It took me several tries to get through all of Will‘s pilot, and this is coming from someone who loves both Shakespeare’s plays and the first two seasons of Reign. For one thing, it’s not as if William Shakespeare — as an historical figure or as a fictional character — has been exactly underrepresented in television and film, so already Will has its work cut out for it: what kind of interpretation of Shakespeare, the most famous playwright in pretty much all of history, will Will introduce to make watching it worthwhile?
Will has been touted as something of an origin story, where Will Shakespeare, a simple glove-maker from Stratford, leaves behind his wife and three children and makes his way to London in the hopes of becoming the greatest playwright ever. The trailer for Will implied that the show would tell the story of how simple, naive Will became the legendary Shakespeare. That is, a story in which Will begins as a wide-eyed ingenue and, through his involvement in the riotous and sexy London theater scene of the late 1500s, evolves into the vaunted figure whose works we either read in school, saw in films directed by Kenneth Branagh, or some combination of the above.
Watching the actual pilot quickly puts the lie to Will as some kind of titillating, prettified incarnation of Shakespeare’s history. There’s an excessive amount of gore and a lot of unexpected violence, all in service of the overall lingering story arc of Will hiding his Catholicism in ferociously Protestant London. If the show were a bit more concerned with the historical aspects of Shakespeare and his times, then perhaps a “William Shakespeare: Secret Catholic” plot-line could really be quite gripping and interesting; indeed, there’s probably an entire show to be made about the political tensions inherent in Will, a clandestine Catholic, having Protestant Elizabeth I of England as his main patron.
Instead, the looming threat Will faces simply by practicing his Catholic fate is treated like a flavor, to be swapped out amongst the bawdy puns, the inevitable love triangle, and the long nights scribbling on parchment with a quill pen until a eureka moment occurs; Will‘s pilot suffers for this tendency. It also creates quite a bit of mood whiplash to go from one sequence where Will gets stabbed for being a Catholic to a pair of stage actors in garish makeup having a quick tryst backstage during a performance.
Will is also not helped by the rather bland and overly earnest leading performance of newcomer Laurie Davidson, who so resembles a younger Aaron Taylor-Johnson that I almost wish Taylor-Johnson were anchoring this show. An origin story Shakespeare coming to the big city and losing his innocence in the heady theater community while honing his craft could be worth watching, but for my money, the best depiction of Shakespeare was Dean Lennox Kenny’s turn in Doctor Who‘s season three episode “The Shakespeare Code”. Kenny played Shakespeare as endlessly crafty, witty, and unafraid to imply his enjoyment of both male and female companions. In contrast, Will‘s portrayal of Shakespeare as a relatively blank slate just doesn’t give the audience much to sink their teeth into, because the entirety of the punchline amounts to: “ha-ha, he certainly shed that innocence, now didn’t he!”
The performances in Will pilot as a whole suffer from the misguided idea that better acting equals louder cockney British accents and big, swooning body language. It doesn’t. Among the side cast, which includes Mattias Inwood (The Shannara Chronicles) as Richard Burbage, Jamie Campbell Bower (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) as Christopher Marlowe (filling the obligatory rival role), Colm Meaney (Con Air) as James Burbage, and Lukas Rolfe (Fury) in a basically unbearable performance as the young street urchin Presto, there’s not a moment of subtlety to be seen. The bigger-is-better style of acting employed in this episode has merely one moment of payoff: a rather comical rap-battle-esque contest of wits between Will and another actor in a tavern, because watching people pretending to be tipsy while one-upping each other with lines of iambic pentameter is actually pretty entertaining.
Honestly, watching the pilot made me think of Cameron Crowe, and not in a good way; it’s like the Almost Famous-lite version of William Shakespeare in that Will treats theater in London as this all-consuming obsession, where the actors and playwrights are treated as rockstar-gods by fans who are simultaneously incredibly inebriated and cultured connoisseurs of theater. Indeed, Will Shakespeare has a similar narrative function as Patrick Fugit’s character in Almost Famous, where, as a nobody, he manages to get himself in the right place in the right time to land the equivalent of a Rolling Stone feature (in this case, a job as a playwright in Burbage’s famed acting troupe). It’s eye-rollingly clichéd to see how tender Will’s innate genius bubbles up at exactly the right moments: getting an audience with Burbage through charming his daughter Alice (Olivia DeJonge) with poetry, showing up and getting to write a play on the spot.
I mention Reign in concert with Will because, in my mind, they’re pretty similar: recasting figures from history as actors who look like models, with plenty of anachronistic-sounding music, an undercurrent of sex, and fancy costumes to make the whole thing come together. Reign, however, had one key aspect that Will, as of the pilot, simply doesn’t: the excellent, scenery-chewing performance by a character actor to give the whole affair some guilty-pleasure legitimacy. Megan Follows is an indispensable part of Reign, where, as antagonist Catherine de’Medici, she comes up with about ten scheming plans per episode to protect her children and/or secure her power. Will has no such actor, meaning that the burden of entertainment rests upon the shoulders of the less-finessed younger stars. Of course, Adelaide Kane certainly improved as Mary, Queen of Scots as Reign went on, but there was plenty of campy intrigue and fun to be had in the interim, courtesy of Follows. As it stands now, I don’t relish watching more of Will until it starts to veer away from the clichés and give us a young Shakespeare worth rooting for.