Did William Shakespeare have highlights? And how cool was he with gay stuff?
“Yes, and pretty cool,” says TNT’s latest scripted series, Will, which reimagines young Will as a millennial influencer. Today, his Instagram look would be Clarendon with a gold crown face filter. His handle would be @blessedbard.
Since cancelling its hit crime drama Rizzoli & Isles, TNT has slowly become a breeding ground for star-driven escapist fare such as Good Behavior and Animal Kingdom. Will, however, seeks to appeal exclusively to millennials with its punk-rock soundtrack and pandemic mermaid hair.
As soon as Will, played by newcomer Laurie Davidson, sets out for the big city, “London Calling” by ’70s punk band The Clash begins to play to let us know this period piece is more Reign than Elizabeth. Theatre audiences rock studded leather and pink mermaid streaks, and the public executions involve disembowelments that could be straight out of the horror franchise Saw. Through all of this, Will remains a clear-eyed, silver-tongued hunk of wokeness, an immediate standout among his peers who is quickly deemed a “genius.” Today, he would have at least 50 million Twitter followers.
While the punk aesthetic may seem anachronistic — especially when the show abandons it for a B story about the Protestant Reformation — it’s what makes Will wildly sexy. The show could do without the Protestant/Catholic conflict, honestly, but the scenes where Will raises the metaphorical roof at the theater are an inspired interpretation of the punk-like role theater had in the 16th century London. As high school students, many of us heard about angry Elizabethan theater mobs shouting obscenities and hurling food at performers. It makes sense, of course, to imagine them in a mosh pit with Will as their progressive rebel king. The show’s choice of costume designers — Caroline McCall of Downton Abbey and Kym Barrett of the Matrix trilogy — further encapsulates this show’s grotesque, magnetic combo of period and punk.
While Davidson is sweet and energetic as Will, it’s Jamie Campbell Bower who stands out as Will’s frenemy and literary rival Christopher Marlowe. His conflicted expression of lust and envy when he first sees the Bard of Avon is the perfect setup for the duo’s dynamic, and Bower never lets the chemistry fizzle. When Marlowe eventually goes in for a kiss, it’s no surprise neither man particularly hates it. But alas, it was just a college experiment: Will still has his heart set on the daughter of the theater troupe’s leader. (But wait, doesn’t Will have a wife and kids? Yes, but they only show up for like two minutes, so we can forget about them. Whatever, it’s summer TV.)
Will’s strange marriage of executive producers Shekhar Kapur (the BAFTA-nominated director of Elizabeth) and frequent Bas Luhrmann collaborator Craig Pierce is another fascinating window into the show’s aesthetic. While Will checks in with accepted historical facts — Shakespeare wasn’t a singular genius; Marlowe really did collaborate with him — it just as often veers into fantastical Luhrmann-esque fever dreams. (Weren’t we just watching a Catholic being tortured? Whatever, we’re flying through London now.)
But young Will — pre-fame, pre-Globe, pre-Gwyneth Paltrow — is what holds this all together. The show’s anachronisms paint him as a glam god and his putdowns are constantly quotable. Still, he has enough mainstream appeal to shill eyeliner on Insta. By the time he’s launching into a rap battle in iambic pentameter, Will’s message is clear: William Shakespeare was a bona fide star.
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