The Canadian television program Slings & Arrows has a dedicated cult following, but it’s not nearly as well known as it deserves to be. This misfortune I blame not on the show itself, which is positively brilliant, but on patchy distribution (in the US, for example, it aired on the Sundance Channel). Fortunately, all three seasons are available on DVD, so you can catch up with what you may have missed the first time around.
The series, which ran for three years (2003-2006 in Canada, somewhat later in the US), centers on life and politics in a Canadian theatre company. Each television season consists of six episodes and covers one season of the New Burbage Theatre Festival, modeled somewhat loosely on the Stratford Festival in Ontario. Each season leads up to a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays—in season one, Hamlet; in season two, Macbeth; and in season three, King Lear. One of the most enjoyable aspects of Slings & Arrows is that you get to see a fair amount of each play over the course of the season, both in rehearsal and in performance. In addition, aspects of each season’s play are woven into the offstage action, so that although many characters repeat from one season to the next, each season also has a distinctive theme and feel.
As season one opens, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) is trying to fix a clogged toilet, one of the many prestigious activities he enjoys while running the Theatre sans Argent (theatre without money). It’s a sad story, really: Geoffrey was a brilliant actor until he had a breakdown on stage, and has been hiding out in the no-money ranks ever since.
Meanwhile, over at the much more prestigious New Burbage Festival, Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) is fussing through a final rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including some sheep that simply won’t bleat loudly enough. When Oliver is abruptly packed off to the next world in an economical sequence that typifies the wit of the entire series, Geoffrey is called to take over the New Burbage production of Hamlet, the very play that caused his nervous breakdown in the first place. The job comes with regular hauntings by Oliver, who also contributes a prop to the production.
Other Burbage regulars include Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), a diva with a taste for younger men (one of the cast members remarks, not entirely unfairly, that she’s “trying to fuck the years away”), uptight financial manager Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney, from Kids in the Hall), unappreciated administrator Anna Conroy (Susan Coyne), and much-put-upon stage manager Maria (Catherine Fitch). Other cast members for this season include Sean Cullen (of Corky and the Juice Pigs) as a theatre critic, Luke Kirby as Jack Crew, an American film star brought in to improve ticket sales (an incident possibly inspired by Keanu Reeves’ performance at the Manitoba Theatre Centre), and Rachel McAdams as a company apprentice torn between love and career.
A constant theme throughout Slings & Arrows is the conflict between money and art, or, more concretely, the need to balance creative inspiration with the practical demands of keeping a theatre company financially afloat. This conflict provides one of the best subplots in the second season, as Richard obtains government funding to “rebrand” the company, only to find himself working with the off-kilter Sanjay (Colm Feore), who seems intent on sabotaging the season. Onstage, much of the drama is provided by Geoffrey’s attempts to outwit his scene-stealing lead actor, Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies), using tactics ranging from re-arranging the scenery to sending the understudy on. The latter results in a chain of events both terrifying and exhilarating for all involved, with particular resonance for anyone who’s ever performed onstage.
Season three is the darkest, as the season’s centerpiece, King Lear, features a lead actor (William Hutt) who is dying not just on stage, but in reality. Sarah Polley plays his on-stage Cordelia, while coping with her roommate Megan (Melanie Merkosky) who is part of the season’s musical, “East Hastings” (a send-up of Rent; the title references a neighborhood in Vancouver).
Although Slings & Arrows has particular appeal for theatrical geeks (the type of person who not only understands the Shakespearean reference in the title, but also knows who Richard Burbage was), you don’t have to work in a theatre company, or even be a huge theatre fan, to enjoy it. First of all, the writing (by Coyne, Mark McKinney, and Bob Martin of Drowsy Chaperone fame) and acting is simply brilliant, which is no surprise given that some of the best talent in Canada worked on this show. Second, the character types featured in the plots are common to many non-theatrical situations, including most of the offices I’ve ever worked in. Who doesn’t know a hotshot who thinks it’s always all about him, a bean counter who will do anything to feel important, a consultant blissfully unaware that he or she is talking absolute nonsense, or an on-again, off-again couple who can’t see what is evident to everyone but them, namely that they’re perfect for each other?
Slings & Arrows is not quite a perfect series—my main complaint is that Don McKellar’s idiot director character is tiresome for even one episode, yet he keeps coming back—but it’s still head and shoulders above almost anything on television these days. So if you haven’t seen it, Slings & Arrows is definitely worth your while. I can’t say the same about the extras, however, which are a moderately interesting, sometimes repetitious hodge-podge of short interviews, bloopers, extended scenes, and so on, that you might enjoy watching for free on YouTube, but really don’t expect to pay for.