Monday, May 29, 2017

REVIEW: 'Still Star-Crossed' - The Montagues and Capulets Continue to Fight in 'In Fair Verona, Where We Lay Our Scene'

ABC's Still Star-Crossed - Episode 1.01 "In Fair Verona, Where We Lay Our Scene"

In the wake of Romeo and Juliet's tragic deaths, the Montague and Capulet rivalry escalates. A new royal takes the throne in Verona and struggles to determine what is best for his city, which is at the epicenter of mayhem.

The story of Romeo and Juliet is one of the most iconic plays in the history of the medium. It's long been revered as one of William Shakespeare's masterpieces. It's taught basically all over the world. It truly is a classic. It's a tragedy about love and family. It's a rich text that tells a complete story. As such, it would seem silly for someone new to come along to try and put a new spin on this world. To try and tell the story of what happened to the Montagues and Capulets after Romeo and Juliet's deaths. Would they actually have learned anything from the tragedy? Or would they simply be destined to fall into the same patterns of destruction until Verona was no more? Yes, it's an unnecessary question to ask. The odds are stacked against this show for succeeding. It's built as a sequel to a classic story. There is no way it is going to be of that same quality. So instead, it has to settle for being a soap opera about feuding families. It's a familiar concept that can be entertaining. But it won't have the same depth as the original story. Not much does actually. But it's just a weird premise for a show. It's attaching itself to greatness when it has no aspirations to be similar at all. Trying to be Shakespeare would doom it quicker. But this series premiere doesn't do a whole lot to distinguish itself as its own unique story either.

Of course, "In Fair Verona, Where We Lay Our Scene" doesn't actually get to its main premise all that quickly. Romeo and Juliet are major characters in this premiere. The hour doesn't open with them having already committed suicide. It instead chooses to start with them getting married. That means the actual leads of the series - Rosaline and Benvolio - get to meet for the first time and develop their complex and antagonistic relationship with each other. But that first half of the episode really does drag because the audience is just waiting for everything to happen. It's a waiting game until Romeo and Juliet die. As such it comes across as a high school production trying to put a modern-day twist on the classic play. All of the plot beats are the same but something is missing. It just doesn't have an impact. And thus, it's curious why it's all happening in the first place. These are important characters because of their family connections. Their parents will continue to be major characters on the show. And yet, Romeo and Juliet were destined to die in this premiere. It just takes too long for that to happen. As such, the actual premise of the series can't even begin to start until the premiere is already half over.

The show is based on a novel as well. Both surmise that the fighting between the Montagues and Capulets would only worsen following Romeo and Juliet's deaths. Even though murder has now been outlawed in this city. It's absolute chaos which forces the royal families to act quickly to restore peace to the city they all love so much. It's suppose to be chaotic, rushed and unexpected. But it also feels like everything is just being slapped together very quickly and without much purpose. It's just setting up the premise of the show so that the real story can actually start in next week's episode. It's just such an odd way to tell this story. Rosaline is a major character throughout this premiere. She does go on an interesting journey. One that has ups and downs as she wants to chase after what she wants while also running away from the oppressive world she finds herself in. She's the new woman trapped in this vicious war between feuding families. It's a position she doesn't want to be in. She's at the mercy of the rulers of her house. Lady Capulet is just a ridiculously one-note character who is cruel to her for no discernible reason while Lord Capulet sees himself as the pure regal and the Montagues as less than. Their desires are more important and have the potential to change all of the lives of the citizens in Verona.

But the action is largely just setting up a tense love triangle amongst its three leads. That's not completely surprising. This is a Shonda Rhimes show after all. Much like How to Get Away With Murder, she didn't create the series. She's just an executive producer while someone who rose up from the ranks is the actual showrunner - in this case, it's Heather Mitchell. This is such a wildly different show for Shondaland though. It's a period costume drama. It's not clear if this brand of writing really translates well to a period piece though. It feels odd, alienating and out-of-place. People are saying things that normally wouldn't fit in this time and place. The story beats are also fueled by the big soap opera reveals. Like Lord Montague being angry with the Friar for destroying his plans to produce an heir between the two families. Or Rosaline having a secret affair with Prince Escalus, the ruler of the city. The pacing is familiar to fans of Shondaland shows. As such, there is an audience all of this could effectively play towards. And yet, it's hard to judge if this show has the potential to become a hit for the network because it is so drastically different from Grey's Anatomy and Scandal. It will have to find a way to make its themes relevant to today's audiences and have an insightful take on this world.

Right now, it doesn't seem like the show is succeeding at that. There is chemistry amongst the three leads. Lashana Lynch deserves to be a star. She proves herself to be a very captivating actress in this opening episode. Rhimes' continued approach to diversity in her shows shouldn't be understated either. In the world following Romeo and Juliet, two of the leads are people of color. They represent two thirds of the central love triangle. That visual is powerful to see. They are the ones with the grand, sweeping and emotional kiss at the end of the premiere. It's their love that is forbidden or unrequited. The Prince has to put the needs of the city above his own desires. Meanwhile, Rosaline still feels betrayed by Escalus for leaving following her parents' deaths. And finally, Rosaline doesn't want to marry Benvolio, who is seen as a disappoint from his family as well. They can all bond over the fact that others see them as not achieving their high standards. But that will become a thin and tiring premise after awhile. The other Shondaland shows have done successful love triangles in the past. But they weren't the core basis for the shows. They were about so much more than that. Right now, Still Star-Crossed isn't presenting itself as more than just a simple love triangle soap opera.

Some more thoughts:
  • "In Fair Verona, Where We Lay Our Scene" was written by Heather Mitchell and directed by Michael Offer.
  • Anthony Head, Grant Bowler and Zuleikha Robinson are really hamming it up here. Their characters are delightfully over-the-top and broad. They are incredibly one-note as well. The men are the scheming politicians while the lady is the controlling ruler of the house. They are very conventional roles with none of them being asked to do more than that.
  • A lot of talk is also concerned about the world around Verona and how the surrounding cities could have armies that could destroy Verona if the rulers ever decided to. That's all that Escalus seems to care about. He's seen the world outside this city and knows how big the threat is. Meanwhile, everyone else is caught up in their own petty squabbles. 
  • Count Paris is the man Juliet was betrothed to at the time of her death because her father didn't know she was already married. He's stabbed by Romeo but survives. He's seemingly on his death bed when Lady Capulet, the Nurse and Livia are trying to save him. He'll more than likely survive because Torrance Coombs is a series regular.
  • The bond between Rosaline and her sister, Livia, seems strong. It could become a key and moving relationship on the show. But right now, it's all about them having different views of the world. Livia wants a better life as a wife and mother. Meanwhile, Rosaline wants to escape all of this because it's just so miserable for her.
  • Death seems to be a key motivator for every major character. Not only do Juliet and Romeo die, but so does Prince Escalus' father (onscreen) and Rosaline's parents (offscreen). Both of which are huge definers of who they are in this premiere.
  • This show was filmed aboard in Spain. As such, the location shooting is much more practical and stunning to look at than the average Shondaland show - which primarily film on studio lots. Of course, that also means this show is more expensive than the average Shondaland venture. Big ratings will help it succeed. But low or average numbers could doom it quickly.