In the first episode of the first season of Slings & Arrows, I’M SO READY FOR THIS. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to start Slings & Arrows.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of alcoholism, depression, and mental illness
Hello, friends! For a number of years, Slings & Arrows has been recommended to me, and I’m so pleased that I am finally getting a chance to tackle it. If you happen to be new to the Mark Watches experience—I always get an influx of new readers when I start another project—then take a moment to review the following, as I do things a bit differently around here.
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I came into this show only knowing two things:
- It’s Canadian.
- It’s about Shakespeare.
I do like admitting these things up front and then getting to discover that sometimes, knowing elements of a show doesn’t really matter, because I AM FASCINATED BY THIS PILOT. Maybe it’s because I’m fresh off my second complete rewrite of novel #2 (ANNOUNCEMENT SOON, I PROMISE), but I’ve spent so much time thinking about the structure of stories and how we, as creators, give information to an audience or to readers. “Oliver’s Dream” has such a monumental task to achieve, and this pilot does so brilliantly. It’s an experiment in contrasts, in opposite ends of the spectrum. It must convince the audience that all the protagonists in the present day are miserable, show us how they were once happen, and link those two realities amidst a fairly hilarious indictment of the collision of art and capitalism. There’s a lot going on here, but Slings & Arrows is not overly dense. It’s realistically dense, able to show us the complicated lives and problems that these people deal with while also knowing that it’s okay to poke fun at it all.
I love that it this show starts with something that seems physically low, since it plays with our expectations. Those opening images of the theater that Geoffrey rents—well, he hasn’t paid in months, I should note—are familiar to anyone who has had to work in the arts without the sort of big-name sponsorship or support that we see later in the episode. I cannot even name all the punk/underground venues that look exactly like that theater: paint aged and peeling, questionable plumbing, unreliable electrical systems, and the beautiful, chaotic determination that comes from the stripped down intensity of art without a massive budget. Some of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life were in shitty retrofitted theaters. (I’m thinking of the Allen Theater in South Gate, which I went to a million times, always certain the floor would cave in during those shows.) Some of the best productions I’ve attended were outdoors. (I’m super into Shakespeare in the Park, y’all. I love the creativity that goes into putting on a play with those sort of constraints and freedoms.) And without a working budget or the reliability of having a roof over their head, the people who operate out of that theater are lead by a man who bleeds theater. I love that we get a glimpse of Geoffrey’s ability in that monologue, one that’s not even in Shakespeare, but just about the joy of Shakespeare itself.
This is then juxtaposed with the world of Oliver Welles and Ellen, of the popular New Burbage Festival, an annual celebration of Shakespeare that has the facilities, the budge, the actors, and yet? It’s… well, it’s not bad, per se, but it’s not exactly great? The show manages a wonderful thing here, since we only get to see a few minutes of the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, how do you craft a believable contrast? How do you show us a world that has everything Geoffrey is working without? Behind the scenes, we witness Oliver struggling with corporate sponsors, like Richard Smith-Jones, whose company funds so much of the festival, yet doesn’t really care about the art at all. It’s a business, not a creative outlet, and why can’t these silly actors just understand that? There is drama around seating; ticket sales; gift shops; production values; and all of it contributes to a sense of chaos that manifests in a show that happens. It is not award-winning; it is not challenging; it is so safe that one of the main theater critics flat-out tells Oliver that this is the case, couching his insult in a line that Oliver knows is not really a compliment.
It’s clear that the relationship between Ellen, Geoffrey, and Oliver is tantamount to this story, and Ellen operates such a fascinating, heartbreaking space within the narrative. Here’s an actress who is immensely talented who is also being wasted within productions that don’t highlight her skills and that also seem to actively work against her. At least that’s how I read Oliver’s direction of Ellen. He couldn’t even do the basic respect of staging her monologue so that it was facing the actual audience. He knows that he has an actress capable of so much more, but he doesn’t utilize her. Is it his misogyny? Yeah, most definitely. Does he believe that those in the industry—and I’m including him in this—who are older don’t belong there? I think that’s true, too. Thus, he acts out that terror on Ellen, denying her opportunities because he doesn’t see himself as deserving of those opportunities, either.
I don’t know, it’s speculation to a point because the show paints these brash, heartbreaking figures, then asks us to read between the lines. Which is perfectly fine; that’s why I found this pilot so intriguing and fascinating. Here are three people who, at one point years earlier, were at the top of their game. They believed they had tapped into the “thing” that makes creating art so addictive and infectious, and y’all, that is such a real thing. I was writing as a kid and a teenager, but it wasn’t until I was in bands and creating music in my 20s that I began to truly understand how it felt to hit that perfect spot, to make something that encapsulated your soul. And now, I’m discovering it again through fiction, and I know that there is such an immense pressure to succeed. That pressure comes from so many places, too. The audience. The industry. YOURSELF. Of course, there’s a huge piece of this puzzle that we’re missing:
What happened all those years ago when Geoffrey had a breakdown?
It’s clearly not something the show is going to give us upfront, and I imagine the writers might actually withhold that single event for a while. It’s a good choice in terms of storytelling because secrets—either from the audience or between characters—can really fuel tension for a long time. Something happened that night that tore them apart, and whatever it was, it was enough to set these three people against one another. Granted, Oliver and Ellen still work together, but it seems obvious that they’re in each other’s lives not because they enjoy their company. It’s an antagonistic and practical relationship. Where else can these people find this kind of work?
It’s all complicated further by Richard, and I found that his inclusion into this story had the most humorous element. But it’s still so real!!! Y’all, we live in a capitalistic society, and those of us who create art know that until we live in a world that isn’t bound by these, we struggle between this notion of producing work to satisfy our hearts and producing work to pay the bills. Richard is a slightly exaggerated version of the latter half, and his presence is mostly a thorn in the side of Oliver. Again, though, IT IS SO REAL. There are people like this EVERYWHERE. It’s how one of the contrasts in Slings & Arrows is brought to life. Geoffrey rejects people like Richard, while Oliver must accept that they’re part of the deal. That creates problems for both parties. Geoffrey is dramatically evicted after failing to pay rent on his theater, which is a price he pays for refusing to sell out. (And I did appreciate that the landlord got a role in this to remind Geoffrey and the audience that he’s not a bad person for wanting to get paid; it helps paint Geoffrey as a complicated character rather than defaulting to him being a heroic one.) Oliver, however, has to deny his desires, his sense of loyalty and dignity, and his creative spark because… well, there are bills to pay. His productions are safe because they need to make money. I don’t think he explicitly thinks that on a day-to-day basis, but there’s a great example of his problem into this episode: he is pulled away from rehearsal to deal with corporate sponsor bullshit. How often does that happen? How frequently must he put himself at odds with his creative work? It’s his norm, isn’t it?
Still, there’s so much more to this pilot beyond this, and I love that Kate exists as another contrast. She comes into this with some rose-colored glasses. She has so much hope. She is new, excited, and is overjoyed that she finally got her foot in the door. This is deliberately contrasted with the sort of resentful anger that we get from Ellen, and it’s contrasted with the jaded cynicism of Oliver. I got the sense that the seams are starting to crack for Kate. She sees the bizarre reaction her high school drama teacher has over the world she is in. And now that she can see behind the curtain, she’s realizing that the world of theater can be… well, not pretty. I’m super curious where her character is going to be taken from here. Will she stay excited and hopeful? Will she ignore what she’s seeing and experiencing? I CAN’T WAIT.
Which brings me to that ending. I mean… Oliver is dead, right? That actually happened??? Lord, what a bold move for the very first episode, but I’m not really sure if I’ve got this correct. There’s such a poetic tragedy in the parallel shots of Oliver, left behind by his friends, laying down in sadness and isolation. (It’s also not lost on me that he was “denied” three times a row when he called Geoffrey. I CAUGHT THAT.) Is he really fucking gone??? WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHOW.
The video for “Oliver’s Dream” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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