Is this show available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Slings & Arrows is unfortunately not available for rent via any streaming service. However, the discs are available through Netflix, which is how I got them.
Starring: Paul Gross, Martha Burns, Stephen Ouimette, Susan Coyne, Mark McKinney, Don McKellar, Rachel McAdams, Luke Kirby
My uncultured, primitive mind has never fully embraced theater except maybe for the occasional splurge on a $50 ticket to see a gaudy, loud, commercial production of something I have either already seen the film version of (The Lion King – film was way better), it stars and/or was made by film people, or its so widely talked about that to skip it would be like moving yourself into a cave and disconnecting from all humanity. With that said, I am even less inclined to give nothing more than a passing whiff at the inner workings of the theater world. The cherry on the top of my unsophistication is my complete ignorance and lack of interest in Canadian television.
Nothing against Canadians, mind you, but considering how many “must-see” American TV shows I have missed, anything made in Canada lies a distant third behind my must-see list of American and British series. So what compelled me to momentarily ignore all of these supposedly wonderful television shows I have never seen to instead watch a comedy-drama Canadian TV series made in 2003 that gives us an “inside baseball” look at the running of a small Shakepearean theater in Canada? Well, for a couple of reasons, Slings & Arrows has a catchy title, Netflix subscribers seem to really love it, as do critics, and it was highly recommended by my friend Veronica (and it got nominated for 9 Geminis, which are like the Emmys, but unlike the Emmys, the Geminis go to shows that are actually worthy of recognition). If you enjoy the sarcastic, dry humor of “workplace comedies” like The Office, or films like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Slings & Arrows should be high on your watch list.
The premise of Slings & Arrows deals with Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), a fantastically gifted actor who returns to manage the acclaimed (and fictional) New Burbage Festival (modeled after Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival) after suffering a mental breakdown in the middle of his performance of Hamlet at the very same theater. Tennant is asked to take over the theater after its artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) is tragically killed by a semi-truck when he drunkenly wanders out into the street one night. Seven years ago, Welles directed Tennant in Hamlet, but a strange love triangle between Welles, Tennant, and actress Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns) caused Tennant to have his mental breakdown and leave the New Burbage Festival, vowing to never have anything to do with Welles or Fanshaw. However, now Tennant finds himself running the theater, to the shock of the local theater community, and he is assisted by none other than Welles’ ghost. At the same time, the theater is undergoing a crisis of its own, as an ambitious American executive named Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) attempts to wrest control of the theater and transform it into a commercial entertainment complex featuring Broadway musicals.
Not to turn you off from watching this series, which I highly recommend you do, Slings & Arrows is clearly inspired by the personal experiences of the show’s creators and writers in the theater business. So yes, those of you with inside knowledge of the theater business will probably appreciate this show a bit more. The storylines involve the typical theater biz issues of backstage rivalries, creative problems among the production team, and the constant problem of having enough money to keep the theater going. However, the writers adeptly spin their experiences to create an intricately connected web of characters and stories that still manages to pull you in and make you invest in the series. This isn’t like watching Robert Altman’s The Player where you really needed to know about the movie business to fully get what was going on. In this respect, Slings & Arrows can be compared to Entourage, which used its Hollywood insider background to give you compelling characters and stories. In fact, by getting so into the characters and various plotlines of Slings & Arrows, I found myself actually giving a shit about the theater business.
Like me, you are probably going to have no idea who any of the actors in this series are, with the exception of a yet-to-be famous, pre-Notebook Rachel McAdams. All of the actors are Canadian and they are all so wonderful that I spent half the show wondering why the hell they aren’t household names in the U.S. Ironically, the only actor in this show to break out and become famous in the U.S. is one of my least favorite characters in the show – Rachel McAdams. Its not that she gives a bad performance, but her character is the clichéd young, bright-eyed actress who wants to be a star and she finally gets that chance. Her character has little internal conflict and the show seems to only be interested in focusing on McAdams’ spunky cuteness (e.g., demonstrated by she and Jack Kirby’s romance) rather than giving her character some weight and conflict.
Fortunately, most of the remaining cast gives a knockout performance. Paul Gross as the mentally unsteady Geoffrey Tennant proves that one can look like a movie star AND be wildly talented. The show does a great job setting us up in anticipation of what will happen when a crazy, loose cannon nutjob takes over a venerable institution like the New Burbage Festival. In the first episode, Tennant is seen running some avante garde theater that no one attends and that gets evicted for nonpayment of rent. Tennant is thrown in jail for defying his landlord in the name of artistic expression. We later learn that 7 years ago, Tennant had a mental breakdown while performing Hamlet at the New Burbage Festival and he has never been “normal” since. By the time Tennant is offered the temporary job of running the New Burbage Festival, you know that nothing good can come of this. Paul Gross strikes a fine balance between being unstable enough to break all the stuffy conventions of a theater like the New Burbage Festival, but also remain sufficiently grounded to run the theater, direct Hamlet, and rekindle his romance with his former leading lady, Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns).
Although she gives a very good performance, Martha Burns as Ellen Fanshaw is so unlikeable that I could never buy into why anyone, especially Geoffrey Tennant, would be attracted to someone as nasty, bitchy, and self-absorbed as her. Granted, there is not much for her to be happy about, especially when her old friend, the former director of the New Burbage Festival, gets killed after the opening night performance of their play, and her former lover becomes her new boss. However, the show gives you absolutely nothing to make you sympathize with her in any way. She holds herself above her fellow actors, she refuses to put much effort into her work, she is always angry at everyone and everything, and she uses a very nice, but dim-witted, young man purely for sex. Martha Burns does as well with this character as anyone possibly could, but I felt that the character could have used sharper dialogue and drier wit to make her more interesting (although you will find yourself pronouncing “sorry” in the same Canadian fashion that she does). Now here’s something surprising in light of how little chemistry exists between the two characters – the actors who play them, Paul Gross and Martha Burns, are actually married in real life!
The sharp dialogue and dry wit is almost exclusively reserved for Stephen Ouimette’s flamboyant Oliver Welles character, the now-deceased director of the New Burbage Festival. Oliver is basically like gay Obi Wan-Kenobi. He shows up from time to time to give Geoffrey Tenant sage advice about how to manage his life and direct his plays. Ouimette deftly matches the witty dialogue and chemistry between Martha Burns and Paul Gross. His interactions with Gross are especially noteworthy and they comprise some of the best material in the show.
I have not said anything about Richard (played by the show’s co-writer/co-creator, Mark McKinney), the “suit” who is responsible for keeping the New Burbage Festival financially afloat, and his American counterpart, Holly (played by Jennifer Irwin). They both provide the series with wonderful comic moments and Richard has one of the best character arcs in the entire series.
It is worth pointing out that the three writers/creators (Mark McKinney, Susan Coyne, and Bob Martin) wrote every single episode of this series. They plotted out every episode for all three seasons of the series well in advance so the writing is tight and efficient. So basically it’s the complete opposite of a show like Lost, where halfway through the series, J.J. Abrams had no fucking clue how to end his series. Now I will point out that each season takes a while to really get into gear, but once you get through those first few episodes, the remaining part of the season is fantastic! Although this series is mostly viewed as being a comedy, it has plenty of drama and my favorite moments in the show are those dramatic moments (in season 1, there are two such scenes in which Geoffrey coaches a group of business executives who are taking acting classes and one where Geoffrey gives a pep talk to a young Hollywood action star (who is meant to represent Keanu Reeves ill-conceived one-time decision to do serious theater) on how to give Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” monologue).
If you are still wondering whether or not to give Slings & Arrows a shot (no pun intended), consider this: Wire creator David Simon said the following about this show: “There’s a wonderful Canadian show called Slings & Arrows, about a Shakespearean theatre company, that was so clever it left me with pure, distilled writer-envy.” You will really be missing something if you skip this show – it contains beautifully written scriptwriting, wonderful acting, and most importantly, it respects the audience’s intelligence.