The oddest assumption “Will” makes is in assuming that William Shakespeare, the OG of the English language, needs the patina of punk rock to make him cool. I’m no expert on cool, but haven’t we all trod this ground many times before? The executive producer and writer of the pilot, Craig Pearce, wrote the screenplay for “Romeo + Juliet,” along with director Baz Luhrmann and, of course, the Bard himself. It’s been over 20 years since that film and “Shakespeare in Love”; about a decade since teen movies “She’s the Man” and “Deliver Us From Eva” applied the Shakespeare formula to high school. To belabor the point: Joss Whedon’s black-and-white, modern-day “Much Ado About Nothing” is just five years old, 2014’s “The Hollow Crown” on BBC cast well-known heartthrobs like Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead roles, and for pete’s sake, “The Lion King” is based on “Hamlet.”
But despite all of this thoroughly modern Shakespeare, “Will” is here — and determined, with comical intensity, to demonstrate just how rad Willy Shakes and the Elizabethan era can be. The result is a wildly anachronistic historical drama with tons of flair, albeit flair that is neither original nor meaningful. In its defense, however, it manages to be fun — eventually. The pilot, written by Pearce and directed by executive producer Shekhar Kapur, is a plodding, overwrought mess that gives Shakespeare (Laurie Davidson) a Catholic subplot, a tortured love interest, and prompt theatrical success. It also, quite painfully, places him in a Renaissance pub’s “rap battle,” as if “Will” is a trying-too-hard English teacher informing you that Shakespeare was the original hip-hop artist of the streets.
It might just fly if “Will” was a little less self-serious. From the very first frame, Will wants to become Shakespeare; there is no process of discovering his own talents as he discovers what place the world might have for him. At times a scene will open on him searching for the right line of verse for the occasion, and half the time he says word for word exactly the lines that will become canon. Perhaps Shakespeare was just this irritatingly composed, but this effortless writing process is less fun to watch than the arc of episodes 3 and 4, when he realizes he has no idea how to break a story — and is just one playwright among many, trying to earn enough money for rent. Once “Will” settles into the day-to-day drama of producing something worth reading, it’s a lot more fun to watch.
It does not help that “Will” is saturated with a very particular, very jarring aesthetic. The show draws from, apparently, films like “A Knight’s Tale” and the 1978 film “Jubilee” to link London’s punk rock fury and decadence with the milieu of Renaissance theatre. The audience for “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Will’s first real play, is a raucous crowd of tattooed hooligans with fierce eyeliner game. Richard Burbage (Mattias Inwood), an adorably entitled but talentless leading man, strolls into one scene in the pilot wearing a motorcycle jacket trimmed with leopard print lapels; the walls in their dingy alleyway are covered with mass-produced color posters. And for a country that wouldn’t establish a foothold in India until 1612, there are an awful lot of colorful ethnic fabrics cladding the hand-to-mouth peasants of the street. This whirlwind of culture offers some fascinating opportunities for a more complex history of Britain than is normally afforded onscreen — for example, several of the Londoners are black, because the first black communities in England date back to the Tudor era, and of course Shakespeare wrote black characters into his plays. (She doesn’t appear in the first episodes released to critics, but Jasmin Savoy Brown has a regular role as the “Dark Lady” of Will’s sonnets.) But these strokes of brilliance get lost in the muddle. It’s hard to tell the fantasy from the historical complexity, and as a result “Will” really stretches the imagination, even when it’s saying something true.
And honestly, “Will” has enough bells and whistles as it is. As he keeps writing, Will becomes closer to Kit Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower), who in this imagining is a gay orgy host and opium smoker — erratic and mercurial and occasionally kissing Will just for the heck of it. But Will is caught up in illicit desire for the educated daughter of his erstwhile patron, James Burbage (Colm Meany) — the pretty Alice (Olivia DeJonge), who discovers early on that Will’s left a wife and three kids in his village.
In the show’s most baffling creative decision, much of the storytelling is devoted to Will’s secret Catholicism. By the third episode, “Will” routinely cuts from the main action to show yet another Catholic being gruesomely tortured by Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner), a professional persecutor for the Queen. The show cuts away from him only to return to Will clutching his rosary while haunted by the ghost of his father. (His father, like Hamlet’s, is a bit of a pill, always yammering on about duty.) It’s hard to square Will’s teeth-gnashing sense of Catholic duty with the freewheeling theater kid he is otherwise.
There are moments of surprisingly nimble comedy — like when Alice has to meet with a potential suitor and his nearly-deaf mother has to shout her advice about fertility across the room, or when Richard learns exactly one line of acting advice and starts using it as a pick-up line. There are also scenes of truly poignant tragedy, such as when a young street rat with a mullet (Lukas Rolfe) has to hide under his sister’s bed while she services a john. But it is bogged down by torture, ghosts, secret congregations, sex parties, and improbable fashion, making for a herky-jerky tonal trip through an unfamiliar time.
All this material is part of the effort to show where Shakespeare got the material to become Shakespeare, and some of it, at least, is quite valid. But Shakespeare the man wasn’t a romantic combination of all of his heroes’ and villains’ plotlines, nor was his life composed of the atmospheres of each of his comedies and tragedies. Like all our great writers, he was above all else an incisive observer of human nature. But our Will, like “Will,” is a bit naive and artless, which only serves to make the flashes of brilliant poetry seem terribly out of place. Lead Davidson, to his credit, plays every note of his character with sincere intensity, and he certainly looks the part of the visionary young poet. But it frequently seems as if the show is convinced it is telling us something new and vital, when it has in fact taken Joseph Fiennes’ lovelorn Will Shakespeare, added Catholic guilt and sex parties, and plopped it into a never-ending punk concert. “Will” could stand to relax a little; it might find it has more fun that way.