Making its debut on Blu-ray, Slings & Arrows – The Complete Collection gathers all three seasons of the award winning Canadian television series. These 18 episodes tell the story of the fictional New Burbage Shakespeare Festival and its struggle to remain financially viable. Certain administrative members are pushing for a more commercial approach to New Burbage’s presentation. Of course this is greatly at odds with the actors and directors who wish to maintain the artistic integrity of the theatre.
I’ll admit this sounded like homework at first glance. I don’t know anything about the works of William Shakespeare, except for what I was able to glean from flipping through CliffsNotes the night before an English test. My initial assumption was that Slings & Arrows would be loaded with inside jokes and references only theatre majors would appreciate. I was wrong. You don’t have to know anything about the paper business before watching The Office, nor must you understand the real estate industry to enjoy Arrested Development. And so it goes with Slings & Arrows, an easily accessible character-driven comedy with moments of heart-piercing emotion.
The first season introduces the core cast of characters: artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), actor/director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), and perenial leading lady Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns). Though they worked together years before, Geoffrey suffered a nervous breakdown onstage and retreated from New Burbage. Oliver continued to direct but never quite came to terms with losing Geoffrey. Ellen continued to act under Oliver’s direction, though she too never got over Geoffrey’s departure from the festival. She and Geoffrey were once a couple, though everything fell apart after Geoffrey’s mental difficulties.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that through a bizarre twist of fate that claims Oliver’s life, Geoffrey is roped back in to direct New Burbage’s production of Hamlet. The passing of Oliver occurs right at the beginning of season one, though Stephen Ouimette continues to play the character throughout the series. The somewhat unstable Geoffrey is haunted by his late friend and director – quite literally. Invisible to all others, Oliver keeps popping up in Geoffrey’s presence. The “ghost” of Oliver can’t resist attempting to direct the production from beyond the grave.
Behind the scenes, the festival’s business manager Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney, formerly of Kids In the Hall and Saturday Night Live) makes one poor choice after another as he tries to find ways to bring in more money. McKinney, who co-created and co-wrote the series, is hilarious as the unethical bureaucrat. He has little respect for the theatre and the artists working within it, preferring glitzy musicals to high drama. Richard’s weaselly tactics are a running theme throughout all three seasons.
The second and third seasons follow the New Burbage productions of Macbeth and King Lear, respectively. Each season features subplots concerning various side characters. Rachel McAdams (Mean Girls, Sherlock Holmes) figures prominently into season one, developing a relationship with a film star who has been hired by the festival to play Hamlet. Academy Award nominated actress/writer/director Sarah Polley co-stars in the third season as an inexperienced actress constantly berated by the veteran actor portraying King Lear. And though he skirts the edge of caricature, Don McKellar provides some of the series’ funniest moments as Darren Nichols. Darren, initially hired to take over Oliver’s directing of Hamlet in season one, returns in the second and third seasons to direct plays on the secondary New Burbage stage.
Along with the strength of the ensemble cast, the writing is what makes the show so strong. Along with Mark McKinney, the show was created and written by Susan Coyne and Bob Martin. Coyne also portrays the assistant theatre manager in all three seasons. As she explains in the supplemental material, their aim was to make a program that emphasizes the impact theatre can have – even for people who don’t attend regularly. That comes through clearly throughout the series, as we see the cast and crew members striving to really invest meaning and relevance in their productions. The various relationships, including the on-again, off-again romance between Geoffrey and Ellen, are fairly conventional for the most part. But the characters have been so clearly conceived, the end results are emotionally involving.
Slings & Arrows – The Complete Collection is a bit uneven on Blu-ray in terms of visual presentation. All three seasons are 16:9 widescreen. The first season was upconverted to 1080p and the image is very noisy. There is significant graininess which grows a bit distracting over time. Colors are drab and muted. Although originally made in 2003, it looks twenty years older. The first season was clearly made on a limited budget. That’s not to say it detracts from the enjoyment of watching the show, but watching season two is a bit like Dorothy waking up in Oz. Suddenly skin tones look natural and healthy. Colors are bold and blacks are solid. There is still some fine grain, but the increased sharpness overall makes the 1080p transfers of seasons two and three a nice treat following the first.
As for audio, Slings & Arrows sounds just fine. It’s a dialogue-driven show about theatre actors, not a $200 million dollar action movie. So the mix is completely unremarkable but does exactly what it needs to. The first two seasons are simple DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, with season three bumping it up to 5.1. Dialogue sounds clear and free of distortion throughout. Nothing much fancy happens in any of the mixes, but the King Lear stage effects sound pretty cool in 5.1 surround. There are storm sequences with loud sound effects, for which the mix utilizes the rear channels very well.
Supplemental features are quite extensive. Each of the three seasons includes one commentary track for a specific episode, several interviews, and a selection of deleted scenes and bloopers. The lengthiest selection of features is found on the third season. There are more in-depth interviews on that one, as well as extended King Lear scenes not seen in the episodes. Numerous minor feature round out the package, including production notes and the lyrics to each season’s opening song.
Slings & Arrows – The Complete Collection might seem like a shot in the dark for anyone completely unfamiliar with the series. But for those who appreciate television programs with insightful writing, engaging acting, and laughs mixed with bittersweet emotion, this series is for you.