What Killed 'Will'?

TV REVIEW

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TNT’s Will, a show based loosely on the life of a young William Shakespeare, was canceled after one season. This probably did not surprise Tudor fiction fans: after a decade of interconnected Elizabethan historical dramas, each borrowing elements and personnel from the last, the genre was exhausted by the time Will premiered. Will’s promotional material positioned it as something new and anti-academic – Shakespeare as rock star and London theatre as counterculture, isolated no more in history books and boring classes. The show, however, ended up being blindsided by its own conventionality, and isolation from the compelling conflicts of the past.

Before Will even aired, its target audience had seen the show before. There’s the Elizabeth movies, from which Will takes director Shekhar Kapur and its jeweled color palette. There’s Shakespeare in Love, from which Will takes its plot about feuding acting troupes and a blonde, feminist muse who yearns to be part of the theatre. There’s the teen drama Reign, the CW’s portrait of young Mary Queen of Scots, from which Will borrows its aesthetic sales pitch: with a smattering of contemporary music and fashion, the Renaissance can be cool! (God help us when Six comes out) There’s the title Will, which calls to mind countless gift-shop tchotchkes about Shakespeare having “Will Power!” (not to mention a full song devoted to the pun in the musical Something Rotten). And last, there’s the 2011 film Anonymous, from which Will takes some of its soundtrack (Radiohead!), actors, and plot points, as well as the idea that Elizabethan theatre was full of celebrity writers being cheered by mosh pits. Overall, clichés that have plagued the food chain of Renaissance historical fiction media as a whole became magnified in Will to an unsustainable degree. To a follower of the subgenre, Will might have spoken to the consequences of too much borrowing, mistaking "contemporary" takes on Shakespeare for "original" ones. To a casual viewer, it probably just registered as bad.

Granted, the quality of Will’s writing improved over the last four episodes; it mirrored Reign, in that its writers opted to end on the substantial, character-driven notes with which they should have started. By its season finale, Will could be described as nuanced and pursuing novel plotlines the more it delved into history. Alice Burbage (Shakespeare’s muse, played by Olivia DeJonge) finds independence not in theatre but as a Catholic missionary, a refreshing direction given so few fictional media exploring the religious lives of early modern women. Christopher Marlowe (Shakes’ rival, played by Jamie Campbell Bower) decides – for now, at least – to shelve his libertine tendencies in favor of a stable, healthy romance with courtier Tom Walsingham; an interesting move, given that we don’t get to see a cautious, contemplative Marlowe often in pop culture. But these developments came too late to redeem a show that had become, almost as soon as it premiered, notorious not only for its liberties with history, but its penchant for derivativeness, and sensationalism without substance.

Christopher Marlowe, for instance. Before his turn towards nuance, he was frequently used in Will as an avatar of the show's decadent, invented Elizabethan night life. Marlowe's function as ‘rebellion’ was communicated by Lestat-esque costumes rather than intellectual transgressions (the historical Marlowe was implicated as an atheist and pederast, flirted with the Catholic underground, had his translations of Ovid burned). In Will, he shepherds Shakespeare through various parties, one of which (in a promotional YouTube video) is called “the Bacon orgy,” in a reference to Sir Francis Bacon.

 

At this point in the series, it’s clear how historical people are meant to function in Will:  less as preexisting personalities than as impressionistic modes under which the TV characters operate - Marlowe party, Bacon orgy, groundling theatre. We're meant to hear a name and feel a mood, rather than understand any specific human entitity. And this would possibly be interesting in better hands. But Will isn't selling itself as atmosphere or fantasia. As a biopic, it draws its audience with promises of  history, biography, and information - and then eschews this obligation.

“The Bacon orgy,” for example: since it’s not the average person’s responsibility to keep tabs on the political, scientific, and philosophical innovations of the statesman Francis Bacon, one could reasonably think the job of Will would be to catch its modern audiences up to speed, presenting Bacon with a working degree of detail. “But what,” Campbell Bower tells us in the promotional video, “would be the fun in that?”  He proceeds to inform us that Bacon was “notorious for throwing these enormous parties, usually involving an orgy, or twelve.” Which is a lie so bald that it makes you wonder: who the writers think they're fooling? Bower, their bored-looking spokesman, their audiences, or themselves?

This is a typical example of how the scenarios in Will come into being. The showrunners invent a mood or mode (Bacon orgy) and only afterward attempts to sell it back to us as docu-information. (For one thing, it's distasteful: for Bacon to appear appear in the shadows, nuzzling paramours and throwing expensive “orgies,” is exactly what his 17th-century libellers would wish us to imagine.) On an artistic level, it's a bait-and switch: audiences come to biopics expecting a narrative proceeding from established information, but Will reverses this: it's the mood here that engenders (false) information. Afterwards, Will sells this pseudomation back to us to complete the circle. 

Despite historical liberties like Bacon orgies, the series’ writers, by the last few episodes, seemed to have realized that Elizabethan culture and its tensions would best serve their show not as a draping for the story, but as a fundamental force driving the story itself. Will’s focus expanded beyond its initial promises of “Will power” and – strikingly – even beyond its titular hero. In doing so, it found success, and realized a world rife with struggle, change, and multiple engaging protagonists. Shakespeare’s character had been poorly fleshed-out from the beginning - a mood within even the notion of mood. (One character says that only Shakespeare has “feeling” and “meaning”, which, all things considered, conveys little information, and Laurie Davidson trying to act “feeling” and “meaning” is painful to watch.)

 

But by the last weeks of the series, it was clear that the writers had concentrated their enthusiasm in every character but Shakespeare. Moving narratives emerged about the actor Richard Burbage (Mattias Inwood), changed from arrogant young star to a voice of communal pain by experiencing the effects of the 1593 plague on his community; about Christopher Marlowe, who learns self-forgiveness from his lovers; and even about nameless Catholic recusants throughout London, who have to choose between becoming public martyrs and protecting their own families from governmental retaliation. By the season finale, the production had also abandoned its labored “punk” aesthetic, and dropped its heavy-handed use of 70s songs as narration (Shakespeare arrives in London? “London Calling” by the Clash!). CGI shots of Old St. Paul’s and French ships headed for the New World provided stunning and immersive visuals. But by then, the show’s viewership had dropped irrevocably.

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Ultimately, Will’s gimmick as a show was that it wrested Shakespeare from notions of academic dryness and restored him to his place as a “rock star.” But this is a flawed premise, and it’s the heart of how Will mishandled its subject matter. There's no conspiracy to keep Shakespeare away from the masses or to deny him a life outside literary analysis. The masses want Shakespeare, but they also want plot, and stakes they can believe in, a fictional world with consistency. Will is bad for the exact reasons it purports to be good: it throws away what we know about the Elizabethan period, and in the process weaves a world that is half-developed, vague, and ultimately unbelievable, even when, paradoxically, 400-year-old history might have added something new to the Elizabethan subgenre. If the creators of Will had conducted more research on the historical moment, they might have given their hero a personality less foggy than “meaning” and “conscience,” and enriched the sense of conflict that encircles him. Despite its professed intentions of killing a stale, literary sacred cow, Will created one of its own, a strangely empty story that caters to almost every "Elizabethan" trope and mood but discovers its own historical heart too late. 

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© 2020, Maya St. Clair