TNT is daring to spin a dream, much like the titular character of its new effort, Will, and the network is hoping it can convince you that Shakespeare was a pop star of his era, as opposed to having entered the world as the boring crap High School teachers make you read. Perhaps more importantly, the show would also like you to believe that jolly, old Will was once a young man, and wasn’t born a marble bust with little hair and a fantastic beard.
These are indeed, more or less, true, but Will also wants you to: watch as Will scampers after a guttersnipe who picks his pocket, listen to The Clash, endure “punk rock” Elizabethans, and play along with anti-Catholic, anti-theater mustache-twirlers, and that makes it a little difficult to get your bearings.
Luckily, at its heart, this is a show that is mostly after simply reveling in Shakespeare. Not in the sense of stuffy professors reciting lines in snooty tones, but in the sense of those who watched and loved his work originally. The boisterous “commoners” who might be equally likely to applaud or gut you, and the actors who were probably just trying to pay off their next drunk.
We fall in with Will (Laurie Davidson) as he travels to London and lucks into meeting Alice Burbage (Olivia DeJonge), who happens to be the daughter of James Burbage (Colm Meaney). Burbage, of course, runs The Theater, and happens to need a playwright because Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower) isn’t going to work for him anymore. We stumble along with Will as he tries to find a place in the bizarre cacophony that is London, and more specifically, London’s theater life, and the show is as much a buzz as its setting.
Events may veer down odd roads at times (like the “rap battle”), but the writing and charm win out. Davidson is magnetic and delivers perfectly the one impossible thing the show needs in order to have any chance at success – a guy we believe might say the things Shakespeare said and then think to himself, “Oh God, I’ve got to write that down.” The rest of the cast will surprise as well, because even the tertiary characters leave you wanting more. Meanwhile, Meaney almost seems to be trying to dismantle the thing from within because you find yourself wanting everyone else to leave. You could Photoshop the rest of the cast out and still watch him grumbling around and love every minute of it.
Even the potentially sour notes turn out to be rather brilliant turns. Will’s early “nemesis,” the troupe’s wanna-be writer, stands out as a case in point. He’s overselling, over-written, and laughably “weasely,” but the idea actually works if you let it wash over you for a few minutes. He provides a certain clue to the lens we’re after, and makes the show not simply the fictionalization of Shakespeare’s life, but his life as he might have turned it into a play, which makes this just another of his near-farcical characters overexposing type.
It’s dangerous to predict where this show will go, especially because the “powers that be” angle might easily maneuver into the silly, but it’s wicked fun through the first few episodes and offers up the richest cast of characters around.