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Will Slings and Arrows Survive the End of the DVD Era?

Enjoy this classic comedy set in a Canadian Shakespeare company... while you still can.
  • Martha Burns, Paul Gross, Oliver Dennis and Sarah Polley in Slings & Arrows (Rhombus Media)
    Martha Burns, Paul Gross, Oliver Dennis and Sarah Polley in Slings & Arrows (Rhombus Media)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    Slings & Arrows
    Season 3
    DVD.com | Find at your library

    Thsi column is devoted to curating programs you should be watching, and ideally you should only have to (1) read the review, (2) fire up the streaming service, (3) disable Autoplay because Autoplay is evil, (4) stream the show.

    But let’s say I want to recommend a classic like Slings & Arrows — and I do! Well, now your workflow has gotten more complicated: (1) read review, (2) acquire DVD through rental service or library, (3) locate Blu-ray or DVD player or sit in front of your one last computer with an optical drive, (4) watch show.

    Those of us of a certain age have at least one or two prized vinyl records/cassettes that never made it to CD. I’m also part of that remnant that hangs onto his VCR just in case I want to watch my old tape of Ann Dowd in her first TV role (ABC’s Nothing Sacred, from 1997) or Al Franken’s Lateline (still a fan).

    Now a similar fate is befalling TV shows from the DVD era. Some of these entertainments can stand their ground with any of Peak TV’s best. Sadly, those shows did not sell enough units, mint future superstars, or otherwise convince a streaming service to do a rights deal. And so they remain burned to discs and frozen in time ... time that, I fear, is running out.

    Given the friction of collecting and using optical media, not to mention the current moral pressure to declutter, it’s no surprise that people are chucking their DVD players and hauling their collections to Half Price Books. In 2007, when the third season of Slings & Arrows debuted in the U.S. via Sundance channel, 88 percent of households had a Blu-ray or DVD player. Today the number is more like half, and only 38 percent of millennials in 2018 reported owning something to watch DVDs with. (In fairness, they may be unaware that their gaming console does that.)

    Netflix continues to offer its legacy DVD-by-mail service, with more than 100,000 titles (compared with less than 6,000 on its streaming side). But that service lost a quarter of its subscribers in just over a year, and while it still makes money, if it were a standalone business that printed a newspaper I’m pretty sure a hedge fund would be circling overhead.

    So that leaves us — maybe? — five more years to figure out what to do with thousands of hours of first-rate television before it goes into the shredder.

    A depressing thought. But let’s not dwell on the past, although the Bard would remind us that the past is prologue. Let’s enjoy the hell out of it instead.

    Slings & Arrows, everyone!

    Even if you did watch this Canadian wonder when it originally aired, now is a great time to reacquaint yourself with the gang at the New Burbage Festival of Shakespearean Theatre. Other than Mad Men, I can’t think of a show that so cleverly combines gut-busting gags, high-toned dialogue and both the comedy and tragedy of life.

    At the core of Slings & Arrows is the working partnership of Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), brought in to direct Hamlet after the death of his mentor; and festival manager Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney), who worries if there will be a next season to manage. Both men see New Burbage as a way to avoid the challenges of a real career. Only a funny thing happens: together they turn around this small-town theater. And as their outrageous fortune grows — from Hamlet in season one to the Scottish play in season two and King Lear in season three — real life crowds in ever closer.

    Paul Gross, Don McKellar and Mark McKinney in <i>Slings & Arrows</i> (Rhombus Media)

    As season three opens, Richard watches backstage as an overproduced highlights package dazzles 1,500 of New Burbage’s subscribers at a preview. Then Geoffrey takes the stage … and promptly breaks down sobbing. Later, it’s Richard’s turn. He has stubbornly refused to trade in his car despite several breakdowns, so his faithful assistant Anna secretly engineers a gift of a new BMW. As he sits in the driver’s seat, though, he’s far from overjoyed.

    “I’m a fraud!” Richard yells, pounding the dashboard. “I’m a bureaucrat and a bean-counter!”

    “BMW Assist, how may I help you?” says a pleasant voice from nowhere.

    Besides King Lear, New Burbage will be readying a second production throughout the final season of Slings & Arrows. It’s an over-the-top postmodern musical that has worn about as well as Rent has over the years, but the rivalry between Geoffrey and the musical’s loutish director (Don McKellar) is fun to watch.

    Speaking of things that haven’t aged well, Slings & Arrows makes use of a device that was popularized by Six Feet Under where dead people drop in on the living for a chat. Here it’s Geoffrey’s late teacher Oliver (Stephen Ouimette) who can always be counted on to show up for a parade and rain on it.

    This device had become obtrusive by season three, so I was relieved when Oliver was upstaged by another of Geoffrey’s mentors, Charles Kingman (William Hutt), who comes to New Burbage to play Lear. Though Charles is still among the living, only Geoffrey knows how tenuous is his lead actor’s hold on life. The terror that Charles instills in everyone around him is tempered by a powerful private desperation to keep going — which sounds a lot like the king he is portraying.

    “You can go right through the ages of man with Shakespeare,” the old lion tells his pupil in a pensive moment. “And in the end he gives you this enormous gift of Lear to anticipate your own decay.”

    This touches Geoffrey, who isn’t sure how to respond. “Well, well, well,” he stammers. “You’ve just given me” —

    And just then my DVD froze.

    Susan Coyne (who plays Anna), Mark McKinney, and Bob Martin are accomplished writers and performers, but in Slings & Arrows, the show they co-created about people making community and art, they were never better.

    I don’t understand why I can stream a hundred hours of Bob Ross painting videos but not this. Would it help if I mentioned that a young Rachel McAdams appears in the show's first two seasons? (She does.)

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Slings & Arrows, SundanceTV, Bob Martin, Don McKellar, Mark McKinney, Martha Burns, Oliver Dennis, Paul Gross, Sarah Polley, Susan Coyne, William Hutt

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