Consider the following information about Canadian TV show “Slings & Arrows.”
It was created by a Kid in the Hall, a Tony Award winner and a Soulpepper Theatre co-founder.
It features a who’s who of Canadian acting talent, led by Paul Gross and including internationally-known stars like Rachel McAdams.
It’s one of the best shows that you’ve possibly never heard of.
“Slings” — an affectionate parody of a Stratford-like Shakespearean theatre festival — debuted on Nov. 3, 2003 to what co-creator Mark McKinney calls “a muted response.”
Like many properties in our self-effacing Canadian entertainment industry, its acclaim grew after it aired in the U.S. and Americans took notice.
Yet it’s still something of an under-the-radar cult hit, one that has traditionally been hard to find on streaming services.
Acorn TV is rectifying that last bit by returning “Slings & Arrows” to its roster on Monday.
It drops just a day after the 16th anniversary of the show’s premiere on what was then The Movie Network and Movie Central. And McKinney is thrilled that people are still talking about it.
McKinney, a creator of the revered Canadian sketch comedy series “The Kids in the Hall,” was just a year or so out of the cast of “Saturday Night Live” when he was invited back to Toronto to work on a “frothy half-hour comedy” with actor/playwright Susan Coyne and actor/director Bob Martin.
In a phone interview, McKinney recalled “sitting around Susan’s kitchen table for months and months and months” turning that comedy into an ambitious hour-long dramedy.
“It really was about distilling our experience in theatre and the arts to that point,” says McKinney, whose experience included acting, writing and performing TV and live comedy.
Coyne, meanwhile, had acted with the Stratford Festival and co-founded Soulpepper Theatre; Martin was part of Toronto’s Second City and one of the brains behind hit musical “The Drowsy Chaperone,” for which he won a Tony in 2006.
After they spent two to three years producing scripts for a first season, with which they were all “really happy,” disaster struck: the CBC dropped the series from its lineup at the eleventh hour.
But Rhombus Media’s Niv Fichman, whom McKinney describes as “one tenacious motherf–ker,” found the show a cable berth with “just enough money to go to production.”
In Canada, “Slings” developed “a passionately deep following in the theatre community,” McKinney says, and started to catch on in the U.S. when the Sundance Channel picked it up in 2005.
It gained some high profile fans, like George Wendt of “Cheers” fame who asked McKinney to send him “Slings” DVDS as he toured the U.S. with the play “Twelve Angry Men”; or David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” who has been quoted as saying it was so clever it gave him “writer-envy.”
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I can’t recall when I first watched “Slings,” but I have seen it more than once — its three, six-episode seasons are easily bingeable — and continue to find it delightful. Here are some reasons why.
It is loaded with talent
Paul Gross, who’d already made a name for himself in “Tales of the City” and “Due South,” stars as the troubled artistic director of the theatre festival. He’s ably supported by real-life wife Martha Burns as the festival’s aging lead diva, McKinney as the scheming executive director and Coyne as the long-suffering administrative director. Some of its recurring guest actors gained larger fame, including McAdams, whose career was a year away from exploding with “The Notebook”; Luke Kirby, who just won an Emmy for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”; Don McKellar, another Tony winner for “Drowsy Chaperone”; and Sarah Polley, an Oscar nominee for her film “Away From Her.” And the wealth of bona fide theatrical talent in the series is staggering, including Stratford veterans like Stephen Ouimette, Colm Feore, Geraint Wyn Davies and the late, great William Hutt; Toronto theatre habitués like Eric Peterson, Oliver Dennis and Catherine Fitch, and too many more to name.
It has a ghost
I won’t spoil things by saying who, but a key member of the theatre company gets killed off in the first episode — by a truck bearing the logo “Canada’s Best Hams” no less — and haunts Gross’s character for the rest of the series.
It reminds us why Shakespeare endures
Sure, you might have bad memories of trying to decipher the Bard back in high school, but “Slings” provides insight into the humanity behind the words as they’re broken down for the actors within the show. Each season concerns the staging of a different Shakespeare tragedy: “Hamlet” in the first, from which the series takes its title; “Macbeth” in the second; “King Lear” in the third. The fact the lines are delivered in some cases by real-life Shakespearean actors adds to the enjoyment.
It makes you feel
“Slings” is loaded with clever comic bits and memorably absurd characters, but it also deals with serious subjects both professional — commerce vs. art or the vicissitudes of life as an actor — and personal: love, death, betrayal, mental illness as just a few examples. And it can make you cry, watching Kirby’s Hamlet opposite Burns’s Gertrude, for instance, or Hutt’s Lear with Polley’s Cordelia. You will find yourself caring about these people, which is the mark of all good television.
And if it leaves you wanting more, know that the creators of “Slings” are currently trying to sell a prequel series called “The Amateurs,” about the festival’s beginnings in the 1950s — “how the seed of Shakespeare magically flew across the ocean from a tired, dissipated Britain to Canada,” McKinney says.