Friday, July 7, 2017

TV REVIEW: TNT's 'Will'

TNT will premiere its new original drama series Will on Monday, July 10 at 9/8c. with a special two-hour premiere. The drama stars Laurie Davidson, Olivia DeJonge, Jamie Campbell Bower, Mattias Inwood, Ewen Bremner, William Houston, Lukas Rolfe, Max Bennett and Colm Meaney.

Read on for my thoughts on the period drama after screening its first four episodes.


TNT is in the midst of a programming rebrand at the moment. It's attempting to move to more prestigious original fare than simple blue skies procedurals. It's a trend that is growing throughout this industry. Everyone wants that genre-breaking show that will completely redefine the perception of their network. Everyone is chasing for the next Mad Men, The Shield, Mr. Robot, etc. In an effort to do that, there may be more bold and risky experimentation. TNT has been rebranding for a little while now and I still don't have a firm grasp on how it wants to define its programming. Corporate sibling TBS has also rebranded in recent years but struck gold right away with a year of new shows that were all distinct and different. TNT doesn't have that inventory yet. Animal Kingdom and Claws are good shows. But when throwing Will into the mix (which I think is pretty good as well), it doesn't help better define the brand identity. That's an issue for the network at large. I don't think Will will be the show that everything else will pivot around on the network. But it is very ambitious and a bold swing for TNT. It could work or it could be a massive flop. There probably isn't much middle ground.

A show about a sexy young William Shakespeare doesn't really feel like the type of a show that belongs on a network aspiring to prestige greatness. It feels like something that might belong on The CW - like Reign did. That comparison may be even more striking when actually watching the series as well. The sexiness and over-the-top bold depiction of the Middle Ages is very in your face and pointed. It's a very colorful world that doesn't cover up the everyday horrors of this particular point in time. The actions are big and extravagant. The performances are over-the-top. The production design is absolutely ridiculous at times. It's a show with a lot of excess to it. Plus, it's all accompanied to a modern-day soundtrack. The musical selections can be very on-the-nose as well. In one of the later episodes seen for review, Will is strutting down the streets of London reveling in his newfound fame while David Bowie's "Fame" is blaring. Will is that type of show. It's not subtle at all. Within ten minutes, you will know if it is a show for you or not.

Fortunately, I was really engaged by what Will was attempting to do in the first four episodes of its season. Yes, there are some significant problems that I'll get into in a bit. But it also has a ton of confidence with what it wants to be doing. It knows exactly what it wants to be and creates events that play towards those qualities as much as possible. It's a fun, ridiculous and raunchy depiction of the life of William Shakespeare. On one hand, it's a show about dramatizing the artistic process of being a writer. It delves into the ins and outs of finding inspiration and crafting a perfect story. It deals with the moral ambiguity of stealing characters or settlings or stories from other pieces of work. But it's also a show that is completely pandering to the audience in a way that makes it clear that it knows the subject matter and is perfectly find fabricating a ton of details in order to make the story more compelling upfront. It's absolutely ridiculous that Will arrives in London in 1589 and manages to get a job as a playwright in a theatre within hours. In four episodes, he has already written three plays as well. If that wasn't enough, the story is actually forcing lines of famous Shakespeare dialogue into the mind of the young playwright as the ideas rattle around his head. It is pandering and could be very annoying. But it worked for me because I wasn't being asked to take the show on a whole all that seriously. That makes so much of this more palatable to watch.

Laurie Davidson is a newcomer being tasked to lead an ambitious show. He's a little scattered but that energy suits the type of character this show wants William Shakespeare to be as well. He's a guy with hints of genius inside of him while also being completely naive about the world and just how active he wishes to be in everything in his life. The story itself sees him torn between his wife and three children back home in Stratford-upon-Avon, his responsibilities to his new theatre, a flirtatious dynamic with the daughter of the theatre's owner, and his Catholic faith which is being persecuted in the Protestant England. It's a lot of story that the show just immediately throws at the audience and hopes they'll be able to understand and follow it all. There are a couple of strong performers in the supporting ranks as well - including Colm Meaney as James Burbage, the owner of the theatre struggling to keep it relevant and financially afloat, Jamie Campbell Bower as Christopher Marlowe, an already-famous playwright who is extremely androgynous and struggling for his own inspiration, and Olivia DeJonge as Alice, James' daughter who wants more than a life as a daughter or wife. Of course, the show also really pushes in on the sexual chemistry between Will and Alice. It's a dynamic of attraction to both body and mind. DeJonge is exceptional in playing a woman out of place in time who wants to be onstage and helping craft incredible stories. Alice wants to be the manager of the theatre when it's at the height of its popularity. That's a truly inspired character with a clear set of goals and ambitions. That plays in contrast to Will who spends these opening episodes not sure what he really wants or how to tell the best story possible.

However, there is some tonal and emotional whiplash throughout this story as well. When the characters are at the theatre, it's fun and rambunctious in an exciting way. But things then take a turn for the dark and serious when it's about the precarious religious clash happening throughout the city. Ewen Bremner is the embodiment of that storyline as Richard Topclifee, the Queen's loyal torturer and executioner. He is a one-dimensional, mustache-twirling villain. Bremner is chewing a ton of scenery in his scenes. But that corner of this universe openly embraces violence and torture. Some of it is very unpleasant to watch. It continues to show just how bold TNT is willing to go with its original programming. There's a lot of violence here. But there is also a lot of nudity as well. The fourth episode especially may be a bold new world for a cable show in regards to how many naked butts are seen. All of these elements make Will more of a hit-or-miss show. It's exciting when it wants to be but really manipulative and lame in other places. It won't be for everyone. In fact, it may never become better than it currently is. But it's a story that I enjoyed for its silliness despite all of its flaws.