Before the weekend, I received in the mail the first season (2 discs, 6 episodes total) of Movie Central's Slings and Arrows, about the world of classical Shakespearean theatre.
The pilot starts with the contrasting stories of two theatre companies: one is a hardworking group of actors with lots of artistic integrity...who are housed in a dilapidated building with non-functioning toilets, no phones, and the occasional electrical fire. The other, The Swan, is a posh, plush theatre that panders to the "grey-haired set;" it is the official home of the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival (based on the Stratford, I'm assuming). Whereas the first theatre is scrambling to cover basic expenses, The Swan is comfortable, complacent, and corporate-sponsored.
During the pilot, the first theatre is trying to a) fix the plumbing, and b) come up with the back rent that they owe the landlord. The other theatre is preparing for the opening night of the festival--a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
As the pilot continues, the tension at The Swan builds: Richard, the general manager (Mark McKinney of The Kids in the Hall), is in a tizzy about keeping their corporate sponsors happy, while Oliver, the artistic director (Stephen Ouiemette), is self-medicating with the bottle to avoid the glaring fact that he has allowed his productions to become boring and soulless in order to stay afloat financially.
So far I have watched the first and second episodes, and I'm already hooked. The writing is excellent: subtle and witty with some amusing in-jokes for those familiar with the world of the theatre, but not so many that it would alienate viewers not familiar with what goes on backstage. And although we do see characters that could definitely be "types" (the diva, the ingenue, the drunk, disillusioned director who has sold out his artistic vision to The Man, the clueless suit who doesn't really understand the arts), the acting skillfully avoids caricature.
A very young-looking pre-Mean Girls and Wedding Crashers Rachel McAdams is charming as a newbie actor who is paying her dues playing the "maids and fairies" roles.
Paul Gross is also mesmerizing as the crazy director of the impoverished theatre company who seems to have a mysterious past relationship to Oliver and Ellen, The Swan's leading lady (Martha Burns).
If you like warm, intelligent, engaging drama with comedic moments, I highly recommend Slings and Arrows.