"You can't just make up words!"

By Marc Snetiker
July 10, 2017 at 11:09 PM EDT
Alex Bailey/TNT
S1 E1
  • TV Show

God help the drama student who learns Shakespeare from TNT.

The network, which you would not be wrong to still primarily associate with explosion movies and reruns of Rizzoli & Isles, has embarked on a fascinating new journey with its newest scripted drama, Will. It’s the story of a young William Shakespeare. It’s insane.

There are certain qualities of the life of the suddenly-a-heartthrob playwright (played by Laurie Davidson) that the show does portray accurately. For instance: Shakespeare was English. He did write plays. He married Anne Hathaway. He chilled at the Globe Theatre. He had that stupid earring. Yet from there, everything else about Will’s treatise on history reads like an episode of Chopped where the four ingredients are Shakespeare, London, playwriting, and a handful of arbitrary quotes that he won’t have written for a decade. It’s a mishmash blender of bardic trivia that doesn’t really strive to get anything too right, but gets things wrong in splendid degree.

And then you quickly start to realize, “Well, surely that has to be the point, right?” The show is created by Craig Pearce, who co-wrote Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, and suddenly, it all makes perfect sense why the series embeds anachronisms in its vernacular and leans in to strange modernity with its decision to coat a grunge-adjacent Elizabethan theater scene in candy colors. The Globe groundlings, already unfortunate enough as the poor theater-loving bottom-feeders who can only afford standing room, are now a mosh pit of punk rock Club Kids with smudged lipstick and neon hair. The posters for the Globe’s plays aren’t regally ornamented listicles with a dozen typefaces but hip concert flyers with Brooklyn wheat paste and the touch of an errant Kinko’s. The actors who would become Lord Chamberlain’s Men are rowdy radicals who dabble in light choreography. Richard Burbage, history’s esteemed thespian, is a horny CW meathead. Shakespeare drops mics in rap battles. Falstaff does a stage dive.

Will is truly the breakfast cereal commercial of Shakespeare — it’s sugary and colorful and very, very bad for you, but irresistible, especially if you’ve tasted something like this before. For anyone with even a nugget of leftover Shakespeare knowledge from high school, Will can be wicked summer fun. Really. Lines like “Seems like your play is quite the thing!” are so heinous, they’re genius. If you can find it in your CliffsNotes to accept that, you can accept Will’s flaws and enjoy the plucky game of How Shakespearey Is Too Shakespearey?

Pearce’s series is revisionism by way of anarchy, with timelines not worth the energy to piece together and choices of cause-and-effect that are blatantly audacious. (Why is Shakespeare rewriting Edward III while quoting Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet? Who cares!) And whereas Shakespeare in Love made a narrative point to say, “Hey, what if this romance in Shakespeare’s life inspired some of his most famous plays?,” Will’s young Shakespeare reads like a man who had a fever dream about his future Wikipedia and now only remembers 25 percent of it like some Middle Ages Memento. Young Will stumbles through his thoughts until inspiration strikes and he can conceive what he’s destined to write.

Fortunately — and this is truly the best part, or worst part, but really, the best, but actually, the worst — everyone in London somehow helps young William Shakespeare come up with his most iconic lines! There’s the drunk man in the inn whom he overhears shouting about a nunnery. There’s Alice Burbage, daughter to legendary theater impresario James Burbage, who sparks with Shakespeare and before long, they’re finishing each other’s couplets. (Surprise: She also sneaks around dressed like a boy sometimes, because at least one major female character in every Shakespeare origin story must). There’s rival playwright Christopher Marlowe, who treats his compositions like hostage assets and skeevily introduces himself to Shakespeare with a sneering botched Hamlet line — which will come into existence 10 years later, but who cares, who cares! (Credit where it’s due: Marlowe’s presentation as psychopathic villain makes smart use of his story as a shady gay secret spy who will maybe sort of possibly [?] fake his own death in the ultimate power play for the title of Elizabethan prince of melodrama.)

Other subplots are afoot in London, and they’re mildly entertaining enough distractions that help make Will less cringeworthy and more contritely silly. Marlowe helps Shakespeare hide his dispossessed Catholic family roots from power-hungry Protestants. A Gavroche-Oliver hybrid urchin named Presto works undercover for the church in an effort to help his sister escape prostitution. Burbage gets a girlfriend. That sort of thing.

The real highlights from the first two episodes, though, are purely dialogic. Will asks you believe in quotes like:

“Who would want a play by William Shakespeare?” The opening line uttered by housewife Anne Hathaway (Stratford-upon-Avon, not Devil-upon-Prada), who in one nag sets herself up as the single person in Shakespeare’s life who doesn’t immediately recognize his genius, giving the audience license to root for his romance with the historically insignificant Alice Burbage.

— “Iambic pentameter!” The category chosen for the RAP BATTLE POETRY SLAM that a drunk playwright forces Shakespeare into in a pub straight out of Pitch Perfect hell. (After Shakespeare wins, he declares his opponent “quilled,” which is one half-step less insane than if he just said, “Boom, roasted.”)

— The scene in which Will is trying to write a nice quote about the morning but has writer’s block, leading Alice to suggest a verb so that Shakespeare can exclaim, “‘But soft, what light through yonder window… breaks?’ That’s good!”

— The scene in which one of Lord Chamberlain’s Men stumbles on Shakespeare’s word “bedazzled” and complains that it’s not a real thing. “You can’t just make up words,” the actors yells at Shakespeare, who instantly cries back, “Well, someone must!” Can you even imagine.

— The general wokeness of Alice Burbage, who demonstrates accelerated awareness of her gender’s future and thereby serves as the company’s best copywriter and says things like, “Yes, I am that most useless of creatures: an educated woman!” Girl, noooooo.

— The rival dramaturg who can’t remember Shakespeare’s name and calls him “Shakedick!”

— Shakespeare casually referring to Romeo and Juliet as “something I’ve had rolling around my head for ages,” because of course there is a solid 50 percent change that his entire romantic masterwork will be written solely from things he overhears during the next eight episodes.

“All’s well that ends well.” LOL, yes, he actually says this, aloud, to a person, in seriousness, when something has ended.

Buckle up, summer.

  • TV Show
  • 1
  • 07/10/17
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