Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ants, Frogs, Slings and Arrows

The Canadian television drama Slings & Arrows is one of the best things I've seen on the small screen in years. I'm only halfway through the second of its three seasons but am pretty confident that this bold statement of mine will hold for the entire thing. It's a Robertson Davies novel come to life, a backstage and back office look at a fictional Shakespeare festival that makes the latter as exciting and dramatic as the former -- sometimes more so.

The first season sets the stage for the shenanigans in the second that are what has me writing about the show on this blog at five in the morning. The festival's hapless business manager Richard (Mark McKinney) got caught up in a wildly ill-advised affair with a liaison for the festival's major corporate sponsor, with predictably disastrous results; a huge chunk of funding lost, Richard must scramble in the second season to replace that resource and resorts to a loan/grant package that requires the moneys be spent on a "rebranding" effort. This leads him and his festival into the corybantic arms of a bleeding-edge marketing firm, Froghammer, whose operations and front man made me want to run and find William Gibson and whoever has the film rights to his latest trilogy and say "Lookie here! Lookie here! Colm Feore should totally play Hubertus Bigend!!!!!"

Hubertus Bigend, for those who are not fans of Gibson and his three most recent books, Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History, is a post-post-modern, globe-trotting, talent-tapping, zeitgeist-twisting student of the edge, a man with apparently infinite resources and an insatiable hunger for a kind of cool that has yet to be invented. His marketing firm, Blue Ant, runs on pure potential and never-ending capital. Nobody likes him, but no one can avoid him: he is omnipresent in a world that doesn't yet exist, applies forces that don't yet have names; he is a human search engine on a web that no one else can yet perceive. He's the kind of guy who can commission a business suit dyed in International Klein Blue and actually wear it around and pull it off, not because it looks good on him (though he is handsome in his creepy way; as he is described in Pattern Recognition, he "looks like Tom Cruise on a diet of virgins' blood and truffled chocolates"), but because he's just that guy.

He's an arresting and slightly terrifying figure, and he's probably the most vivid and memorable and deeply idiosyncratic character in 21st Century literature so far.

So imagine my howls of recognition when Slings & Arrows took me to the offices of Froghammer, Blue Ant with a vigorous dance soundtrack in place of the dreamy electronic/ambient I imagine plays in the background at Blue Ant. Sanjay is Toronto's Bigend, thinking wildly outside the box, shuffling resources for the sake of shuffling them ("Let's go see if we can find where the conference room is today!" he shouts to Richard before bounding off on that quest) and creating a truly outrageous ad campaign for the festival: the first phase mocks its subscriber base as a bunch of old fogeys with one foot in the grave and a tagline that says "Don't bother" (see above); the second selects choice remarks from the worst reviews the festival's performances have ever gotten and plasters them on billboards. It's reverse psychology, meant to piss off the festival's traditional base, generate adverse publicity and create unbeatable mind share in its new target audience of younger people who don't make plans, who attend things on impulse and who don't want to be bored -- not quite a Blue Ant strategy, but rather a long way from Mad Men -- and I look forward to seeing if it pays off as I expect it to.

Midway through Season 2 as I am, I've just seen another way in which Sanjay differs from Bigend in that Sanjay is an actual charlatan, a professional imposter, while Bigend just feels simultaneously too good and too bad to be true, but even with that divergence I still say Feore's performance and the role he plays here constitutes one giant audition reel for the part of Hubertus Bigend if ever film adaptations of Gibson's books see a green light.

Why I didn't think of this before and on my own, I cannot say, but at this hour, coming up on 6 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, it's all I can think about -- which is also very Blue Ant, isn't it?

And now I'm off to watch some more episodes of Slings & Arrows. You should, too, if you haven't. It's the best argument I've found in a very long time for continuing to keep a glass teat in my home.

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