On paper, the combination of Shondaland and Shakespeare is tantalizing: Both brands promise high drama, dangerous romance and memorable monologues. But “Still Star-Crossed,” from executive producer and writer Heather Mitchell and Shonda Rhimes’ production company, is a little too wispy and indistinct to make much of an impression. This drama, which continues the tale begun with the famous lovers’ deaths, is a melding that emphasizes surface bells and whistles without building on the solid foundation of nighttime soaps or the Bard’s depiction of the battle between the Montagues and Capulets.
The show has all the earnest energy — and stilted moments —you’d expect to find in a high-school play, albeit one with a uniformly swoon-worthy cast and an exceptional budget for candles and corsets. This new drama also recalls “Of Kings and Prophets,” a short-lived ABC program that premiered around the same time last year, during the annual spring/early summer TV yard sale, when the broadcast networks trot out whatever shows didn’t merit a slot on the schedule until very late in the season.
Like “Still Star-Crossed,” “Of Kings and Prophets” had a few standout cast members, boasted a distinctive and rich look, and was inspired by a great work of literature (the Old Testament). There’s nothing wrong with that kind of high-concept gamble, but execution is everything, and many adaptations rely too heavily on the outsized parameters of the concept to draw in viewers. Both of these ABC programs, like so many others on an array of networks, featured promising hooks but failed in their pilots to supply textured, distinctive approaches or characters worth following.
Speaking of texture, the wardrobes on “Still Star-Crossed” are terrific, and often exude the sense of lush romanticism that the flat, exposition-heavy script lacks. In fact, most of the production values are top-notch, and the rustling velvets and embroidered waistcoats are shot lovingly by director Michael Offer. He does an especially good job with the key funeral scene, which is set in a gorgeous old church in Spain, which is where the series was filmed. But while there’s pageantry aplenty, the dialogue is littered with too many lumpy Shakespeare-lite lines and some jarring uses of slang. Not every line has to be poetry, of course, but utterances like “Maybe all of this is on you!” tend to land with a thud.
Like a number of ABC dramas over the years, “Still Star-Crossed” features far too much music, which implies that the powers that be don’t trust the audience to figure out what emotions the characters are feeling, even as they loudly proclaim them. The slapdash, too-glib editing also adds to the feeling that the viewer is watching one long promo reel. It’s one thing to try to emulate the speed and vigor of “Scandal,” but it’s another to merely veer from one overwrought incident to the next without waiting for emotional beats to land.
Still, if a potted history of Verona’s squabbling clans seems like just the thing to take the edge off the much darker reality we’re living in, the cast of “Still Star-Crossed” contains a few standouts. Lashana Lynch is wonderfully committed as Rosaline Capulet, a former aristocrat who has come down in the world. Grant Bowler brings his dependably lively, rough-hewn presence to the role of Lord Damiano Montague, and Anthony Head makes a deliberate and entertaining meal of his role as Lord Silvestro Capulet.
The rest of the cast doesn’t make much of an impression, nor do the undistinguished swordfights that roll through Verona set the show apart. And it’s best to go in with the expectation that the mid-Atlantic accents you’ll hear throughout the pilot will vary, to put it mildly.
TV Review: Shondaland's 'Still Star-Crossed' on ABC
Drama: 7 episodes (1 reviewed); ABC, Mon. May 29, 10 p.m. 60 mins.