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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
iven that Mark McKinney of “Kids in the Hall” fame is not only one of the writers, but also one of the stars of “Slings and Arrows,” one would think it would be much funnier than it is. It exists somewhere in that netherworld between drama and comedy though (as much TV seems to these days), but labeling it a dramedy is useless, because that doesn’t really tell you anything other than you might laugh or you might cry. In fact, dramedy is such an ineffective word, that I’d like to find the person who came up with the term and knock the crap out of them, or at least hire someone to. But I digress.
The series revolves around the fictitious New Burbage Festival, which is dedicated to showcasing the works of Shakespeare. Don’t bother trying to find New Burbage on the Canadian map, as the town is just as much of a creation as the festival. The central character is Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), a rebellious sort who had a breakdown seven years ago smack in the middle of performing the lead role in a production of “Hamlet.” Afflicted with some vague mental illness for which he’s been treated, he’s continued trying to stage shows as a director at various venues without much success. Business went on as usual at the festival without him, although it appears nothing’s been quite the same since that night for artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) and leading lady Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns). One night Oliver sees Geoffrey on the news, chained to a rundown theatre he’s trying to protect, and in an inebriated state tries to telephone him to make amends. Geoffrey rejects the apology, and Oliver stumbles out of the phone booth and is hit by a meat truck. Naturally, the festival needs a new artistic director, and Geoffrey begrudgingly accepts the job on a temporary basis. But it doesn’t take long for Oliver’s ghost to come knocking, or is it that Geoffrey has finally lost his mind for good?
In rereading the above, the set-up does indeed sound ripe with comedy, but I didn’t find myself laughing too much. Most of the problems I had with “Slings and Arrows” were in the first season. The bulk of the cast, aside from Gross, are portrayed as theatre actors often can be: vain, self-centered and boorish. Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to learn to like most of these people, and it wasn’t until the last episode of the season that everyone softened a bit and came together to get “Hamlet” off the ground once again. For the most part, this approach to the material carries over into the latter two seasons, which is good for the show, because then I was able to start getting into it.
The second season follows Geoffrey’s attempt to get a production of “Macbeth” off the ground, based on an extensive series of notes left behind by Oliver. Of course, he’s also both helped and hindered in his quest by the ghost, which never goes away. Surprisingly, the show doesn’t take the easy route by making the production of the cursed play a disaster, although Geoffrey must contend with a pompous leading man who simply doesn’t want to take direction. The third and final season sees Geoffrey staging “King Lear,” with a man dying of cancer (William Hutt) playing the lead as his final wish before shuffling off this mortal coil. The series finale is remarkably effective and sends the show off for its final curtain call. If only “Slings and Arrows” had been as good at its start as it was at its end.
The show has an extensive, revolving cast aside from its leads, which also include McKinney as the boob of managing director, an excellent Susan Coyne (also one the show’s writers) as his assistant, and Don McKellar as an obnoxious director who keeps getting dragged back to the festival. Rachel McAdams has a big role as an ingénue in Season One, and her work on this series just barely predates her movie stardom. She’s very good here and one of the few people in the first season that’s actually likable. Interestingly, she came back for the first episode of Season Two to finish off her character arc, and in between the two seasons was when she started making it big, so some due credit must be given for returning to her roots one more time when she probably didn’t have to. Likewise, Sarah Polley plays a similar character in the third season. Colm Feore is the big guest star in the second season as a slick, whacked adman who sets up an advertising campaign for the festival that’s, well, quite different from the norm to say the least.
I have some background in theatre and know many, many theatre actors, so this show seemed like an easy sell for me (even though that ended up not being quite the case). Anybody who’s done time on or around the stage needs to see this series. It’s 101 for those types, and an ideal Christmas gift. Even people who just enjoy going to theatre will probably dig it. But outside of theatre folk, or people with an interest in Shakespeare, it’s hard to imagine anyone else really getting into this show, especially with its difficult first season as an intro, but it’s also possible I’m just over thinking it.
Special Features: There are three episode commentaries, featuring various members of the cast and crew that, as I understand, are exclusive to this release. There are also cast interviews, deleted and extended scenes, bloopers, trailers, productions notes, photo galleries, song lyrics, and a couple on-set and behind the scenes featurettes. All in all, quite a bit of bang for your Blu-ray buck.