Written by Mark McKinney, Susan Coyne & Bob Martin
Directed by Peter Wellington
Starring Paul Gross, Stephen Ouimette & Martha Burns
(Please note schedule corrections!)
The Sundance Channel in the US
Sundays at 8:00 for six weeks,
Debuting February 19
(Complete Season One marathon from 3:00-8:00
the day before on Saturday February 18)
According to TVGuide.com,
second season episode re-broadcasts for each week are aired on:
Monday mornings at 1:30 am
Tuesday evenings at 6:00 pm
Fridays evenings at 9:00 pm
The Season One marathon has no repeat airing scheduled
Reviewed by David Spencer
Ever since the movie Poltergeist, the phrase "They're ba-ack," with a child's singsong lilt, has been a permanently entrenched part of contemporary English colloq, but never, perhaps, might it be applied more appropriately -- or joyfully -- than to the second six-episode season of the remarkable Canadian backstage-onstage comedy-drama, Slings & Arrows -- for not only does it feature the return of favorite characters, but the presence of more than one ghost.
(At this point, we enter the land of minor spoilers. For those wishing to avoid them, skip on down to the sub-heading, IT'S SAFE NOW. For those newcomers desiring a slight indoctrination, or first-season fans desiring the tease of coming attractions, read on...)
This time, the "real" spirit of director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) is joined by Banquo and others of the Scottish Play. Because it is with great reluctance that New Burbage's new artistic director, the passionate and possibly mad ex-actor, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), has agreed to direct Macbeth.
This brings the ghost of Oliver back because it is upon his massively documented, yet never realized, concept that the new production is to be based. Geoffrey believes the play to be most difficult to stage effectively, but for the good of the financially ailing Shakespeare Festival, he throws himself into active and argumentative collaboration with his poltergeist predecessor.
Of course, since only Geoffrey can see or hear Oliver, and Oliver is not one to be discreet or tactful about his comings and goings, the general perception of Geoffrey possibly descending back into the madness that ended his acting career is somewhat exacerbated. It becomes the concern of leading actress Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns) -- more so now that she and Geoffrey are back together as a romantic couple, and he is directing her as Lady Macbeth. And it becomes power-play ammo for her Macbeth, Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies, late of Forever Knight), the Machiavellian box office draw that Oliver always envisioned in the role.
While this is going on, the Festival's hapless business manager, Richard Smith-Jones (series co-creator & co-writer Mark McKinney) is trying like hell to get the festival out of a financial hole largely of his creation. But being (as actor-writer McKinney describes Richard) "a quasi-neurotic lost soul, condemned by the gods to learn everything the hard way," he compounds a steep government loan with a mind-bogglingly misconceived ad campaign -- the latter devised by hired agency Frog Hammer and its guru-like top gun Sanjay Ranier (Colm Feore). Back in the office, Richard's executive assistant Anna Conroy (series co-creator and co-writer Susan Coyne) is left to reap the benefits (or is it consequences) of Richard's latest cost-cutting innovation: volunteer college interns.
And then there's the production that will be running concurrently with Macbeth: Romeo and Juliet, whose lovers (David Alpay, Joanne Kelly) seem to have no chemistry, onstage or off...especially since the curse of Macbeth on the mainstage has spilled over to render its original director incapacitated -- thus prompting the return of ultra-pretentious, avant garde wild card Darren Nichols (Don McKellar).
IT'S SAFE NOW
If Season Two of Slings & Arrows is perhaps a tiny bit less magical than season one, it's only because familiarity with the characters and the universe has stepped in for the rush of discovering them fresh. That discovery is now purely the province of the new guest star characters. But the inventive and (mostly) unpredictable multiple stories of Season Two are woven as compellingly as Season One's, and the show's signature wit is still in place:
Example one: Geoffrey rather cockily tells Oliver that he doesn't believe in Macbeth's curse. "You're collaborating with a ghost," Oliver retorts. "Wake up and smell the coffin!"
Example two: During the last performance of Hamlet (our transitional opening sequence) an obsessive Geoffrey is still giving notes, and his directive to the old gay couple who are the company's most veteran performers, playing the castle watchman, is that they need to let the audience see and feel the cold air of the battlements. As Geoffrey leaves, one old gent turns to the other to ask, bewilderedly, "What was he saying?" His partner translates wryly: "Stamp your feet, dear. We're losing the sense of place."
To repeat some of what I wrote in conclusion on Season One: It's not merely wordplay that distinguishes the dialogue. The talk about the crafts of acting, directing, stage managing is utterly authentic, there's none of the phony "show talk" you hear in movies written by outsiders; and the discussions about business matters -- the way in which commerce butts heads with art -- are just as bracingly accurate.
The plotting is as witty as the dialogue (some of the story turns are, themselves, sly glosses on Shakespearean conventions), and the performances bringing it all home are, most of them, iconic. As Geoffrey Tennant, Paul Gross is the polar opposite of this Mountie character in Due South -- shaggy, volatile, irreverent, always on the edge. And if one must be haunted by a ghost, may it always be one as pithy, candid and entertaining as Stephen Ouimette's Oliver, who puts fun and lovability into elitist snobbery. I must admit to feeling that Martha Burns is not quite up to the perfect, role-owning definition of her co-stars. Hers is a perfectly lovely performance in some ways, but I never entirely buy her as having the fire and charisma of a brilliant Shakespearean (whereas Mr. Gross -- her husband in real-life, by the way -- puts that across with no discernible effort); though she is certainly an energized presence. Mr. McKinney as the hapless administrator manages to make frightened mediocrity memorable (it's the character's mediocrity, of course, and McKinney plays it brilliantly and fearlessly) -- and the second season newcomers are just as indelible.
Directed by Peter Wellington with a sure hand for the performers, deft pace for the story and flawless composition for the camera, Slings & Arrows is one of those rare TV series that lets you know, from the first shot, that not only are you in for a great ride, but an utterly unique one. So tune in. And I promise you, the outrageous fortune -- in the best sense -- will be all yours...
[Season Two will be aired Sundays at 8:00 on The Sundance Channel, starting February 19. The first episode will be preceded by a marathon of all six Season One episodes, starting at 2:00, so no excuses about not wanting to start in the middle.]