Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection

(2010) *** 1/2 Unrated
843 min. Sundance Channel. Director: Peter Wellington. Cast: Paul Gross, Mark McKinney, Rachel McAdams, Sarah Polley, Colm Feore.

/content/films/3911/1.jpgIf all the world's a stage, perhaps it stands to reason that all the stage's a world. That's the thinking behind the often brilliant workplace dramedy Slings & Arrows, a salute to Shakespeare and an examination of the theater that's both biting and affectionate. As co-created and written by Susan Coyne (Due South), Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) & Mark McKinney (The Kids in the Hall, Saturday Night Live), Slings & Arrows looks at the archetypal personalities of a theater company: from actor to stage manager to director to artistic director to the dreaded managing director to the even more dreaded board of directors. It's about what makes these particular personalities tick, what draws them to the madness of theater, and the eternal conflict of art and commerce.

The series centers around Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross of Due South), the quintessential tortured artist. Artistic director of the uncompromising but utterly uncommercial "Théâtre Sans Argent" ("Theatre Without Money") in Toronto, Geoffrey find himself at the bottom of the theatrical food chain following a nervous breakdown that occured during a performance of Hamlet. The top of the theatrical food chain is the New Burbage Festival, a thriving but stodgy institution enjoying its 44th season. When artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) unexpectedly dies, New Burbage turns to his estranged former friend and colleague, Geoffrey, to inject new life into the company by taking the reins as artistic director. This radical gamble sets everyone on edge: button-down managing director Richard-Smith Jones (McKinney), Geoffrey's former lover and Ophelia (and resident New Burbage diva) Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), and Geoffrey himself.  He's never fully recovered from his melancholy-Dane ordeal (which landed him in a psychiatric institution for years), and the centerpiece of the New Burbage season is—you guessed it—Hamlet. What's worse is that Oliver has shuffled off his mortal coil but stuck around as a ghost (or is he a delusion?) haunting Geoffrey.

Much of the fun of Slings & Arrows derives from its "inside baseball" touches regarding the theater world and the complete works of William Shakespeare. The New Burbage Festival is not so loosely based on Canada's venerated Stratford Festival (where Coyne performed for years), and each season has a thematic focus that dovetails with the themes of New Burbage's centerpiece Shakespeare production: Season One riffs on Hamlet, Season Two riffs on Macbeth, and Season Three tackles King Lear. As such, the series constitutes a sort of "Three Ages of Man" trilogy dealing with youth, middle age and old age/mortality, reflected in the growing pains of the characters and the theatrical company itself. Season One also teases Macbeth in the character of American executive Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin), who functions as the Lady Macbeth-esque horny devil over ambitious Richard's shoulder ("Richard" as in Richard III?).

Just as Keanu Reeves made headlines for playing Hamlet in Manitoba, New Burbage's Hamlet has a movie star in the lead: Jack Crew (Luke Kirby). Ironically, Jack's love interest was played by a soon-to-be movie star: Rachel McAdams, who returns only briefly in the second season premiere to see off her character. Season Two ups the ante yet further by tacking the supposed curse of Macbeth, superstitiously referred to as "The Scottish Play." Amazingly, Season Three posits an even more dire situation: a King Lear (theatrical veteran William Hutt) who's dying of cancer and addicted to heroin. Well-known Canadian director Don McKellar sinks his teeth into the role of egomaniacal director Darren Nichols (he's sitcomedically over the top, but go with it...), and co-creator Coyne plays the loveably put-upon festival administrator. The great actor-director Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter) turns up as a regular in Season Three (her father Michael Polley is a regular for all three seasons), and two popular Canadian character actors get in the fun: Colm Feore (24) anchors a Season Two subplot as the wacky PR genius of Froghammer (a goof on trendy commercial directors Hammer & Tongs?), and Kenneth Welsh sends himself up in a hilarious Season Three cameo.

Kids in the Hall fans will appreciate the flavor added by McKinney behind and in front of the camera. Richard Smith-Jones proves to be a smart comic creation, from his doubly bland surname to his yearning-to-be-free desire to cut loose through musical theater ("I'm not heartless!" he protests. "I'm just... I'm detail-oriented"). But the series' true MVP is Gross, who perfectly captures the trouble with brilliance. Geoffrey is certifiably mad, dangerously unpredictable and yet totally worth it as a demonstrable theatrical genius. Gross makes Geoffrey personable and poignant, funny and heartfelt, driven not by ego but by pure, uncompromising love of the craft. Just as Geoffrey earns the faith of the actors of New Burbage, he wins over the series' viewers with his artistic vision and his keen understanding of the theatrical process: "There will be struggle. There will be sacrifice. There will be tears, there will be the occasional fistfight. And in the end, there will be transformation."

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 6

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 10/26/2010

Distributor: Acorn Media

Acorn Media's six-disc Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection Blu-ray box set presents each six-episode season (and bonus features) across two discs. All of the transfers are 1080p, but the first season has been upscaled from a standard definition source. As such, the first batch of episodes don't look quite as good as the rest, with video noise often coming to the fore, and black level and detail tending toward the soft side. Still, Seasons Two and Three look considerably better (more detailed and less noisy), and it's hard to imagine that the series can look all the much better than it does here (my main complaint being occasional macroblocking). Audio comes mostly in perfectly adequate DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 tracks, though a Season Three upgrade to DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 adds slight oomph to the proceedings.

The show's the thing, of course, but Acorn has assembled a nice collection of bonus features. Season One kicks off with a terrific commentary with Bob Martin, Mark McKinney, and Susan Coyne on "Oliver's Dream." The co-creators/writers warmly and humorously discuss the show's origins and inspirations, as well as some specifics about cast and production.

Also included are a "Trailer" (4:24, HD), "Bloopers" (6:36, SD), eight "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (SD), and some text-based extras: credits and production notes, and lyrics to "Cheer Up Hamlet" and "Call the Understudy."

Season Two features commentary with actors Michael Polley and Graham Harley on finale "Birnam Wood." The double act makes pleasant, amusing company as they natter on—not unlike their characters—about the show.

There's also a "Cast and Crew Interview" (7:56, HD) with Polley and Harley, Season Two "Bloopers" (9:54, SD), a Photo Gallery (HD), credits and production notes (text only), and lyrics to "Mackers" and "Call the Understudy" (text only).

Season Three includes enjoyable and informative Interviews with "Paul Gross" (17:02, HD), "Susan Coyne" (9:27, HD), "Martha Burns" (8:49, HD), "Stephen Ouimette" (9:33, HD), and "Graham Harley" (7:15, HD). On the Set B-roll segments include "William Hutt" (2:36, HD), "Cast and Crew" (5:31, HD), and "Director Part I" (6:29, HD), "Part II" (9:33, HD), and "Part III" (11:17, HD).

Also on hand: a "Trailer" (4:34, SD), eighteen "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (SD), "Bloopers" (8:50, SD), a "Behind the Scenes Featurette" (8:58, SD), credits and production notes (text only), Song Lyrics (text only) for the seasonal themes and from the fictional musical "East Hastings," and a Photo Gallery (HD).

Anyone who loves great TV will fall for Slings & Arrows, but it'll be a particular joy to lovers of theater and Shakespeare, and there's no better way to enjoy the series than in Acorn's Blu-ray edition.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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