Friday Film Focus: Will on TNT

It’s July and a Friday, which means a new summer blockbuster is being released: War for the Planet of the Apes, which I am kinda excited by. Anyway, there are bigger fish to fry…like this week’s debut of the TNT series, Will.

So this is supposed to be the story of young William Shakespeare as he moves to London.

Only it’s that and a whole lot more. Like what, you ask? How about the Catholic/Protestant conflict? Rival theater companies with cut-throat tactics including stealing actors, and paying playwrights not to write? Torture? Brothels and little brothers (with hair from a circa 1982 Bono, and a penchant for self-mutilation) trying to save their older prostitute sisters? Possible Satan-worshipping? Oh, and punk rock.

It’s a colorful, vibrant, London, with anachronistic make-up and tattoos, and set to a somewhat punk rock soundtrack (The Clash–with a little-too-on-the-nose [title, at least] “London Calling”; The Jam–“That’s Entertainment” in the opener; the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” in the second). My wife Lisa called it Shakespeare in Love set in Mad Max’s Thunderdome. My take was that I couldn’t believe this isn’t on the CW, as it’s filled with beautiful young people, particularly Laurie Davidson as the titular Will, Mattias Inwood as Richard Burbage, Jamie Campbell Bower as Christopher Marlowe, and the pretty much drop-dead-gorgeous Olivia DeJonge as Alice Burbage, a character that I assumed they created for the series–but they didn’t, they only beefed up the role she never played in the real-life theater scene.

The first two episodes were very stylish, and some will argue that it becomes style over substance (during the second episode there was so much camera movement that it felt like Michael Bay directing on a boat). I think that’s sort of the point for this particular show; I think they’re going for an over-the-top spectacle, at least with the theater stuff. I’m sure no one was looking for complete verisimilitude from this (it’s not HBO, fercrissakes). So when we’re at the theater (wonderfully re-created) the groundlings look like a cross between punk, Bowie-ish Ziggy, and that aforementioned Thunderdome.

The show’s bloody (often cruelly so), bawdy (or at least surprisingly sexual), somewhat profane (more than what I expected from a basic cable show), political, religious (the last two a little too much for the show’s own good, especially when within minutes of entering London, Shakespeare is stabbed through the hand, and it looks suspiciously like stigmata). But it is fun (as a Shakespeare fan) to see what the show purports to be inspiration for lines and characters from his future (Romeo and Juliet, Falstaff, Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, Midsummer). There are nice little inside-Baseball jokes: when Alice hands Will a candle as he’s about to sleep in the theater, Richard says, “Don’t burn the place down”; Robert Greene (he of “upstart crow” fame) challenges Will to what amounts to an iambic pentameter rap battle (of course, Will wins, but it felt more impressive given his use of both internal rhyme and an overall rhyme scheme), Will bringing Edward III to London with him. And they don’t shy away from the bawdy readings of the man’s name, either: Shakes-shaft, Wanks-speare, Shakes-dick.

But is it any good?

Yeah. It’s good. But not great. Think of it as a fruitcake, it’s so stuffed full of flavors, that it’s hard to discern any. For me, the theater stuff works in an iconoclastic way, but the rest feels like an attempt at something Dickensian or The Wire-like–a kind of vision of the whole of the social strata. And I think that’s a bit ambitious for this show. Maybe these story lines will intersect in a satisfying manner (the “coming this season on Will” promo gives hope), then again, maybe they won’t (\that same promo has Will and Alice romantically entangled [yawn, totally predictable], but Anne comes to London with the kids [WTF?]). But after the first two episodes, I AM Will-ing (see what I did there?) to return to the Thunderdome again next week… and we’ll see how long my interest can last.

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