Being Canadian is an odd experience for those who have never tried it. It can teach you humility and pride at the same time, and how to deal with disappointment come NHL playoff time. Yet Canadians, compared to Americans, will always be viewed as the “Prince Harry” on the global stage (if you’ll forgive the colonized-metaphor). Canadians are cuter, perhaps slightly more politically correct, but ultimately not seen as important as their big brother.
On occasion, Canadian television will break out and receive the international attention and acclaim it so rightfully deserves, almost American levels of attention. More often than not, it’s a comedic gem that lends itself to a unique slice of Canadiana, shining a light on the embarrassing underbelly of the country that tries so hard to remain hidden. Shows such as Trailer Park Boys, Letterkenny, and Schitt’s Creek reveal that underbelly, while thankfully also highlighting some of the brilliant comedic talent Canada can produce.
Yet there is a hidden gem celebrating its 20th anniversary this year that so few people talk about, it’s almost criminal.
It may be that Slings & Arrows appears to be too niche at first glance. It follows the story of the small fictional Canadian town of New Burbage and their globally acclaimed Shakespearean festival. Following the death of their perennial rock and artistic director, Oliver (Stephen Ouimette), the festival finds itself struggling to forge a new identity, and they quickly have to choose between creating a viable business and artistic integrity. Brilliantly over its three (all too brief) seasons, the show covers a new production within the festival: Hamlet in season 1, Macbeth in season 2, and King Lear in season 3. The writers of the show cleverly mirror the phases within life that Shakespeare often used within his work, while dishing out a ton of laughs by showing the foibles of a dysfunctional company.
The premise of the show does not initially seem like an example of universally appealing “must-see TV”, especially if you have never been fortunate enough to visit the real town New Burbage is based off of, Stratford, Ontario, which has been responsible for some of the greatest theater in North America for decades now. However, the pitch isn’t over. Slings & Arrows takes a brilliantly absurdist dip as Oliver’s long-time protege, Geoffery Tennant (Canadian national treasure, Paul Gross) is asked to take over as artistic director, and two major issues arise because of that. Geoffrey and Oliver had a huge falling out years before Oliver’s death, and whether it is subconscious guilt or a mental breakdown, Geoffrey begins to see Oliver’s ghost whenever he is at work.
Is Geoffrey descending into madness? Is it unresolved emotional baggage between the two of them? Is it simply a device of the writers to mirror a major plot point of Hamlet? Whatever it might be, the soft and sassy performance of Ouimette as Oliver’s spirit is one of the show’s greatest attributes. He has some of the best writing behind him, consistently spitting out nuggets of evergreen wisdom such as “the sole virtue of the ineffectual is consistency” and the proverbial odd-couple of Geoffrey and Oliver work so well as a comedic duo, as the two characters work together to create an acclaimed version of Hamlet.
While Shakespeare might not be the draw he once was, the greatest aspect of the show is its accessibility. It shows what so many high school English teachers have struggled to communicate for decades: that Shakespeare is about the human condition, and yes, that means the human condition in 1603, 2003, and 2023. There’s no need to dress it up with guns, California beaches, or drug-induced scenes featuring Harold Perrineau in drag (although that is fun). Shakespeare’s works can teach us things about ourselves if we simply give them a chance and see through the pretense.
If that still is not convincing enough, then be comforted in the fact that while it may use Shakespearean morals and archetypes, the show really isn’t about Shakespeare. However, it does borrow from some amazing real-life theater folklore that is the stuff of legends.
The great Daniel Day-Lewis, at one point early in his career, reportedly saw his dead father on stage during a performance of Hamlet and merely walked out, never to return. The actor, who broke the silence on the story about a decade ago, recalls it had nothing to do with seeing ghostly-father-figures, but simply because he had enough of the production. Even Day-Lewis admits, this particular aspect of his sometimes “difficult” reputation is justified, and has haunted him for years. No pun intended. In the first season of Slings & Arrows, one of the main characters has a similar breakdown, freezing on stage during a production, only to suddenly leap into the trap door and vanish in the middle of a performance. It was a tiny, delicious, and deliberate homage to an amazing true-life story within the world of theater.
One of the other story threads within the premiere season is so joyfully recognizable that it will make anyone chuckle. Hamilton, Ontario’s own Luke Kirby, long before his Emmy-winning stint as Lenny Bruce in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, plays Jack Crew, a massive Hollywood action star who has agreed to take the stage in the titular role in Hamlet. His characterization is an obvious nod to another native-son of Ontario, the now-beloved Keanu Reeves. There was a time when the young Reeves was not the stoic-philosopher poet that he appears to be in his massive recent action roles such as John Wick. When a young Reeves still had yet to find himself, as a person or an actor, some of his more dramatic turns took tragic turns. Most notably, Reeves’ performance in Dracula stuck out for all the wrong reasons.
Yet even director Francis Ford Coppola admits Reeves’ performance as Johnathan Harker in that film was not the actor’s fault. It was a mixture of Coppola taking it too easy on Reeves, while coincidentally Reeves trying to hone his craft and being far too much of perfectionist. It might have been easy for Slings & Arrows to lean more into the terrible action actor trope with Kirby’s character, but the show makes Crew so loveable, and addressed that work ethic that Reeves still has to this day. One of the funniest scenes in the first season is Crew trying to find resources on how to do an English accent for his performance, only to realize that Hamlet was from Denmark, and therefore panicking in the sudden need to learn a Danish accent.
There are so many diamond-in-the-rough moments throughout the show’s three-season run, and Kirby perfectly personifies one of the show’s strongest aspects – the cast. With the exception of a few central characters, much like any theater company, the cast changes season to season, but in that short three year period, audiences are treated to a touchingly sweet performance by a very young Rachel McAdams, a full year before her breakout roles in The Notebook and Mean Girls. McAdams plays Kate, a festival ingénue who falls in love with Kirby’s Crew. McAdams and Kirby have amazing chemistry, and carry a good portion of the premiere season.
McAdams isn’t the only Oscar darling to feature in the show. Academy Award-winning writer/director Sarah Polley, who has recently stepped away from acting, features heavily in season 3. Her father, Michael Polley is a mainstay of the show as he and scene partner Graham Harley often steal the show as saucy veterans of the New Burbage company. The casting of the series was a strength throughout, as it found such a great pool of Canadian talent that were equal parts dramatic and comedic.
That company is rounded out by the likes of a post-Kids in the Hall but pre-Superstore Mark McKinney (who co-created the show), David Alpay (who now features heavily in MGM’s From), Jacob Tierney (who went on to star as Glen in Letterkenny and direct almost every episode to date) Colm Feore (Thor, The Chronicles of Riddick), Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves) and Geraint Wyn Davies (Forever Knight, 24). In fact, Gross, Feore, Greene, and Davies have all starred in major productions within the real Stratford festival in recent years, and many of the actors within the show have featured in real Shakespearean stagings.
Slings & Arrows is probably the best show you’ve never seen. The dysfunction of the Shakespearean troupe is hilarious, the relationships feel real (many of them were), it has ghosts, sword fights, revenge, young love, old love, and love of the stage. Regardless if you’re a fan of Shakespeare or theater, regardless if you’re Canadian or yes… even American, it’s arguably one of the greatest shows ever written. It is full of sound and fury, but certainly signifying something.
All three seasons of Slings & Arrows are available to stream on AMC+ and Spectrum in the U.S. The show is not currently available to stream in the U.K.