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ABC's Still Star-Crossed is Shondaland on Shakespeare. It's beautiful, but empty.

The cast of Still Star-Crossed ABC
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

For most of its first episode’s hour-long running time, ABC’s new drama Still Star-Crossed, the latest offering from Shonda Rhimes’s ShondaLand production company, seems like an odd fit for Rhimes and her acolytes. (Rhimes is credited as a producer of the show, which was developed by Grey's Anatomy and Scandal writer Heather Mitchell.)

Though Rhimes is the widely acknowledged queen of the primetime melodrama, Still Star-Crossed doesn’t seem to have much in common with the emotion-drenched, soapy joys of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. (Judging from the first episode, which is all ABC made available to reviewers.) Instead, the show it does have lots in common with is the bonkers let’s-not-even-pretend-like-we’re-historically-accurate-but-wow-our-clothes-look-great machinations of The CW’s Reign, which was ostensibly based on the life of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Still Star-Crossed is based on a YA novel by Melinda Taub, itself loosely based on Romeo and Juliet. The key word here is “loosely,” because Still Star-Crossed knocks out all the Romeo and Juliet action in a solid 20 minutes and never looks back. Instead, it turns its attention to Rosaline, Juliet’s impoverished cousin, now forced to work as a maid in the house of Lady Capulet. Rosaline was once the sweetheart of Verona’s prince, but now her highest ambition is to earn the money to become a nun and escape Lady Capulet’s abuse — not to mention the awkwardness of seeing her ex everywhere she turns.

The show stays true to ShondaLand’s commitment to diverse casting, and to its penchant for labyrinthine romantic entanglements, but most of Still Star-Crossed’s emotional focus is devoted less to Rosaline and her plight than to how fantastic everything looks. The strikingly beautiful cast! The lavish faux-Renaissance fantasy sets of Verona, with all of the city’s palaces and fireworks and gilded everything! (Let’s all take a moment to thank whatever set designer decided to stay far, far away from the uncanny valley CGI castles of Once Upon a Time.) The velvet and satin costumes, with everything beaded and feathered and tasseled within an inch of its life!

Lashana Lynch as Rosaline on Still Star-Crossed
Historically accurate? No. Gorgeous? Yes.

Even Rosaline’s ostentatiously plain “servant girl” garb looks as though the costume designer picked up Belle’s blue peasant dress from the live-action Beauty and the Beast and said, “Okay, but what if this were satin brocade and had a little splash of embroidery? She’s not a nun yet!”

Lashana Lynch in Rosaline’s servant dress on Still Star-Crossed
So plain and drab!

It all chugs along under the basic idea that you don’t need to have too many feelings about what’s actually happening onscreen as long as everything is beautiful to look at — until the final two minutes of the pilot, when two estranged lovers meet in an empty room. They gaze at each other, lost, with tears in their eyes, and then the camera pans up to a jealous rival watching from a balcony.

Suddenly, everything kicks into the operatic emotional overdrive that is the ShondaLand signature: These beautiful people. Their enormous, larger-than-life emotions. The intractable situation that will not let them ever, ever be truly happy. For those two minutes, it all sings into glorious life.

What remains to be seen is whether Still Star-Crossed can find that sweet spot again as it develops — or whether it will continue to coast along on its lavish, gorgeous aesthetic.

Still Star-Crossed premieres Monday, May 29, at 10:01 pm on ABC.

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