WILL: Does TNT’s New Drama Stand Up to History?

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Warning: mild spoilers for episode 1.

Will arrived on TNT Monday night with double episode premiere that drops us into the “punk-rock theater scene in 16th century London.” We saw Will Shakespeare leaving his family and obligations in Stratford to arrive amidst the cacophony of sound, color, and scents of Elizabethan London. The strange mixture of period setting and costume with blatantly anachronistic details is a little unsettling at first, and is one of the things early critics of the show have latched onto. But, this mixing of contemporary and classic liberates the show creatively and leaves room for us to forgive historical inaccuracy and anachronism. It’s no Hollow Crown, but it’s definitely fun and very pretty, even if it isn’t really doing anything new or groundbreaking.

The show switches between the frenetic pace of life in the London streets and theater to dark scenes of torture or grim specters and dreams reminding Will of the obligations of his faith. In the first episode we see a wide-eyed Will thrilled by the energy and chaos of a London market quickly come face-to-face with a man being disemboweled. And I don’t mean a polite cut scene or scene where the action is just off screen. There are actual intestines being yanked from a human body. The juxtaposition is jarring and confuses the tone of the show initially. However, in later episodes this becomes a little milder and less distracting as the attempted “punk” sensibility of the show is toned down a bit.

Initially, the show does feel confused about what it wants to be. Will isn’t a period piece, but it’s also not entirely free of the constraints of history (if inaccurate). It comes across like a teenage drama, with lots of angst, sharp cheekbones, and brooding discontent, but has too much sex, drugs, and brutality to be aimed at a truly young market. Will wants to be punk, but the soundtrack is more punk-lite. The songs are great, but years after they caused an uproar, they no longer pose the same danger and could safely be played on any top 40 radio station.

That said, I do like the show and enjoyed watching it. The costumes and scenes are lovely, and it’s fun to see a past with some punk of the non-steam variety. The show doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before, which makes sense as the show’s Executive Producer and Showrunner is Craig Pierce, who collaborated with Baz Luhrman on both Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, and the show’s director is Shekhar Kapur who brought us Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth. A lot of the show feels familiar, as lines and scenarios that we know from Shakespeare’s writing swirl around Will, waiting to be plucked from the air and set on stage.

The characters are a mixed bag. Kemp (William Houston) is delightfully obnoxious, and the best part of several scenes. Comedic acting doesn’t often get the recognition it deserves. Houston’s Kemp is wonderful and not to be missed.

I’m glad to see Ewan Bremner playing something other than an utter idiot. Bremner’s Topcliff is repulsive and disturbing, which he should be. Although, I can’t help but wonder if I find him so upsetting because I keep waiting for him to look up cluelessly because he can’t figure what he’s done wrong.

I’ll watch anything with Colm Meaney in it, even though he doesn’t particularly shine here. Richard Burbage (Mattias Inwood) is an adorable jerk, and Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower) is a calculating snake. The two men press Will to succeed while pulling him in different directions.

Unfortunately, two of the key characters, Will (Laurie Davidson) and Alice (Olivia DeJonge) are very typical star-crossed lovers. Let’s hope that we see more in them as the show progresses because right now the show feels a little like the talented supporting parts drown out the titular character.

Will is fun, and a little dark. The intermingling of current and past isn’t doing anything new, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining. If you don’t sweat the details, you’ll have a good time.

Will airs on Mondays at 9/8 C on TNT, and the first two episodes are currently available at TNT online or on the TNT app.

Cara spends way too much time thinking about subtext and, when not watching TV, can generally be found with her nose in a book.