult audience. Although it won nearly every award there was to win in the Canadian TV industry and garnered ecstatic critical notices in both countries, the show was never a huge ratings hit, and it ended after just three seasons. Fortunately, a new release of the series on Blu-ray should help the series solidify its position as an excellent combination of the crass humanism of the British Office and Northern Exposure’s inviting sense of community.
Centered on the New Burbage Festival (a thinly fictionalized version of Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival), Slings concerns Paul Gross, an actor and director who left the festival after suffering a nervous breakdown seven years earlier. The death of his mentor, Stephen Ouimette, who originally chased him from the festival, results in a series of events that installs Gross as the new artistic director, leaving him to turn around a floundering production of Hamlet starring American movie star Luke Kirby in the lead role, and Gross’ former lover Martha Burns as Gertrude. Meanwhile, executive director Mark McKinney tries to save the festival’s bottom line, while apprentice actress Rachel McAdams waits for a big break.
Slings & Arrows should be fun for just about any fan of good TV, but it’s a particular pleasure for those with at least a passing familiarity with Shakespeare. Each of the seasons focuses on a different play—Hamlet in season one, Macbeth in season two, King Lear in season three—but each of the seasons also sprinkles in sly references to the Bard. Gross confers with the ghost of his mentor, for example, or is troubled by an older patron who more or less resembles a witch. And the scenes where various company members wrestle with the enormity of the texts they’re tackling are always engaging, making incredibly vital arguments out of ideas and concepts that should feel too scholarly to be dramatic.
Some parts of Slings & Arrows don’t work. A season-one character played by Jennifer Irwin dances too close to the stereotype of a conniving shrew behind the scenes, while the show’s conceptions of homosexuality can leave a bit to be desired. (While it’s admirable that part of the series’ utopian vision of sexuality is that anybody will sleep with anybody in the height of creative passion, the series occasionally tiptoes right up to the line of suggesting that most gay men are just waiting for the right girl.) And the exit of McAdams’ character in season two, prompted by McAdams’ success in the movies, feels sort of half-assed, as though the series’ creators—playwright Susan Coyne, Tony winner Bob Martin, and Kids In The Hall vet Mark McKinney—didn’t want to abandon their planned storyline for her.
But these end up being minor quibbles in the face of the show’s overwhelming humanity and sense of decency. The series’ sense of humor is ever-present, and it almost effortlessly creates grandly entertaining setpieces, like McAdams having to take over an important role on the fly, Gross essentially improvising his direction of a show on opening night, or a marvelous sequence that cross-cuts between a summary of Lear’s plot and a summary of a trashy, Rent-like musical. Add that to the perfectly cast principals and more than two dozen richly conceived supporting players, and the series engages even when not every little element works as well as it might.
By the show’s final season, when Gross and young actress Sarah Polley are trying to help a dying man (William Hutt) fulfill his dream of playing Lear as his final role while dealing with his bitterness and senility, the series has grown so far beyond its modest, comedic beginnings that, like the plays that inspired it, it aims to create something that could contain all of life itself.
Key features: Commentaries, featurettes galore, deleted scenes, lyrics for all the series’ original songs (including its three different theme songs), and bloopers make for a surprisingly deep package.