“Slings & Arrows”

29 March 2010

For a moment, let me sing a song about the magical moment we enjoy in history:  not only are we fully in the middle of a renaissance for television shows, but we don’t have to pay attention to their schedule.  Between DVRs (I don’t have one, but I envy those of you who do), Netflix sending us DVDs by mail and streaming over the internet, and Hulu and all its cousins, we’re free to partake of the wonder and glory that is television today — and on our own schedule.

Give me the chance and I’ll be one of those people who gets derailed from all normal human conversation at dinner to insist, without blinking, that you should watch “The Wire.”  This is not a short conversation.  Discovering a great new show that’s already available on DVD can be dangerous, as it leads to the binge.  After my first, horrible year of teaching I watched the first two seasons of “The Sopranos” in about four days, only slowed down by the drive back and forth to the video store; I described the show as akin to crack cocaine.  Last summer, with my partner away for a few days, I swallowed the first season of “True Blood” in about a day and a half.  Steven Johnson tells us that watching these kinds of complex shows makes us smarter, but I don’t think he meant watching an entire season in one crazed, unwashed lost weekend.

Almost every night we have a routine:  we finally stop working, we drink a glass of wine and have a late dinner, and we settle down to watch something to cleanse our brains so we can sleep without having dreams about sentences, paragraphs, or teaching anxieties.  About half the time we watch a film, but the problem with film is you have no idea where it’s going to take you.  It feels like a big emotional commitment (and can haunt your dreams, as my previous post showed).  Television shows, in contrast, have a snappy pace and severely delimited structure.  Even if you’re sitting down to a couple of episodes of something dark, complex, or full of cliffhangers (“Lost,” for example, or the Shakespearean “Deadwood”), you know it’s merely a part of something longer.  It’s tidy, like a Lean Cuisine.

The problem is, we occasionally run out of shows — and we were in precisely that condition until we remembered the Canadian comedy, “Slings & Arrows.”  It’s a terrific comedy about a somewhat hopeless theater troupe trying to stage “Hamlet” after its artistic director dies and is replaced by one of his old protege/enemies, played by Paul Gross — a less malevolent Ray Liotta with Dionysian hair and raw sexuality, who’s still nursing himself back to mental health after a breakdown while acting in “Hamlet” seven years earlier.  Gross’s character is promptly haunted by the ghost of the old artistic director, and the show is off and running with Shakespearean jokes, swordfights, jealousies, young romance, and overblown theatrical egos.  We were hooked immediately.  (It doesn’t hurt that Gross can be funny, eminently watchable, and ridiculously sexy all at once.)

There’s no laugh track.  The cast is having fun, but they’re not just playing for yuks — I don’t quite know how the show does it, but it feels substantial.  It’s punctuated with some stock characters, but are they stock for Shakespeare or for modern television comedy?  There are two old queens who offer chorus-like eye-rolling and one-liners for the viewer’s benefit; an aging leading lady who sleeps with a series of hot young delivery boys; a pretentious director in leather pants who announces that the production’s unifying ethic will be “rottenness”; and the uxorious financial director (played by the great Mark McKinney from “Kids in the Hall”) and his new girlfriend, the aggressive Texas transplant determined to replace Shakespeare with productions of “Mamma Mia.”

Oh, to discover a new show — heaven.  My only regret is that it’s only three short seasons long — only six DVDs.  So I’m accepting recommendations for future viewing.

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