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'Slings & Arrows' returns for a third season on Sundance

Aaron Barnhart
McClatchy Newspapers

TV critics have a lot of people whispering in their ears - readers, publicists, "Grey's Anatomy" devotees - but I should've been listening more carefully when one of my editors, Ward Triplett, starting pestering me for my "Slings & Arrows" screeners.

Sneaking onto the Sundance Channel schedule a couple of years ago, this Canadian-produced dramedy flew under a lot of critics' radar. From its unpromising nutshell description - backstage high jinks at a struggling Shakespeare company up north - it sounded like "Waiting for Guffman" with frostbite.

How wrong I was didn't become clear until the screeners for Season 3 arrived recently, and instead of handing them over to Triplett, I watched "Slings & Arrows" and was blown away. You will be, too, when it begins airing at 9 p.m. EST Saturday on Sundance Channel, available on digital cable.

It's not that the show is over-the-top hysterically funny or an eye-popping blockbuster. But rarely has television woven high culture, graceful comedy, gut-busting gags, nimble dialogue and grown-up situations together so successfully. (If you're playing catch-up like I am, Seasons 1 and 2 are out on DVD.)

Each of the three seasons of "Slings & Arrows" is framed around one of the Bard's great works. In Season 1, the talented actor and director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) returns to New Burbage to direct "Hamlet," taking the place of his mentor Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), who recently dropped dead but still visits him as a post-mortem pain in the posterior.

With "Hamlet," then "Macbeth" and this season "King Lear," the plays have informed the TV show's story lines in clever and engaging ways.

For instance, "King Lear" is being played by Charles Kingman (William Hutt), a lion of an actor who once schooled Geoffrey in Shakespeare and now reveals privately to his pupil that he hasn't long to live.

In less talented hands this kind of story line would quickly turn mawkish, but I was captivated at how "Slings & Arrows" carefully balances the terror that Charles inflicts on everyone around him with his desperate state of affairs - not unlike the tragic king he's portraying.

Readers without deep knowledge of Shakespeare need not be intimidated by "Slings & Arrows." There's ample comic relief, as when Geoffrey bursts into tears for no reason and at the most inopportune times.

Or when Richard Smith-Jones, the company's underachieving general manager (Mark McKinney), sits in his new car telling himself how unfit he is to own such a fine status symbol ... only to realize he has pressed the on-board navigator by mistake and just confessed his inadequacy to a remote operator.

Or when the loutish, pretentious director Darren Nichols (Don McKellar), Geoffrey's rival, puts on an over-the-top postmodern musical that invokes that old pun, "avant garde a clue."

And regardless of one's theater background, the snippets of stage action are a delight to watch. The rehearsals of "Lear" are so riveting, thanks to Hutt's outsized performance, that one can easily forget they are being used to advance the story. I used to think "Studio 60" could do a lot better job of making the show-within-a-show entertaining. Now that I've seen "Slings & Arrows," I know it could. (And so, I would guess, does McKinney, who's on both shows.)

You may rightly wonder why Sundance, and not NBC, is airing this. But we should just feel lucky that any Canadian TV show is being aired in its original form south of the border. Think about it. "SCTV," "Due South," "The Kids in the Hall," "The Newsroom," "DaVinci's Inquest" ... for a lot of people, that sums up 30 years of Canadian television. Meanwhile, our friends up north can probably recite the entire CBS prime-time lineup chapter and verse.

"I think what works about this show is that it transcends," said Laura Michalchyshyn, the Sundance programming chief who's a native of Canada and helped put "Slings & Arrows" on the air there. "It could be in Iowa, Idaho, because the experience is every local community has a theater company."

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