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Why ‘Slings & Arrows’ is my favorite TV show of all time

When people ask me what my favorite TV show is, I say “Slings & Arrows.” It’s not a recent, long-running or particularly well-known show. Its first season aired in 2004, and it only had three six-episode seasons. It’s a Canadian network show that ended up reaching a wider audience long after its initial air date. However, the sheer brilliance of “Slings” cannot be contained by its statistics, and I come to extol its virtues to all of you.

“Slings” is a dramedy that follows the ups and downs of the New Burbage Theater Festival, a theater not so subtly based on the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada (so much so that the original name for New Burbage was “St. Ratford”). We follow the festival through three seasons, and the struggles to mount the company’s flagship tragedy—“Hamlet” for season 1, “Macbeth” for season 2 and “King Lear” for season 3. If you don’t know much about theater, you’ll still find it good, but if you do know about theater, or have worked in theater, the show will really hit close to home.

The show features an ensemble cast, with some characters sticking around for all three seasons, and some just appearing in one. The show ultimately revolves around a core quintet of main characters. At the show’s heart is Geoffrey Tennant, played to perfection by the magnificent Paul Gross. Geoffrey was once the lead actor of the festival, before he went insane during a production of “Hamlet” seven years prior to the events of season one. Circumstances to be explained shortly lead Geoffrey back to the festival, where he steps into the role of artistic director. Geoffrey is a maverick and a genius when it comes to direction, pushing his actors to produce the most brilliant theater possible. His story is very much one of the tortured genius, and Geoffrey’s journey dominates the action of the series.

“Slings’” leading lady is Ellen Fanshaw, the star actress of New Burbage. Ellen is played to perfection by the brilliant Martha Burns, who also happens to be Gross’ real life wife. Ellen and Geoffrey were madly in love, before a betrayal split them apart for seven years. The show sees them reconnect, fall in love again, break up again and get back together again, without it ever seeming unrealistic or contrived. Ellen is irresponsible, selfish and able to succeed based purely on her incredible talent. What I love about Ellen is the fact that the show permits her to be just a horrible person. Women in TV, especially leading women, face the constant challenge to be “likeable” enough. What “Slings” does is give us a character we cannot help but root for, despite the fact that she is dreadful in many respects. Ellen is chronically late, a diva, someone who sleeps with her accountant brother-in-law while he’s trying to help her file her back taxes. What makes Ellen work is her constant journey of self-discovery, as well as Burns’ excellent performance.

On the business side of the New Burbage Festival we have its executive director, Richard Smith-Jones, played by one of the show’s co-creators, Mark McKinney. He’s a businessman constantly frustrated by the antics of the artists around him — and yet, he secretly longs to be an artist himself. Richard is a great fan of musical theater, and struggles to understand the allure that Shakespeare has over so much of the festival. Richard is someone who is easily manipulated, and for the first two seasons we see him taken in by someone with less than positive intentions. After miraculously leading the company to financial success by the end of season 2, Richard’s success proves to be his undoing in season 3, as he steps into the role of the villain. Well, he wishes to flex his creative muscles in the production of “East Hastings: The Musical” (my favorite Richard line from this creative process is “she’s not just a prostitute! She has a soul!”). You feel for Richard, and you know the festival couldn’t survive without him, but he is not ultimately a likeable character. 

By contrast, Richard’s second-in-command, Anna (played by the phenomenal Susan Coyne, another one of the show’s co-creators) who is probably the only one of our core five who could be described as a truly good person. Anna feels like a peripheral character at first, but she grows to become the heart and soul of the show. She keeps the theater running through thick and thin, and the New Burbage Festival (and the anti-coup Bolivian rebels) are lucky to have her.

The last of our core five dies in the first episode. Yes, you read that right. The show opens with Oliver Welles, the festival’s once brilliant, but now uninspired, artistic director, opening a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Oliver is lonely, gets drunk, and calls up his old friend and mentee turned foe, Geoffrey. He passses out on the street, and is run over by a pig truck (the company is aptly named “Canada’s Best Hams”). However, any self-respecting theater has a ghost, and it is Oliver’s ghost who returns to haunt the New Burbage Festival, or more specifically, to haunt Geoffrey. Oliver often acts as an external manifestation of Geoffrey’s creative process, and provides quite a bit of comic relief through his acerbic wit. Oliver is played by Stephen Ouimette, whose performance is a thing of sheer brilliance. Every one of Oliver’s lines is a thing of beauty.

Along with our main five, we have several cast members who come and go throughout the series. In Season 1, we have movie star Jack Crew (Luke Kirby) and Kate (Rachel McAdams, yes, that Rachel McAdams) who play Hamlet and Ophelia and provide the heart of that season. The two are written out after McAdams got famous, and she is replaced by new engenues, the likeable but somewhat dull Sarah in season 2 and the talented but slightly immature Sophie in season 3. Other actors at the festival have a consistent presence. Self-described “middle” actors Frank and Cyril act as the show’s chorus, and sing the show’s three theme songs. We have the loveable Jerry, who plays various minor roles. There is the theater custodian Nahum, who has some of my favorite one-liners (“a death, a duel and a broken leg. Perhaps the production is cursed” delivered like it’s another day in the office). The episode where he has to go on as Macbeth after the lead actor is fired is possibly my favorite episode of the show. And then, we have our villains. In season 1, there is Holly Day, a scheming American businesswoman who wants to turn New Burbage into the theme park of “Shakespeareville.” In season 2 we have Sanjay Rainer, head of the hip advertising company Frog Hammer. I won’t explain quite what Sanjay’s deal is, just know that everything with Frog Hammer is some of the most hilarious writing I have seen put to screen.

Finally, we have Darren Nichols, the representation of the “bad director” that haunts all theater people. Most of us have been directed by Darren Nichols, I know I have. Introducing himself with “I am Darren Nichols, deal with that,” and proceeding to put live horses onstage, Romeo and Juliet in giant cages, and obsessing over the inherent ludicrioty of the musical genre, Darren Nichols is a font of hilarious comedy moments. He is played perfectly by Don McKellar, and his lines are often quoted by my family.

After all of these descriptions, you might be wondering what makes “Slings” so great. The truth is that “Slings” epitomizes theater: its absurdity, madness, hilarity and struggle. Nerd that I am, I love the scenes where characters really dive into Shakespearean text, what it means, and how they will put it to stage. “Slings” delves into the condition of being an artist in all its messy glory. Whether it is Ellen constantly asking herself what it’s all for, to Oliver rediscovering what his art means in death, to Geoffrey grappling with the line between genius and madness, it’s all there, with some great humor thrown in. “Slings” is full of tiny inside jokes and details, and in case you were wondering if it gets too ridiculous, don’t worry—most of the series’s oddest plotlines and stories come from real life events.

“Slings” is also a love letter to Shakespeare, and to three of his great tragedies. Shakespeare has an inexplicable hold over many of our characters, that they can’t seem to escape no matter how hard they try. There is a constant give and take between surrendering completely to the play and losing yourself in the process. In season One, Geoffrey has gone mad due to going too far in his portrayal of Hamlet. In season 2, the egotistical Henry Breedlove must be pushed out of his comfort zone and into the paranoia that grips Macbeth. Most effective of all is season 3’s story, in which Charles Kingman, a retired lion of Canadian theater, comes back to play King Lear—while he himself is dying of cancer. Season 3 digs into the condition of death and what it means for an actor to literally die for their art. It’s heavy stuff, yet “Slings” can have me cackling with laughter one moment and break my heart in the next.

With this description, it might be clear why a Shakespeare fan like me would love the show. But honestly, “Slings and Arrows” is a show I would urge everyone to watch. It is a window into the world of professional theater, with some brilliant gags and colorful characters along the way. It succeeds the way shows like “The West Wing” and “The Office” succeed, in that it provides an irreverent window into a certain workplace. On top of that, “Slings” is one of the best-constructed shows I have ever seen – not a minute is wasted, and each season manages to cover huge amounts of ground in just six episodes. Finally, the acting and writing of the series is absolutely unmatched. Coyne, McKinney and the third co-creator, Bob Martin (who has a small speaking role in season 1 as well) craft brilliant scripts. Every actor is phenomenal (I’ve had the privilege of seeing Colm Feore, who plays Sanjay, and Geraint Wyn Davies, who plays Henry, live onstage at the Stratford Festival), and the show comes together to create something truly magical. If you’re looking to watch something new this summer, watch “Slings and Arrows.” It’s 18 near-perfect episodes of television, and my favorite show of all time.

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