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Slings and Arrows: The Complete Collection(2003)
In the fictional town of New Burbage, legendary theatrical madman Geoffrey Tennant returns to the New Burbage Theatre Festival, the site of his greatest triumph and most humiliating failure, to assume the artistic directorship after the sudden death of his mentor, Oliver Welles. When Geoffrey arrives he finds that Oliver is still there, in spirit anyway, and with his guidance (and often in spite of it) Geoffrey attempts to reconcile with his past while wrestling the festival back from the marketing department. Despite a bitter leading lady, a clueless leading man, and a scheming general manager, he manages to stage a remarkable production of Hamlet -- the play that drove him mad.
For more about Slings and Arrows: The Complete Collection and the Slings and Arrows: The Complete Collection Blu-ray release, see the Slings and Arrows: The Complete Collection Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on October 18, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Paul Gross, Martha Burns, Don McKellar, Mark McKinney, Oliver Dennis
» See full cast & crew
Slings and Arrows: The Complete Collection Blu-ray Review
An outrageous TV fortune, no suffering involved.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, October 18, 2010
Biker drama Sons of Anarchy may be "Hamlet on Harleys," but Slings & Arrows, a 2003-2006 Canadian TV series (broadcast in the U.S. on the Sundance Channel), borrows the tale of Shakespeare's "melancholy Dane"—and later, Macbeth and King Lear—for the more meta, post-modern purpose of exploring the insular world of regional theater. "The play's the thing," as Hamlet says, "wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King," and this may as well be the motto of the show, where the actors and staff of the fictional New Burbage Shakespeare Festival find their lives eerily mirrored in—and explained by—the works of The Bard. On one level, Slings & Arrows is a backstage satire, comically ribbing on vain actors, stubborn directors, and the awkward alliance that has always existed between art and commerce, but it's also an emotional drama in its own right, filled with lovelorn characters suffering, yes, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Like Ontario's Stratford Festival, on which it's loosely based, New Burbage is a place where the art of acting and the moneymaking, entertainment side of the theatre uncomfortably rub elbows. In the lobby, there's a massive gift shop selling Shakespeare t-shirts and mugs that say "ART" on the side. Scoff. The theatre's nebbish business manager, Richard Smith-Jones—played by writer/co-creator and Kids in the Hall alum Mark McKinney—is slowly but surely selling out, intent on turning New Burbage into a highly commercialized "Shakespeareville" at the behest of his take- charge American girlfriend (Jennifer Irwin). On the creative front, the festival is withering, having recently churned out a merely meh performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream under the guidance of artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Oimette), a theatrical has-been who, on closing night, passes out drunkenly in the street and gets run over—killed—by a passing semi hauling pigs to slaughter. The slogan on the side of the truck? Tragically, ironically, appropriately: Canada's Best Hams.
Oliver's mercurial protégé, fringe actor Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross)—who was driven to the brink of insanity playing Hamlet some seven years prior—is called in to New Burbage to serve as temporary director. Only, Geoffrey has a problem fitting of the paranoid Dane: he keeps seeing Oliver's ghost, who shows up to wisecrack and make suggestions about the theatre's new production of Hamlet. At least Geoffrey doesn't have to play the prince himself; to fill the titular role, the theatre has hired Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), a popular Keanu Reeves-ish action star from America who knows kung fu but can't get through a soliloquy without resorting to colloquial slang. Complicating matters, the apprentice actress tackling Ophelia—played by a pre-fame Rachel McAdams—is falling for Jack, while Geoffrey fights his feelings for former lover Ellen (Martha Burns), the show's Gertrude, who has run off, cougar-like, with a barely legal boy toy. Eventually, each character, in his or her own way, is met by an ultimatum that forces a choice between the two possible responses to that question: "To be, or not to be?"
If season one—Hamlet—is about the impetuousness of youth, then season two—Macbeth—is at least partly about middle age and madness. Everything seems cursed for the New Burbage players in this second season, which is appropriate considering the superstitions that actors have surrounding "that Scottish play." (Supposedly, if an actor merely mutters the name "Macbeth," ill-fortune is bound to befall the production.) As Geoffrey massages the delicate ego of his Macbeth, Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies), and copes with how to stage the notoriously difficult play —reluctantly taking cues from his miasmic mentor—Richard, faced with budget cuts, tries to rebrand the theatre with the help of Sanjay (Colm Feore), the president of a hilariously new media-ish PR firm called "Froghammer." Elsewhere, festival administrator Anna Conroy (Susan Coyne) finds herself unwittingly the subject of a contemporary new piece by a Canadian playwright, and pretentious director Darren Nichols (Don McKellar) puts on a laughably emotionless version of Romeo and Juliet. Fittingly, the series concludes in season three with a take on King Lear, the story of an elderly ruler trying to set his kingdom right in his twilight years. For the title role, Geoffrey recruits an aging actor (William Hutt), who may himself be on death's doorstep. The show, throughout, is filled with these kinds of thematic and narrative parallels.
That the series can so deftly intertwine the stories of the characters with those of their counterparts in the Shakespearean oeuvre is a testament to the keen-witted writing of Susan Coyne, Bob Martin, and Mark McKinney, who collectively penned all eighteen 45-minute episodes. If you've seen Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, you'll at least have a basic grasp of what the three writers are doing here—creating a kind of metafictional play-about-playmaking that's rife with allusions, borrowed plot twists, and wink-wink, self-referential irony. The dialogue, like Shakespeare's, is multi-layered and dense with wordplay and in-jokes. All of this could've easily lapsed into comedic-but-cold formalism, too aware of its own cleverness, but the writers avoid this particular fate simply by making us care—deeply and genuinely—about the characters and the backstage drama of their lives. Like Jim and Pam in the American version of The Office, we desperately want Geoffrey and Ellen to end up together despite their differences and troubled past. We want to see Richard Smith-Jones realize his secret ambition of singing in a musical, and we want Oliver to resolve whatever hang-ups keep his ghostly form wandering o'er the earth. (But not before the final episode. The sarcastic specter, who appears to Geoffrey at the most inopportune times, is much too fun to fade away mid-series.)
Of course, our investment as an audience is due just as much to the actors as their tightly written scripts. The show's regulars are perfectly cast, and the fact that they're essentially meta-acting—that is, they're actors playing actors—adds another satisfyingly bizarre twist to Slings & Arrows' already tangled Shakespearean skein. Paul Gross' Geoffrey is stubborn, a mildly tortured artist who demands perfection, Martha Burns' Ellen is desperate and vain in a way that only a failing middle-aged actress can be, and Mark McKinney—the ex-Kids in the Hall cast member —gives his Richard a frantic, agonizing anxiety that accounts for much of the show's humor. They're bit players, but the two best actors/characters, though, have to be Michael Polley and Graham Harley, playing two old theatre queens who have seen it all and act as the show's Greek chorus-y peanut gallery, not unlike the two hecklers from The Muppet Show. They also sing the show's theme songs, which are different for each season. The Hamlet jingle for season one may just be the cleverest theme on television:
Cheer up Hamlet, chin up Hamlet,
Buck up, you melancholy Dane!
So your uncle is a cad
Who murdered dad and married mum,
That's really no excuse to be as glum as you've become!
So rise up Hamlet, wise up Hamlet,
Perk up and sing a new refrain!
Your incessant monologizing
Fills the castle with ennui;
Your antic disposition is embarrassing to see;
And by the way, you sulky brat,
The answer is "to be."
You're driving poor Ophelia insane!
So shut up, you rogue and peasant,
Grow up, it's most unpleasant,
Cheer up, you melancholy Dane!
Slings and Arrows: The Complete Collection Blu-ray, Video Quality
Ay, there's the rub. The first season of Slings & Arrows was shot in standard definition and has been upscaled here into a 1080p/AVC-encoded presentation. As you'd expect, the image is quite soft and even chunky at times, with no fine detail to speak of, frequent bouts of thick video noise, and black levels that are hazy and grayish. That said, this is the best the material can and will look given how it was shot, so I see no cause to complain. (The back of the case also clearly states that the first season is upscaled.) Thankfully, though, the production switched to high definition for seasons two and three, and the picture improves dramatically. The image is still nowhere near as crisp as that of current shot-on-video shows, like Sons of Anarchy, say, but detail improves enough that close-ups display refined textures, and longer shots—like the actors on stage, seen from the perspective of the audience—look much less soft. Noise is also significantly reduced, so that it really only becomes noticeable during the darker scenes, and black levels seem deeper and less prone to murkiness. Color throughout the series is realistic—that is, not exceptionally vibrant—and skin tones are consistently natural. Some typical video anomalies still exist—mild macroblocking, blown highlights, etc.—but nothing that rises to the level of distraction. While Slings & Arrows may not look as clear and pristine as bigger budgeted major network shows, it's clear that this Blu-ray release from Acorn Media is faithful to source, which is really the best possible outcome.
Slings and Arrows: The Complete Collection Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The first two seasons of Slings & Arrows are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo, which may not allow for any surround sound immersion, but certainly suits the nature of the dialogue-driven show. Voices are mostly balanced well in the mix—there are a few scenes when I felt the need to bump the volume up—and the sound effects, like the wind, rain, and thunder at Geoffrey's Théâtre Sans Argent, are as potent and crisp as they need to be for TV broadcast purposes. The third season makes the move to a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround presentation, and while the multi-channel expansion is appreciated, it really isn't necessary. The rear channels are used to strong effect during a few key sequences—most notably the production of King Lear—but most of the time they go unused. When the show utilizes music, as it often does to underscore certain emotional beats, the score sounds relatively full and clear. The most important thing to note, though, is that there are no real audio slip-ups here—no drop-outs, hisses, or crackles. This is clean, no-frills audio.
Slings and Arrows: The Complete Collection Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Commentary with Bob Martin, Mark McKinney, and Susan Coyne
The creators of Slings & Arrows sit down to discuss the first episode, devoting much of the discussion to the creation of the show and the process of figuring out what its tone should be.
Trailer (1080i, 4:24)
Bloopers (SD, 6:36)
Deleted and Extended Scenes (SD, approx. 10 min.)
Includes eight scenes that were cut or trimmed from season one.
Credits and Production Notes (Text only)
Lyrics to "Cheer Up Hamlet" and "Call the Understudy" (Text only)
Commentary with Actors Michael Polley and Graham Harley
These guys—who play the veteran actors that sing the show's theme song(s)—are a hoot discussing season two's finale.
Cast and Crew Interview (1080i, 7:56)
Polley and Harley discuss the show, their characters, and acting in general.
Bloopers (SD, 9:54)
Photo Gallery (1080p)
Self-playing gallery with high-definition stills.
Credits and Production Notes (Text only)
Lyrics to "Call the Understudy" and "Mackers" (Text only)
Includes extensive interviews with Paul Gross (17:02), Susan Coyne (9:27), Martha Burns (8:49), Stephen Oimette (9:33), and Graham Harley (7:15).
On the Set (1080i)
Standard issue on-set footage, with sections for William Hutt (2:36), the Cast and Crew (5:31), and Director Part I (6:29), Part II (9:33), and Part III (11:17).
Trailer (SD, 4:34)
Deleted and Extended Scenes (SD, approx. 30 min.)
Eighteen trimmed or otherwise cut scenes, including additional sequences from King Lear.
Bloopers (SD, 8:50)
Behind the Scenes Featurette (SD, 8:58)
Some on-set footage interspersed with interviews with the cast and clips from the show.
Credits and Production Notes (Text only)
Song Lyrics (Text only)
Includes lyrics to several of the songs featured this season, including those from the fictional musical "East Hastings."
Photo Gallery (1080p)
Slings and Arrows: The Complete Collection Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
By the last act of Slings & Arrows, I was sad that it was over. I wasn't expecting to, but I've grown to love the cast of artistic misfits at the New Burbage Festival. What's remarkable is how the show, in the brief span of 18 episodes, creates such a complete backstage theater world, populated with memorable characters and articulated with both wit and emotion. This is intelligent, well-written television, and while you don't have to be a fan of the Bard to enjoy the show, it certainly helps. If the question is "to buy or not to buy?" then the answer is definitely "to buy." Recommended!
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