Will Mondays, 9 p.m., TNT. Premieres July 10.
William Shakespeare might be considered the greatest writer in the history of the English language, but in his time he was just one of many popular playwrights, so large parts of his life remain more or less a mystery. That gives modern-day writers plenty of leeway in telling stories about Shakespeare’s life, which leads to works like the playful romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love or Roland Emmerich’s revisionist thriller Anonymous. TNT drama Will tries to combine those two approaches, with a mix of lighthearted backstage antics and dreary, overheated political intrigue, neither of which is particularly successful.
Set in 1589, when Shakespeare was just starting to make his name on the London theater scene, Will casts its title character (Laurie Davidson) as an ambitious pretty boy who loses himself in the debauchery of the artistic community, attending hedonistic parties and starting an affair with Alice Burbage (Olivia DeJonge), daughter of theater impresario James Burbage (Colm Meaney). Created by longtime Baz Luhrmann collaborator Craig Pearce (who co-wrote several Luhrmann movies, including Romeo + Juliet), the show has a colorful, hyperactive aesthetic, with a soundtrack full of anachronistic rock music and characters with piercings, tattoos and dyed hair, dressed like punk rockers at a Renaissance faire.
It also puts Will at the center of some dubious political intrigue, connecting him to Catholic dissident Robert Southwell (Max Bennett), who’s being hunted by a sadistic government official, played with over-the-top nastiness by Ewen Bremner. The thriller elements are dreadful, marred by Bremner’s scenery chewing and dragging down the otherwise upbeat theater storylines. Both aspects of the show strain way too hard for edginess, with lots of gratuitous nudity, sex and violence, and Pearce’s sense of Shakespeare’s development as an artist is reductive and superficial. Characters frequently spout bits of dialogue that just happen to be famous Shakespearean lines, as Will dutifully writes them down in his little notebook for later use. Even the self-consciously bold music choices are obvious and clumsy: The Clash’s “London Calling” plays when Will first arrives in London; later, when he gets his first taste of fame, we hear David Bowie’s “Fame.”
The problem with Will is not necessarily that it fictionalizes Shakespeare’s life, but that it does so in such a dull, haphazard way, with little connection to what makes Shakespeare’s work endure or what makes his time period fascinating. Just adding sex, drugs and rock and roll to the life of a historical figure doesn’t turn his story into a boundary-pushing prestige drama. The real Shakespeare took elements from other writers’ material and turned them into something uniquely his own, while Will uses elements of better TV series to make its unique subject just like every other entitled, morally dubious male drama protagonist.