Slings and Arrows

All three seasons on DVD and streaming on Netflix.

The creators of Slings and Arrows, a Canadian TV series that ran from 2003 to 2006, clearly weren’t worried about reaching a mass audience. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the show aired on a premium channel, not because it features network-unfriendly sex and violence (it doesn’t) but because it’s unrepentantly snobby about theater, which is, in its way, even more network-unfriendly. Set at a troubled Shakespeare festival (the show’s title alludes to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy), Slings and Arrows knows the Bard’s plays very well and operates under the assumption that viewers do too. (In one emotionally climactic scene, a character quotes from King John without attribution!)

What’s more, much of the drama derives from the ongoing struggle to produce those plays with integrity, worrying not about marketing or ticket sales but about how best to breathe life into the still-vibrant Elizabethan-era text. Slings can be deprecating and satiric toward its theaterfolk, sometimes cuttingly so, but it’s premised on the idea that a bad production of Hamlet is a genuine tragedy—even, perhaps especially, if it’s well received. Those who don’t share that belief probably find that the series become very exasperating very quickly, but for those who do care about the finer points of interpreting the great plays, Slings is charming and funny and poignant.