Slings and Arrows has been on the edge of my consciousness for years. Canadian, yeah, Shakespeare, yeah, funny, yeah, whatever. I always meant to watch it and never got around to it. But late in the fall, I ran into a friend at the library, and we were recommending DVDs to each other. I told her about the 2005 Bleak House (the one with Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock), and she reminded me about Slings and Arrows. I'm not sure why this time it clicked, but it did.
And now that I've finished all three all-too-brief seasons, I really can't recommend it more highly. The show ran in Canada from 2003-06 and then was on the Sundance Channel here a few years ago. I suspect it still pops up on cable occasionally. It's set at the fictional New Burbage Theatre Festival and covers three seasons there, during which Shakespeare's three great tragedies are performed: Hamlet in the first season (with a Hollywood action star as Hamlet), MacBeth in the second (with a pompous blowhard as MacBeth) and King Lear in the third (with an aged, ailing and possibly addicted actor as Lear). Meanwhile, the business manager falls under the sway of an American corporate sponsor in the first season, a lunatic PR guy in the second season and a really bad musical in the third. I loved all three seasons, with perhaps a slight preference for the first as my favorite, though the second was maybe the funniest and the third the most moving.
The show is beautifully written and acted, complex, funny and just all around fabulous. The main character is the theater's artistic director, Geoffrey Tennant (played by the cute and wonderful Paul Gross), who had once been a star actor at the theater before having a nervous breakdown in the middle of Hamlet. (He was playing Hamlet and jumped into Ophelia's grave and wouldn't get out.) When the theater's artistic director--and Geoffrey's former mentor and friend--Oliver Welles, is killed ("run over by a pig truck") at the end of the first episode, Geoffrey is asked to take over. Oliver, however, doesn't go away. His ghost, only visible to Geoffrey (and one other key character, later on), plays a major role throughout the series. He and Geoffrey bicker constantly, alarming all who see Geoffrey engaged in what seems to them to be one-sided arguments with the air.
The acting is wonderful all around, from the main characters--Geoffrey; Oliver; Richard Smith-Jones, the clueless business manager; Anna, his able assistant; Ellen, the festival's leading lady and diva--to the minor ones (Nahum, the Nigerian janitor; Frank and Cyril, the two older gay guys who play many of the minor roles; Maria, the ever-harried stage manager). The occasional big name actor shows up (Rachel McAdams in season 1, Sarah Polley in season 3), although I should re-phrase that to mean bigger name in the US, as many members of the cast are very well-known in Canada. But the writing is also wonderful. And even though each season stands on its own, the three seasons work together as a whole. I read somewhere that the show was conceived of as a 3 season show. (Each season contains 6 episodes of 45 minutes; all three seasons, 13.5 hours in all, equal about one regular TV season in the US.) This becomes clear at the end, when there is a real sense of closure. The ending is bittersweet, but the show ends the way it should end, the way it's been set up to end. And throughout the last few episodes, there are moments that hark back both to earlier seasons--Oliver providing for Geoffrey in King Lear what Geoffrey had provided for his leading men in Hamlet and MacBeth--and to earlier moments in that season (the ever present Bolivian musicians' role in the storm scene in King Lear was just fabulous). One thing I should note is that each season takes a bit of time to warm up. You may not be hooked after the first episode or two. But be patient. Once the story is set up, it's hard to stop watching. And the last two episodes of each season are so well done that I felt that I had no choice but to watch them again, immediately.
I could go on and on. But really, the thing I most want to say is Watch This. I'm not in theater, I haven't read Shakespeare since college, I don't have any personal reasons for enjoying this. But I loved it. It's probably the best TV I've seen since The Wire, and it's much less stressful. (I had rather disturbing dreams while I was watching The Wire, which is probably why I still haven't watched the last 2 seasons.) For a very brief taste, here's a link to a YouTube clip from the first season, the lovely Geoffrey trying to coach his truly terrible Ophelia. And meanwhile, though I'm sad not to be able to watch it for the first time, I have no doubt that it will hold up to repeated viewings, and even having just finished watching it, I'm already looking forward to the next time.