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.

The show’s protagonist is Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), a once-promising actor who suffered a nervous breakdown while playing Hamlet, spent a while in an institution, and now runs a failing—but principled!—theater company out of a warehouse. His estranged mentor, Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), is the artistic director of the prestigious New Burbage Festival, which has become increasingly commercialized as Oliver has lost his passion for theater. In the opening episode, a drunken, depressed Oliver dies in a freak accident, and Geoffrey delivers an angry eulogy at his memorial service. Inspired, the festival’s trustee chair convinces the organization to hire Geoffrey as interim artistic director, a position he accepts reluctantly, fearing for his sanity, and with reason: Oliver’s ghost has been appearing to him (and us), needling him about the plays and reminding him of old promises. Adding to his stress are his ex-girlfriend and former Ophelia, prima donna actress Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns); theater-hating rival director Darren Nichols (Dan McKellar); the festival’s conniving, musical-loving manager, Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney); and, with each season, a few new actors, among them an insecure American film star (Luke Kirby), a talented understudy (Rachel McAdams), an insubordinate leading man (Geraint Wyn Davies), and an aging theater legend (William Hutt) who bullies his young costar (Sarah Polley).

Slings exists in that nebulous area between comedy and drama, and as funny as it can be, the comedic elements aren’t really my favorite. The more farcical passages can feel overheated, with artificial timers forcing up the energy level, and a few too many scenes involve Geoffrey carrying on heated conversations with someone whom none of the others can see. Also, some of the humor feels a little bit ugly, painting the antagonists with broad, contemptuous strokes (she likes Mamma Mia—she must be shallow and soulless!), the likes of which are rarely used for the sympathetic characters, who are permitted complexity and nuance.

The show is funniest when it doesn’t push so hard, when it’s quietly droll—you know, what Americans think of as being quintessentially Canadian anyway. That’s also when we get the most insight into the characters. The banter between Geoffrey and dead Oliver, for example, isn’t raucously hilarious, but it’s sharp and perceptive and wickedly funny in its own way. Theirs—far more than Geoffrey and Ellen’s on-and-off-again affair—is a true love-hate relationship, and Gross and Ouimette both know how to make angry petulance crackle with humor one minute and pathos the next.

In fact, the acting is strong all around, from Gross’s terrifically charismatic, endearingly manic lead, to Ouimette’s sad, bitchy sidekick, to the pair of old spear-carriers (Graham Harley and Michael Polley) who float around in the background, Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern style, and perform the witty, irreverent musical numbers in the opening and closing credits. The relationships among characters are messy and frayed in ways that feel very true, and the show’s creators manage to juggle more than a dozen characters at a time, knitting together subplots without straining and building toward stirring, heartfelt finales.

I think what I love best about the show, however, is how thoughtfully it handles the plays. In the first season, Geoffrey has a monologue expounding upon Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy, and it’s gorgeous: an eloquent, insightful meditation on what it means to mourn. That monologue sets the tone for Geoffrey’s coaching of the unprepared Hamlet, his debates with Oliver about how best to stage the “Scottish play,” and the stunning exploration of Lear’s mortality. With each season, Slings takes on a different play (first Hamlet, then Macbeth, finally King Lear), and from each one, I feel I learned something new about the work. More than anything, Slings and Arrows is a love letter to Shakespearean theater, and like any good love letter, it inspires affection not only for the recipient but for the writer.