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Still Star Crossed

Review: Still Star-Crossed 1×1 (US: ABC)

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, ABC

I know what you’re thinking. “Thank Christ for that! At last! A sequel to Romeo and Juliet! I so wanted to know what happened to everyone else at the end of that. Not Romeo and Juliet, obviously, because they’re dead.”

Thankfully, after a few mere centuries of waiting, here we are, all braced to find out what happened to the supporting cast of one Shakespeare’s finest thanks to Still Star-Crossed, an adaptation of Melinda Taub’s book of the same name. Will it be war between the Montagues and the Capulets? Does Rosaline, Juliet’s serving girl, get married and live happily ever after, preferably not to a Capulet? Did Romeo really manage to kill Paris? And what will happen to Friar Laurence, the narrator of the play and the bloke who gave Juliet that pesky potion that caused this story of woe?

By the end of the first episode, though, if I’d ever wanted to know the answers to those questions – and I’m not sure I did – I’d definitely lost all interest in finding them out because Still Star-Crossed is desperately dull. Strangely, it’s a bit hard to work out where it’s going so horribly wrong, but it quite definitely is.

The script itself isn’t that awful. While expecting Shakespeare is an error, of course, it follows the original play for about half its runtime and when it tries to be original itself, it’s reasonably well plotted, if soapy, with intrigue, war, covert love affairs, sibling rivalry and mean step-mothers/aunts/employers aplenty. The dialogue’s a bit ropey and cod Jane Austen, but nothing too shocking – although, oddly, no one thought to half-inch much from Shakespeare himself, à la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I can’t help feeling that catholics living in Italy during the Middle Ages would be less likely to have mass sword-fights inside cathedrals than depicted, but history will almost certainly provide dozens examples to disprove me, I’m sure.

Production values are okay. The show’s gone to the effort of filming in Spain, rather than Sacramento, and in lots of lovely old towns at that, so at least it looks reasonably the part. If a bit autumnal. And Spanish, not Italian. Where it needs more help to look Veronese, there’s plenty of background CGI, albeit quite obvious, cheap background CGI. Everyone gets decent enough wardrobe and set dressing. It looks a bit too clean to be properly medieval and has a touch of The Musketeers about it at times, but it still looks 100 times more authentic than the average Renaissance Fair, say.

Direction is… average. There are the occasional nods to Baz Luhrmann’s visually exciting and innovative Romeo + Juliet, but for the most part, it’s competent and workmanlike, albeit more intent on showing off the nice interior decor than it is on thrilling us.

The cast of almost entirely English actors is pretty and not too hammy. Anthony Head (playing Lord Silvestro Capulet) is the obvious stand-out who knows what he’s doing and can do all this with his eyes shut. Everyone else is either concentrating a bit too hard on the dialogue, not hitting anyone else too hard with their swords or blinking in disbelief that they’ve been cast in this – to the show’s credit and taking its cue from modern theatre, at least half the main cast are black, with a few pasty white Brits making no effort whatsoever to sound Italian (if realism is your worry) making up the rest of the numbers.

They’re just nothing that wrong with any of its components. By rights, it should be a perfectly average piece of US TV that passes the time oddly, and certainly no worse than Outlander does, for example. Yet, it’s impressively uninvolving, with no character to really care about, action scenes that go through all the motions of period action scenes without evoking even the slightest thrill, and illicit romances and jealousies that have all the piquancy of an end-of-year profit and loss reconciliation meeting.

Who, what, where, why? I just didn’t care. And you won’t either.

Here’s a trailer. A plague on both the houses of whomever thought “where this tragedy ends… an even greater story begins” was a good idea.

The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of 2

Third-episode verdict: Downward Dog (US: ABC)

In the US: Tuesdays, 8/7c, ABC

I have to admit that despite expectations, I’m actually quite enjoying Downward Dog, ABC’s new comedy in which a dog comments on his and his owner (Fargo‘s Allison Tolman)’s lives together as though he’s speaking to his therapist. After all, it’s a mid-season, ABC show involving a talking dog.

But despite that unpromising scenario, it’s proving to be a lot smarter and a lot more grown-up than I’d expected. While the show obviously has a talking dog, it’s still a dog, not a pseudo-man, so its concerns and understanding of the world are pretty much a dog’s concerns and understanding of the world, rather than a Garfield-like commentary on life and obsession with lasagne.

In episode two, does he understand that the magnet tied to his collar operates some machinery that opens the dog flap? No, he thinks he has powerful mental powers and we follow his mental processes as he tries to understand that (“Maybe I made that old monkey friend of mine who kept saying ‘I love you’ say it with my mind, too”). Episode three sees him trying to deal with the staggering revelation that his beloved owner goes to work where she spends time with other people; feeling neglected, he contemplates an emotional affair with someone else who gets him, but when his new ‘owner’ turns out to be the kind of person who throws a ball for him to chase after but secretly keeps it in his hand, he realises the value of his existing relationship.

While that offers plenty of fun and actually some real pathos at times (that was just something in my eye, honest), the show is still more about Tolman than the dog and offers something more like a serial drama than a comedy. It’s about her struggles at work with her clueless boss, his struggles with his own cluelessness and her ongoing relationship with her ex-boyfriend. Or is he her ex – is it something more? Here, there are genuine adult issues and emotional nuances being explored, ranging from how to balance all the contributions in a working team through how to deal with workplace seniority struggles through to wondering if you and your partners’ goals are the same, whether you’re growing up at the same speed, whether what you have in common is really what you have in common and more. There’s nothing here that more powerful, straight dramas haven’t covered, of course, but compared to the eternal childhood of Imaginary Mary, Downward Dog is impressively emotionally literate.

Despite its name, Downward Dog is ultimately a very warm, very human show about human concerns. It’s rarely laugh-out loud funny, but its wry humour is never far away and its take on dog psychology is hugely fun. Not necessarily a show to deliberately seek out, but you’ll probably enjoy it if you ever catch it.

Barrometer rating: 2

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