If you watch enough television from Canada or the UK, you start to get the feeling that there are only about twenty actors in the either country, and that their entertainment industries are run like summer stock. Sure, the US will always have Ted McGinley, but every Canadian and British show I watch has at least one actor I’ve seen in two or three other shows. Sometimes, however, it’s obvious the casting isn’t due to some arbitrarily small selection, but because the actor has legend status, e.g., Sir Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi star as a couple on the new UK sitcom Vicious (originally called Vicious Old Queens, because England is the best) because they’re icons, whereas the guy from Misfits got on that show because someone arbitrarily decided that there are only five young white male TV actors in all of Britain to chose from.
Slings and Arrows (2003-2006, on Netflix instant!) is packed with regulars of Canadian entertainment, some of whom are incidental, or were incidental at the time, like Rachel McAdams, but most of whom, like Mark McKinney (of The Kids in the Hall, who co-created and co-wrote the series) and star Paul Gross (he played the mountie in Due South), are legends of northern drama (with the “A”s pronounced like “banana,” as is Canadian custom). Since the show, which ran for three short seasons, is about a Shakespeare festival and three of Shakespeare’s plays, it requires a lot of acting talent, and delivers in spades.
Slings and Arrows is so well done on almost every level--tremendous acting, great writing, tight storytelling--that it’s one of those rare shows that makes you feel smarter when you watch it. Having Shakespeare in the show probably contributes to that, but if you’ve ever seen a Romeo and Juliet butchered by a high school production or pretentious liberal arts college who set the play in a hamster cage or something, you know that Shakespeare is only enlightening if done right, and that doing it right is hard. If Paul Gross’ portrayal of damaged director Geoffrey Tennant weren’t so unpredictable and magnetic, the show’s take on Hamlet wouldn’t convey the same themes of redemption and regret.
Along with Gross, the show is packed with intriguing regular characters, like Martha Burns, the company’s leading lady (and Gross’ real-life wife), whose catchphrase, “surry, everyone,” is deliciously Canadian and McKinney, who plays the festival’s cowardly director. Each season new characters are introduced as new actors are brought in for the plays, with Luke Kirby (Rectify) as the Keanu Reeves-like action star brought in to play Hamlet in season one and a romantically-troubled Sarah Polley playing Cordelia in season three’s especially chaotic King Lear (her father, Michael, was a regular on the series).
Slings and Arrows has received its fair share of positive press in the US, but nowhere near the amount of attention it deserves. The show isn’t just quintessentially Canadian, but universally great, and strange as it sounds to say about a TV show, it will make you feel like a greater person by watching it.