Will Series Premiere Plot Summary:
Hoping to support his family and achieve greatness, Will Shakespeare (Laurie Davidson) travels to London and joins a struggling theatre as a playwright. However, Will’s connection to a wanted Catholic priest soon gathers the attention of the mysterious Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower) and places the writer in grave danger.
To watch, or not to watch, that is the question. In the case of TNT’s historical drama, Will, the answer is most likely skip. This historically challenged retelling of William Shakespeare’s early career is certainly not without its charm and flair, but these elements ultimately hurt the show as much as they elevate it. Anyone who has seen Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby (2013), or The Get Down will likely recognize a dose of Baz Luhrmann in this series and for good reason; while that distinctive filmmaker did not play a direct role in this show’s production, one of Luhrmann’s friends and frequent collaborators, screenwriter Craig Pearce, is credited as the show’s creator.
Like Luhrmann and Pearce’s other works (to a fault), Will is often eccentric and over-the-top for little more than for the sake of being eccentric and over-the-top. When Moulin Rouge! came out in 2001, such style was fresh and integrated into the plot in a fairly satisfying fashion. Today, the same style appears trite and derivative. For example, using contemporary pop songs in a period piece feels less like an acceptable way of illustrating how timeless or ahead of his time an individual is and more like a sad attempt to plagiarize Pearce’s own work. Likewise, having Will get into a rap battle with a rival playwright is both out of place and a tad too similar to The Get Down.
All of that being said, as much as I personally dislike infusing that style into Shakespeare’s biography, I believe the combination did have an opportunity to work somewhat well. The problem is that show doesn’t fully commit to that style, leaving the audience with a mess. The show’s frequent shifts from the gaudy workings of the theatre to the grisly persecution of English Catholics are whiplash-inducing, and the subplots (especially the look into the life of a random pickpocket Will encounters) do little to resolve this issue. The political intrigue around Will’s religious ties (especially his encounters with Marlowe) certainly adds some captivating drama to the series, but the storyline’s inclusion comes at the cost of the show’s narrative and tonal coherence.
Despite these problems, Will does manage to boast a few enjoyable character dynamics. As previously mentioned, Will and Marlowe have a particularly entertaining frienemy relationship, due in no small part to Bower’s strong performance and the enigmatic nature of his character. Similarly, the forbidden romance between Davidson’s Will and Olivia DeJonge’s Alice Burbage is surprisingly compelling due to the actors’ chemistry. While the combination of theatre antics and religious drama is jarring, tempting Will to break his marriage vows and ignore his familial/religious obligations makes him a more fleshed out character. At the very least, Will manages to portray its version of William Shakespeare as an intriguing figure.
The show’s greatest sin, though, is that it doesn’t understand or replicate the appeal of Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare’s poems and plays have endured for centuries because of their thematic strength, reflection on the human condition, and sheer cleverness and creativity. As a poet and playwright, Shakespeare was able to beautifully weave situations, ideas, and language together to captivate audiences and appeal to their deepest emotional, rational, and linguistic sensibilities. Will fails to even approach such goals, instead relying on style and vulgarity (not that Shakespeare didn’t also use those devices) to bring life to a rather flat narrative. As much I believe the makers of this show appreciate and admire Shakespeare, I don’t think the finished product truly honors the man or his works.
That assessment may seem harsh, but if this reviewer has offended, think but this, and all is mended: not every show can be Hamlet.