I was recently re-watching Slings & Arrows -- the comedy-drama about the goings on at a prestigious theatre. It was originally labelled a "mini-series" but, since a second season is slated to begin airing (on The Movie Network) later this month, clearly that was a misappelation. That's a marketing phenomenon (labelling a series as mini-series) that seems to be all the rage these days. Even in the US, shows like the 4400 and Revelations billed themselves as "mini-series" when, in fact, they were intended as first seasons of on going series. I don't just mean that the story could continue on. I mean the plot threads literally go unresolved.
So why are these being mis-labelled? I'm guessing twofold reasons. One, it encourages the audience to watch. If you watch an episode and are indifferent to it, and it's a series, you probably won't watch again...but if you think it's a mini-series, then you might say, oh, heck, I might as well stick around for the next few weeks and see how it ends. As well, it's a face saving effort. If the show gets cancelled, the filmmakers can claim they did a mini-series, which looks a lot better than saying, "I did a failed series". In the case of the excrutiating Revelations (or, years ago, Stephen King's dreadful Golden Years) the labelling proved prophetic, as I believe Revelations won't be back next season.
Personally, I find this new marketing trend dishonest and annoying. But that's just me.
My posted review of Slings & Arrows was muted a little because I felt the resolution didn't quite deliver, and it was a let down precisely because, overall, the show...was...brilliant.
I don't think that can be stressed enough. Slings & Arrows may well be one of the best Canadian productions I've ever seen -- and even when I criticize the resolution, I'm still not saying it was a bad ending. The ensemble of actors were almost note-perfect and flawless: funny, serious, fascinating, seeming completely in tune with their characters and motivations (Rachel McAdams was particularly noteworthy in that, not only did she convincingly embody her role as the adorably guileless understudy, Kate, but when called upon to play snippets of Ophelia -- in the play-within-the-play -- she was truly compelling).
Ironically, the filmmakers missed an opportunity. After spending six episodes detailing these characters and their struggles to mount a production of Hamlet, they should've then filmed a production of Hamlet with those same actors. It would've been a great cross-marketing effort.
Anyhoo (part ii)...
Slings & Arrows was what Robert Altman does...on his best days.
Which is funny. Why is it that one production just seems to come together...and so many others don't? Is it that, portraying a milieu they all knew intimately, the actors, writers, director, etc., were just inspired? That isn't to say that these aren't talented people in general, but everyone just seemed to be at the top of their game.
Let's hope a second season won't be an example of returning to the well once too often.
So why am I writing this, other than to sing the praises of a show that aired almost two years ago? Well, 'cause I got into an interesting discussion with someone, and together we noticed the similarities between Slings & Arrows (which starred, among others, Paul Gross) and the movie Men With Brooms (which also starred Paul Gross and was directed and co-written by him). The two came out in the same year, so it's impossible to guess whether Gross was inspired by Slings & Arrows, or whether the Slings & Arrows people were inspired by Men With Brooms.
What do I mean by "similarities"?
Both are set within an idiosyncratic milieu, each with its own peculiar lexicography -- Slings & Arrows the world of classical theatre, Men With Brooms competitive curling. Both feature Gross as a one time star of each profession who, years before, had a breakdown in mid-performance/game and walked away from it all, leaving not just his work, but even the woman he loved, with no explanation. Both involve the death of his erstwhile mentor (director/coach) dragging him, reluctantly, back into his old haunts, dealing with old faces, and both involve the dead mentor's wishes that his remains be incorported into the world he loved (the director requests his skull be used in the play Hamlet, the coach that his ashes be placed in a curling rock, to be used in the game).
Men With Brooms builds to a climactic game, while Slings & Arrows builds to a climactic performance -- a performance which the writers imagine in an almost sports-like analogy as we are told that, really, Hamlet revolves around six key monologues, and if the actor can nail them, the play is a success. So, during the climactic play, we are literally counting off the monologues (portrayed in brief snippets) in much the same way that a sports movie will build tension by cutting to a score board. It's a clever idea, creating a clear dramatic structure to something abstract like performing a play -- but it also is a sports-like gimmick, just like Men With Brooms. Less unique, but nonetheless relevant, is that both involve a theme of the purity of the art/game versus its crass commercialization.
Obviously, the two are dissimilar in many ways -- wherever those core ideas came from, each branches out in its own direction. I don't think I'd be offending Paul Gross by suggesting Slings & Arrows was the more sophisticated, the more erudite, when compared with his deliberately raucous and sometimes crude comedy. Men With Brooms was amusing on its own level, but Slings & Arrows was a far, far superior effort, full of nuance and with better realized characters and emotional threads (in Men With Brooms the character quits his profession and leaves his girlfriend, in Slings & Arrows, he quits because of his girlfriend -- in one, the human/romantic aspect is an afterthought, in the other, it's core to the motivation).
So what's my point? None really. I'm not suggesting anyone should be annoyed that there may have been a cross-migration of ideas, regardless of who came up with them first. In fact, in Canada, filmmakers are so rare to recognize a good idea, a clever narrative concept, that the fact that both productions should latch on to a dramatic, "high concept", central idea is actually applaudable. There have been other such "inspirers/inspirees" over the years. There was Street Legal, with its ensemble about professionals, but anchored by a female lead -- unusual at the time -- and where one plot thread had her romantically involved with a younger, Italian-Canadian hunk...followed by E.N.G., with its ensemble about professionals, anchored by a female lead, and where one plot thread had her romantically involved with a younger, Italian-Canadian hunk. Or the Bobsy Twins of erotic comedy, Showcase's current Show Me Yours and Naked Josh. All these similarities often go uncommented upon by critics.
Maybe other people have noted the similarities between Slings & Arrows and Men With Brooms and written about them. But, in Canada, filmmakers complain it's often hard enough to get critics to write about their works, period, let alone do them the respect of analysing them, let alone consider them in a context of other productions. So this is my way of saying, yeah, we're watching, we're considering, we're analysing.
And you done good. Whoever came up with what.
That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic
June 6, 2005
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