Not much is known about the details of the life of William Shakespeare, and that’s very good news for Will. Although parts of it have the glossed-up blood-and-grime feeling of Braveheart or 1998’s Elizabeth (the latter directed by Shekhar Kapur, who executive produces this series and helmed its pilot), in the end it seems about as interested in faithfully re-creating its time and place as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby were in theirs. Probably not coincidentally, this show is created by Craig Pearce, who wrote the screenplay for Romeo + Juliet with Luhrmann, and shares a lot of that movie’s heedless, postmodern willy-nilly quality. Will’s shocked immersion in London life is scored to the Clash’s “London Calling,” and the rest of the first episode likewise strains to assure us that there’s nothing stuffy or highbrow about Shakespeare, and that his work and his values are as relevant to modern life as anything you could see on that newfangled YouTube thingy.
The TNT series stars Laurie Davidson as the titular Will, an earnest and brilliant young Catholic who leaves his wife and three children in their small town and heads to London to seek his fortune as a playwright (ostensibly to help them afford to live and to deliver an urgent message to a relative, but really because playwrights gotta playwright). Clichés of historical fiction and backstage melodrama pile up; some are endearing in their brazenness. Will is the understudy who gets his big break when a struggling theater owner/impresario played by the incomparable Colm Meany learns that the golden boy of the London stage, Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower), isn’t going to deliver a promised play, which enables the hustling Will to step in and offer what will later become The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
As the series goes on, it settles into a kind of artistic procedural showing Will and the troupe solving problems, some artistic and others political, as they struggle to mount their plays. Will also struggles with fidelity, being so far away from his family and so close to the theater owner’s daughter, Alice (Olivia DeJonge), a strong-willed woman with anachronistically 20th-century feminist attitudes who might end up inspiring one of the Bard’s indomitable heroines. We also learn that Will’s father was gruesomely disemboweled for refusing to renounce his Catholic faith and embrace Protestantism. He periodically appears to Will à la Hamlet’s father’s ghost, one of many references to the Bard’s work that have an Easter egg-y, Shakespeare in Love aspect.
At one point, Will gets into the 16th-century version of a rap battle — or what American kids once called “playing the dozens” — in a pub, trading invective with a man who falsely thinks his own wit is greater. The costumes are vibrantly colorful and often gleefully anachronistic; they include fabrics that seem to have been made with radiant Indian dyes (as Variety’s Sonia Saraiya points out, Britain wouldn’t sink its fangs into India for another few decades) as well as a pair of leather pants that the late Michael Hutchence would’ve rocked. The walls of buildings are plastered with ads for plays that look as if they were drawn by a modern-day graphic design firm. Pop anthems bubble up on the soundtrack as needed, and the dialogue is peppered with phrases like “It’s very New Age” and “cock-blocking bastard!”
There is nothing inherently wrong with this sort of approach, of course. Dramatic filmmakers are only obligated to care about history if they’ve made it clear that they care about history. Luhrmann and other filmmakers, including Ken Russell (Lisztomania), have made lively films that seem to be more interested in exploring modern, subjective, half-informed takes on history than on actual history. Luhrmann’s Gatsby, for instance, drew strained parallels between the New York City axis of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s era and that of the Hollywood, hip-hop, and hedge fund–dominated present. Curiously, though, Will’s most overt attempts to assure us of its coolness don’t land as confidently as the many old-fashioned scenes of Shakespeare learning how to work with actors and theater technicians, and dealing with the Prostestant-dominated government (represented by Ewen Bremner’s scary torturer, Topcliffe) that wants to demonize theater as a menace to the country’s moral health. (“The theatergoer is deaf to morality,” Topcliffe snarls.) Will starts to figure itself out as it goes along, paying less attention to the parts that seemed like bad ideas from the jump and focusing more tightly on the stuff that actually works. It’s a bit of a mess anyway, but I like that it exists. The mere fact that I can’t for the life of me imagine why TNT would green-light it makes me inclined to be patient and support it.