Will, the new TNT drama about Shakespeare’s life from frequent Baz Luhrmann collaborator Craig Pearce, badly wants to be punk-rock. It wants to make Shakespeare and his plays feel edgy and modern and dangerous and sexy. It wants to make its audience grasp the urgency of the poetry and feel how revolutionary the plays were in the 15th century. It fails.
Instead, Will manages to recreate the exact atmosphere of a seventh-grade English classroom where the earnest young English teacher turns a chair around backwards, sits, says, “How crazy is it that the guy who, if you think about it, invented hip-hop lived 400 years ago?!” and then starts rapping the opening prologue to Romeo and Juliet.
In the first four episodes of Will — all that TNT has made available to critics — Will Shakespeare (Laurie Davidson), a young husband, father, aspiring poet, and secret Catholic (there’s some historical evidence backing that one up, although nothing conclusive), makes his way to London to become a great playwright.
Despite the jeers from fellow poets and theater managers who inform him that he will never amount to anything, Will manages to collaborate with one poet on Edward III and scrape together Two Gentlemen of Verona and the beginning of Henry VI, Part I on his own, all the while noodling around on ideas for Romeo and Juliet in his spare time and gazing longingly at pretty blonde Alice Burbage (Olivia DeJonge, and yes, the character is related to Richard Burbage; enjoy yourself, Shakespeare nerds).
In the background, Richard Topcliffe tortures suspected Catholics in graphic detail, and a sad, abused peasant boy secretly cuts himself while hiding under the bed of his prostitute sister as she turns her tricks.
The whole thing is set against a Technicolor-hued and artfully anachronistic Elizabethan London. The edgy young theater folk wear leather waistcoats and have safety-pin piercings; the fashionable well-to-do wear slashes of pink eye shadow across their faces and gel their hair into elaborate pompadours. At the end of every episode, the elated theater company — fresh off of a successful new play from Will Shakespeare — bursts into a 20th-century song and dances off into the night.
As a creative move, anachronistic costuming and music stopped being edgy with 2001’s one-two punch of Moulin Rouge and A Knight’s Tale. Reign skillfully adapted them into signifiers of trashy kitsch in 2013. It’s 2017 now, and the days of anyone being shocked by the sight of William Shakespeare in leather pants are long over — but Will presents this sight with the smug expectation that viewers will be shocked, nay, outraged by the spectacle.
Smugness is one of Will’s defining attitudes. The show is smug about its historical knowledge. (Yes, Will, I too have read that there are multiple hands writing in the manuscript of Edward III.) It is smug about its violence. (Yes, that shot of a man being disemboweled is very graphic!) It is smug about its sex scenes. (Yes, you certainly are showing me a scene of a gay orgy right now!) It throws shot after shot at its audience with a deep certainty that it is being shocking and provocative, but it never finds an aesthetic reason for what it’s doing beyond a desire to be shocking and provocative. As a result, it succeeds only in being boring.
If Will has a bright spot, it’s in Jamie Campbell Bower’s Marlowe. Bower, the only member of the cast who seems to find the world he’s living in funny, slinks across the screen like a 16th-century David Bowie who is also a spy, murmuring sulkily about “that bitch, the Muse.” When he looks at young Shakespeare, a journeyman poet with the potential for greatness, flashes of jealousy and condescension and affection and lust flicker across his face all at once. It’s as psychologically complex as Will gets, and it’s lovely.
But this show isn’t called Kit, even though Kit Marlowe — atheist, spy, and murdered poet — has been crying out for a decent biopic for years. It’s called Will, and its focus lies in its shallow, dull, and unconvincing portrait of Shakespeare. What a waste.
Will premieres on Monday, July 10, at 9 pm ET/PT on TNT.