Alas, poor Judge Adam Arseneau, we knew him well.
The play is the thing.
Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection (Blu-ray) personifies everything tragically ludicrous about Canadian television: smart, sophisticated, darkly comedic, and critically acclaimed, but with audiences barely noticing its existence. It takes Acorn Media, a distributor best known for their British imports, to bring this award-winning satire back to North American audiences. You'll be glad they did.
Facts of the Case
The New Burbage Theater Festival is in trouble. The seats are empty, the productions are uninspired, and longstanding artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette, Heater) has just been run over and killed by a pig truck. Desperate, the jittery general manager Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney, The Kids In The Hall) reaches out to the most unlikely of sources: Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross, Due South), a passionate but mentally unstable visionary who went mad during a production of Hamlet seven years earlier at the Festival.
Geoffrey finds himself thrust into a leadership role of the dysfunctional theater troupe, producing the very play that drove him mad as an actor. He must contend with the brilliant-yet-temperamental leading lady (and his ex-girlfriend) Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns, Due South), a pretentious guest director (Don McKellar, The Red Violin) and most troubling, the ghost of Oliver Wells, still criticizing even in the afterlife.
The mark of a brilliant television show is how interesting and engaging it can make a seemingly uninteresting and disengaged subject—a small-town Canadian theater company, for example. You don't have to be an aficionado of the small stage to appreciate this show's quirky charm and dysfunctional family elements and passionate love for theater, any more than you'd need to be employed by a late-night sketch comedy show to appreciate and love Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. Of course, bonus points if you are actually a theater geek, because you will adore the sly jokes, theatrical puns, knowing nods, and drinking songs about Mackers without the use of crib sheets.
Loosely based on the world-renowned Stratford Festival located in small-town Stratford, Ontario, the fictional theatre festival and town of New Burbage mirrors its real-life counterpart in the endless struggle between creative visionaries and financial middlemen. For the actors, the play is the thing; nothing matters except telling the story, of capturing the revered essence of the hallowed words of Shakespeare. For the board of directors and the managers, a hit musical would work just as well so long as the seats are filled. Enter hilarious amounts of tension and conflict as creative director Geoffrey and moneyman Richard argue over the finer details of a world-class theatrical production, including where the lasers should go. (Hint: nowhere).
If nothing else, Slings & Arrows pokes endlessly at this strange schizophrenic relationship between the money and the talent, and the troubled state of theater in this modern age. Season Two focuses on the challenges in trying to lure a young audience into the theater, after the Festival realizes its primary subscription base are literally dying of old age, as well as contending with the inherent cursed nature of the Play That Shall Not Be Named (on account of all the blood). Season Three focuses on the plight of street theater, after a hot musical (not unlike Rent) upstages the top-billing production of King Lear. It's all very tongue-in-cheek, all hilariously absurd—but for anyone with a theatrical background, Slings & Arrows rings true in a profoundly dysfunctional manner. Also, there is a ghost. You have to have a lot of balls to play a Shakespearian haunting straight-faced, but Slings & Arrows pulls it off effortlessly.
In the United States, Slings & Arrows received a small amount of notoriety on the Sundance Channel, but make no mistake: this one is Canadian through and through. The pleasantly satirical yet slightly dark comedic style is a trademark giveaway of our country's finest programming: lots of curse words, but since they're Shakespearian jokes, we deem it "cultural." A veritable revolving door of Canadian talent, take your pick of the who's-who of recognizable faces parading through the New Burbage doors: Paul Gross, Mark McKinney, Rachel McAdams, Don McKellar, Colm Feore, Sarah Polley, longtime Stratford veteran William Hutt, and on and on. For some like Rachel McAdams, it's a shame their tenure on the show is so brief, but she went and got herself a Hollywood career, the floozy.
Speaking of all things Canada, Paul Gross is rapidly approaching demigod status in the Great White North, and it's not hard to see why here. Geoffrey Tennant is one of the most pleasantly erratic, brilliant, frustrating and hilarious characters on television; a hodge-podge of every lunatic-yet-brilliant professor in university you ever had, running on methamphetamines. Gross is spectacular in the role, shifting mid-stream between tortured anguish and droll comedy with polished skill. Perpetually haunted by the ever-critical ghost of his theatrical mentor, these two characters strike up a charming relationship that falls somewhere between father and son, student and teacher and The Odd Couple. While Geoffrey balances hallucinatory madness seeing ghosts with the pitfalls of theatrical production, he fights and reconciles with his ex-girlfriend Ellen (played by real-life wife Martha Burns), who provides constant on-again off-again romantic tension and drama throughout the series.
Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection contains all three seasons of the Gemini Award-winning show on six Blu-Ray discs. A relatively low-budget and modest technical production during its heyday, Slings & Arrows looks great on the Blu-Ray transfer, but easily reveals the inherent flaws in the source material. All three seasons are presented in 1080p but look dramatically different, with Season One looking the roughest of the bunch with a washed color palate and an intense grainy quality usually reserved for 16mm filmmaking. It is also the only season which has had its source material upconverted. Season Two and Three are better, with more natural color tones and darker blacks, but grain is still an issue. Audio is presented DTS-HD Master Audio throughout, but only Season Three is in 5.1 surround; the rest are in stereo. Dialogue is crisp and clean and the upbeat score keeps the on-screen action moving at a clip and brisk pace, but the relatively low-budget production occasionally suffers in the audio department, especially Season One. The cavernous echoes of the theatrical spaces suffer in clarity, as well as some environmental overflows that make dialogue occasionally hard to hear.
Extras are quite impressive. We get three cast and crew commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes featurettes, cast and crew interviews, backstage footage, bloopers, deleted and extended scenes, photo galleries, production notes, trailers, and song lyrics—a pleasing repository of goodies to say the least. The song lyrics themselves are practically worth the price of admission.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"Retooled" might be too strong a word, but there is a noticeable tone shift after the first season of Slings & Arrows. Season One was darkly comedic and biting, almost cruel: the drunken death of Oliver and the taxidermy of his skull to be used in the theatrical production, drunken sword duels and such. Once Season Two started up, the show had found a new rhythm, a lighter tone more endemic of a modern Canadian comedy, replacing the awkward black humor with lighter jokes about taxes, more cursing, and doses of social satire—something more CBC than Showcase, if you catch the reference. The show remains consistently funny throughout its eighteen episodes, but I prefer the slightly darker take.
Slings & Arrows is a rousing success. The acting is tight, the dialogue is intelligent, and the drama is genuine and heartfelt. You will be surprised at how endearing these characters become, and how quickly. The hardest part is saying goodbye. With only six episodes per season, Slings & Arrows is just over too fast.
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Studio: Acorn Media
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