'Will': TV Review

To watch, or not to watch, that remains the question.
7/10/2017

TNT's ahistorical look at William Shakespeare's lost years starts off fun, but runs out of inspiration in a hurry.

At some point after 1585, a young William Shakespeare left his wife, Anne, and three children in Stratford-upon-Avon and went in pursuit of literary fame and fortune in London. By 1592, Shakespeare makes a reappearance in the public record, at least somewhat established as a writer and actor on the London theatrical scene.

The specifics of what happened in those pivotal lost years are the subject of general conjecture among Shakespeare biographers, meaning that there's absolutely no way of conclusively disproving everything that goes down on TNT's new drama Will.

Relying on a mixture of thin facts, extremely generous extrapolation and whole-cloth fabrication, Will creator Craig Pearce has crafted an early biography for Shakespeare that seems both ridiculous and thematically plausible. As long as Will is having lively fun with the absurdity of its premise, the show is entertainingly dumb, but by the third and fourth episodes sent to critics, that commitment has lapsed into something much blander.

In Pearce's interpretation, Will (Laurie Davidson) heads to London in 1589 and, in a matter of hours, finds himself working at a theater run by James Burbage (Colm Meaney), featuring James' son, Richard (Mattias Inwood), as a pretty-boy leading man and James' progressive daughter, Alice (Olivia DeJonge), standing off in the wings as a romantic distraction. Will, a Catholic, arrives in town with a letter to pass along to his militant cousin, Father Robert Southwell, who's the most wanted man in London — specifically wanted by Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner), Queen Elizabeth's chief interrogator and persecutor of Catholics. Will also quickly finds himself in a precarious position with Kit Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower), superstar playwright of the moment and occasional conspirator with the crown.

The easiest way to approach the veracity of Will is just to acknowledge that all of these people definitely exist in the historical record, all of them were in general proximity at the same time, and Robert Southwell may indeed have kind of been William Shakespeare's (distant) cousin. If historians haven't done better when it comes to connecting the Shakespeare dots, Pearce is entitled to whatever nonsense he wants.

Pearce has been Baz Luhrmann's longtime collaborator, co-adapting Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby, among other works. Will sports a similar bend-over-backward desperation to make history feel relevant, even if nobody was actually quibbling with said relevance.

Rather than finding a single element of resonance and committing to it, Pearce's approach is one of uber-relevance — an ADHD take on Shakespeare as a jack-of-all-historical-artistic-analogies, fully developed embodiment of none.

The initial inspiration was viewing London in the late 1500s as the equivalent of London in the 1970s, a moment of artistic anarchy attempting to break free from traditional hierarchies. As Will gets into town, "London Calling" plays on the soundtrack. See what they're doing there? It doesn't get much deeper than that, but director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) follows Shakespeare through the noisy, smelly, animal-filled circus of the city's main squares and the dark, crime-ridden passages of its back alleys. The musical cues start off with this kind of rudimentary "Child's Guide to Punk and New Age" flavor, but by the third or fourth episodes, somebody lost all sense of the original inspiration and basically started ripping off needle drops from the Trainspotting soundtrack, with both "Perfect Day" and "Lust for Life" getting prominent placement. Once there's no consistency to how the anachronistic music is being used, Will goes from a savvy piece of pastiche like WGN America's late Underground to more empty Jock Rock-inscribed history like A Knight's Tale. In and of itself, it's not edgy or creative or boundary-pushing to have characters in 1589 saying things like, "Let's get shit-faced," but Will too often thinks it is.

The punk-rock aggressiveness of the visual style also fades, even with Kapur still directing the second and third episodes and Bower interpreting Marlowe with shades of David Bowie or Freddie Mercury.

Pearce and Davidson haven't quite settled on who or what Shakespeare is. The pilot's next stab at relevance is to have Shakespeare engage in something of an iambic-pentameter rap battle in a tavern with Robert Greene, a fun 8 Mile-style leap of whimsy in which The Bard is representing free-spirited autodidacts against the reigning intellectual elite of the moment. That's actually my favorite scene in the four episodes I've seen because it gives Shakespeare the opportunity to be believably clever. Mostly Pearce settles for implausible genius, like the fact that, in four episodes, Shakespeare basically writes three of his plays in a window of a couple weeks — an achievement even if he's stealing plotlines from foreign works. [Thankfully, Pearce has yet to engage with any authorship conspiracy theories.] Even worse, Shakespeare goes around future-quoting himself, talking almost nonstop in paraphrasing lifted from his yet-to-be-written plays. At best, this tactic gives pseudo-intellectual viewers the chance to feel smart recognizing a really obvious Shakespeare quote. At worst, it has William Shakespeare emptying chamber pots saying things like, "A turd by any other name does not smell sweet."

Ugh.

Nebulous characterization aside, newcomer Davidson is fine. He's a little unformed as an actor, but this Shakespeare is unformed as a person. Without being bad, he's constantly being upstaged, primarily by Bower's flamboyance, Meaney's bluster and DeJonge's radiantly winsome pluckiness. I'm not sure if Pearce deserves credit or mockery for pretending that Shakespeare in Love didn't exist and that it isn't already a cliche to have young Shakespeare achieve greatness through a sexual dalliance with a youthful blonde whose own capacity for greatness is being held back by the period's attitudes toward smart women. But DeJonge at least approaches the character as something fresh and shines.

They've yet to interact in the episodes I've seen, but I don't expect Davidson will be able to stand out against the portrait of broad malevolence that Bremner is playing. So far, I only know a few things about the show's version of Richard Topcliffe, but it's probably enough to know that the guy likes fishing, he likes torture and, because he hates Catholics, he loves torturing Catholics with fishing gear. He also hates the theater, which bodes ill for Will. It's not enough for a nuanced portrayal, but it's easily enough for Bremner to chew scenery and give an otherwise uninteresting storyline a properly hissable villain.

There's some fun to the liberties that Pearce and Kapur initially take, but that hope breeds only disappointment when they don't know how or why to keep those liberties going. After four episodes, I'm more amused by imagining the failing essays high school and college students will write thinking Will is even near-history than by anything I've actually seen onscreen.

Cast: Laurie Davidson, Olivia DeJonge, Colm Meaney, Mattias Inwood, Jamie Campbell Bower, Ewen Bremner, Jasmin Savoy Brown
Creator: Craig Pearce
Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (TNT)

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