Upstart Crow (A Review of Sorts)

Upstart Crow (A Review of Sorts) May 24, 2019

Upstart Crow made me laugh so much I began to wonder: how could any show be this witty so often? And then we moved into later episodes and I saw that the idea began to fray and genius fade .  . . So I appreciated the humor of the early episodes even more.

The early episodes feel like a funny, humane literature major somehow got permission to make a show that depends on knowing Shakespeare, the history around Shakespeare, and bizarre ideas about Shakespeare. If you think Bacon was Shakespeare, then you will be fried, stinking fried, by the wits and wags working on this occasionally wonderful show. At some points the references to plays and sonnets by The Upstart Crow (Shakespeare!), come fast enough that an episode needs repeat viewing  . . . At least for this non-literature major.

The acting is solid, if the scenery ends up a bit chewed.

Some writer, some almost-genius, knows why we love Shakespeare and also why we sometimes suspect our love of the Bard is imposed on us by our teachers, curriculum, and the orthodoxy that Shakespeare just is great. If of a certain age or social class, we were taught to love Shakespeare and so we go on loving him, even when his plots are absurd and his dialog stilted. Every so often, we wonder and so indulge professional Shakespeare debunker, the critic who (each generation has one) snorts that Shakespeare is not so great.

Except. . . Except. . .

Just when our cynicism about the Upstart Crow is most triumphant, comes some dialog, monologue, or plot twist in the plays to remind us that WIlliam Shakespeare, Billy Shakes, is still the master. Upstart Crow understands the false piety, the facile critics, and the the genius of Shakespeare and plays with all of it.

There are moments when dialog from actual Shakespeare is used in Upstart Crow to mock the Bard and then nod to brilliance. They lampoon the master, but then allow his language to master us. A few scenes in the show move from rollicking low-brow comedy to beauty in an instant: just like Shakespeare’s plays, often using bits of Shakespeare.

That’s great writing using his great writing in new ways! As writer happy to appropriate good ideas in other writers, Shakespeare would have approved.

Like Shakespeare, the humor on the show is bawdy, but unlike actual Shakespeare, increasingly filled with the BBC’s version of what Moral Britain Must Think Today. The show mocks those Puritans who tried to close or censor Shakespeare, winking knowingly toward the Victorians who preferred bowdlerizations to the pure Bard, yet produces a good bit of modern clean up, making sure Shakespeare is not too offensive to Oxbridge sensibilities.

There are some clever attacks that go the other way, but this is mostly anti-Brexit, Labour, or at least Lib-Dem, and post-Christian. Yet because Shakespeare was a Christian, a real man living in a Christian society, they do not just poke at the (real) intolerance or misogyny of the times. The beauty of Christian Britain is there in Shakespeare’s own words.

The joyful anachronism is half the comedy, but then falls flat when made didactic. Taming of the Shrew is taken on in obvious ways, some very funny, some funny like a homily from a progressive teacher who has more wit than most. Any chance the viewer may miss the point (the play is offensive) are not taken. For example, the play (as performed on the show) is enjoyed by exactly no women in the theater audience, something not true in any performance of Shrew I have ever seen in the uncensored world.

There are times when it begins to feel like the writers have been forced to insert Very Special Episode material to keep telling all the jokes they do tell.

Does the juvenile crudity increase by the third set of shows?  Maybe. The writers certainly overuse some originally funny bits (Bolingbrook gets a whole new meaning!).  Overuse kills the double entendres as the viewer just starts hearing the sex reference directly.

This is a show that might have been better with one series, not three. If you have a high tolerance for British humor of the twenty-first century (with all the liabilities), then the show is very funny.

Watch the show.


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