Slings and Arrows Was Like Nothing Else on Television

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Photo: The Movie Network

We live in a time of Peak TV, when it feels like there’s always something new and Zeitgeist-y to watch. There’s a new Marvel thing! And a different new Marvel thing! And yet another anti-hero drama that’s too dark to actually see! What if, though, you want to watch something that’s legitimately different? If you feel burned out by that dull drumbeat of sameness, maybe you’d like to try something else. Maybe you’d like to watch a very wonky, very sincere, and slightly supernatural series about a bunch of Canadian theater nerds.

Slings and Arrows is a short, very bingeable show that ran from 2003 to 2006. Each of its three seasons is only six episodes long, and it has the one of the most goofy, highfalutin premises imaginable: It’s about a Shakespeare theater in Canada (based on the real-life Canadian Stratford), and each season focuses on a production of a different major Shakespeare play. It’s a show about putting on a show, in the vein 30 Rock or Murphy Brown or Sports Night, and like those shows, Slings and Arrows is a comedy. The characters wear old-timey outfits, bouncing around on a stage with swords and saying rhyming couplets about death, and the show knows that’s a hilarious sight to see. (Even funnier, they characters do it with the expectation that enough people will pay actual money to see them do it.)

Slings and Arrows is also absolutely sincere, almost to the point of painful self-awareness. Its hero, played by Paul Gross, is a disgraced former actor who’s returned to his old theater to put on a production of Hamlet, except he can’t even make up his mind to do the dang thing. Its villain is a cackling harridan in pinstripes who seduces the theater’s hapless business manager and gasps, “Imagine if the whole town were a gift shop!” as she orgasms. So, yeah, it is not the most subtle show. But it is absolutely, unshakably heartfelt about the power of art. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best TV show ever made about the messy, conflicting tensions of art and commercialism, and it is not afraid to say its thesis statements aloud: What is good art, actually? Is it good if people like it? Is it good if the artists like it? If it makes money? If it says something true? (To my everlasting amusement, it is very clear that good art has nothing at all to do with what critics say.)

When I first saw Slings and Arrows in 2008, it made a huge impression on me. I’d never seen any television show like it; I was completely taken with its interlocking layers of suggestion, reference, and theme that come together between the show and whatever Shakespeare text it’s wrestling with. (Season one is Hamlet, two is Macbeth, and three is King Lear.) I was utterly transported by the show’s moments of artistic transformation. “Here’s what it feels like when a performance really clicks, and something about it makes you feel connected to a bigger human truth,” Slings and Arrows says, mostly through tinkling musical cues. I bought it. I was all in. The fact that the aims were so obvious only underscored the experience — as much as anything else, the show argues that knowing how art is made will make you appreciate it even more.

Watching it ten years ago, Slings and Arrows seemed like the most prestige of prestige TV. It’s a show that happily gives over lengthy chunks of a scene to entire Shakespeare passages, and assumes its audience will be completely drawn in by a running joke about gift-store schlock. Its opening theme songs are insidery, spoofing jokes on famous tragedies. One of its main jokes is that a terrible director wants to make a Hamlet where he interprets the line “something rotten” very literally. What could be more “prestige” than that? Of course, I didn’t realize the definition of “prestige” would soon accrete around a very different meaning, something having more to do with actors’ fame, humorlessness, and troubled men who sigh deeply about the ennui of their lives while stiletto-wearing hookers writhe in the background. It’s hard to imagine a world farther from the cheerful openness of Slings and Arrows, where a main character’s repeated, overdramatic line — “Sorry! Sorry for caring!” — is somehow punch line, character note, serious point of conflict, and thesis statement all wrapped into one.

Slings and Arrows now feels quaint in a way I hadn’t appreciated back when it first came out. Its scale is so small; it feels impossibly endearing to argue that a love of honest theater could save us all. But rewatching it now, it’s quaint in a way that I still find absolutely beguiling. I’ve still never seen anything else like it, and I long for more television with the confidence to run over a pompous theatrical type with a semitruck that reads “Canada’s Best Hams,” and then pivot into a completely earnest consideration of the meaning and mystery of death. It moves me. It makes me happy to love theater, and it makes me happier to love television.

There’s another thing about Slings and Arrows I find particularly moving now, in a way I couldn’t have appreciated ten years ago. After a lengthy absence from easily accessible platforms, the show is now available to stream for free on a YouTube channel called Encore+ (the first two seasons are up now; hopefully season three will be up soon). Encore+ is a treasure trove of Canadian television, including another fantastic Paul Gross joint, Due South (in English and French!), plus classic episodes of Degrassi, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and Little Mosque on the Prairie. And it’s all there because of funding from the Canada Media Fund, a national organization that provides grants to Canadian film and television productions, including special funds for aboriginal projects and non-English language programs. The fact that a national organization made it a priority for Canadian cultural landmarks in TV and film to be accessible to everyone is enough to make me a little verklempt. But for that to be the reason why we can once again watch Slings and Arrows, a show about art, audience, accessibility, commercialism, and how we value cultural production? It’s almost too on the nose, too fitting, in the very best way.

If you want to watch something that will make you laugh, marvel at the talent of a very young Rachel McAdams, and dig out your beaten-up Riverside Shakespeare editions, check out Slings and Arrows. Maybe, like me, you’ll daydream about an alternate timeline of TV history, where this kind of show wound up influencing the dominant TV culture, and we Americans made similar national investments in preserving valuable TV productions. Barring that, at least we now have easy access to Slings and Arrows — such stuff as dreams are made on.

Slings and Arrows Was Like Nothing Else on Television