Shonda Rhimes has given us another beautiful, diverse cast
Rosaline is shaping up to be a wonderfully complex heroine
Gorgeous production design and an interesting hook make for slightly higher-class trashy TV
The cast does their best, but even they can’t save the poor pacing and stilted dialogue
Needs to show, not tell, and is way too exposition-reliant
In its premiere, Still Star-Crossed rewrites a classic in the name of drama
ABC’s Still Star-Crossed, the latest venture from Shonda Rhimes production house ShondaLand, and based upon the book of the same name by Melinda Taub, aims to pick up where Shakespeare left off in Verona after the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. However, rather than assume we have much in the way of prior knowledge, the pilot episode spends its first half retracing the final act of Shakespeare’s play, from the doomed lovers’ wedding through to their joint funeral. It is there that Still Star-Crossed goes off-script; a statue of Juliet designed as a peace offering arrives crudely vandalized, and a riot shatters Verona, unlike the tenuous peace suggested at the end of the play.
It is an eventful episode, but much of it is exposition, setting up this new Verona and the unfamiliar faces within. Rosaline (Lashana Lynch) and Livia (Ebonee Noel) Capulet, Juliet’s orphaned cousins, are living a rather bleak, Jane Eyre-esque life as servants in House Capulet. The Prince of Verona dies, leaving the governance of the city to his children Escalus (Sterling Sulieman) and Isabella (Medalion Rahimi). Lord Montague (Grant Bowler), desperate to end the feud, pays Friar Lawrence (Dan Hildebrand) to marry Romeo (Lucien Laviscount) and Juliet (Clara Rugaard). Meanwhile, Lord Capulet (Anthony Head) engages Juliet to nobleman Paris (Torrance Coombs), who later survives a would-be fatal stabbing, and is secretly nursed back to health in Lady Capulet’s (Zuleikha Robinson) basement.
It is chaos, but new Prince Escalus is worldly: he has seen conflicts across Italy and knows his city, divided by a petty feud, could not survive a real threat. In a bid to stabilize Verona, and unaware that Romeo and Juliet were married before their deaths, Escalus convinces Lords Montague and Capulet to marry members of their houses–Romeo’s hard-partying cousin Benvolio (Wade Briggs) and disgraced Capulet Rosaline. Unfortunately, as flashbacks reveal, Rosaline and Escalus have a romantic history interrupted by the death of her parents. She flees the meeting, he follows, they kiss, Benvolio sees the exchange from a balcony, and the episode ends. The scene is laid. It’s a lot to digest, so let’s take a look and see what we can make of it.
That which we call a Rosaline by any other word would smell as sweet.
Rosaline Capulet, our female lead, is ostensibly a new creation for the show (and Melina Taub’s book), but, if she sounds familiar, she is: Shakespearean Rosaline is Romeo’s ex-girlfriend, and he spends about ten minutes whining about her before meeting Juliet at a ball. Fortunately, Still Star-Crossed’s Rosaline doesn’t seem to have any personal history with Romeo (just Prince Escalus), side-stepping an unnecessary potential love triangle. Confusing origins aside, Rosaline is shaping up to be a pretty great heroine, and maybe worth the watch for her alone. Lashana Lynch absolutely kills it with her portrayal, and her Rosaline is tough but vulnerable, hardened but soft-hearted. Her mid-episode confrontation of the cruel Lady Capulet is followed, in private, by a near-breakdown–a hand clapped over her mouth to fight off tears, a few moments of silent sobs and shaky breaths. It’s heartbreaking stuff.
Rosaline: “You do not see the fun of being your own mistress. Of reading your own books, of sleeping in your own bed, of never being at the whim of whichever man happens to be in charge of you.”
Livia: “A man who might love you. Who might want you to be happy.”
Our girl’s had it rough. She’s literally living in a family home as a servant, and lost her parents, love, and one kind cousin to the feud. Understandably, she wants freedom, but her plan is shaky and hypocritical. Apparently, her sister, Livia (no, not Twelfth Night’s Olivia, we checked), needs to marry a man wealthy enough to effectively buy them both out of servitude, so Rosaline can be a nun. It’s a callback to the original play, where Rosaline takes a vow of chastity, effectively breaking up with Romeo. However, it feels out of place here. Apparently, being a nun means being in control of your own life, owing nothing to anyone except yourself and God–all well and good, but Rosaline shames her own sister for wanting marriage. If she wants to help the both of them, of course, she shouldn’t have to marry, but making Livia do all the heavy lifting seems cruel and selfish. But it’s only the first episode, and this whole thing could still turn out to be a really interesting character flaw instead of a writing fault. We’ll just have to wait and see.
For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
We’ve seen a slew of modernized Shakespeare, from 10 Things I Hate About You and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet to the musical Something Rotten and whatever is going on with Emma Rice at the Globe. Usually, though, those adaptations wear their differences loudly, garishly, in leather jackets and neon lights. Still Star-Crossed aims to put itself right into Shakespeare’s Verona, complete with lavish sets, intricate costumes, and slightly questionable CGI, which makes its changes to the story all the more jarring. It seems to say that this is Romeo and Juliet as it always has been, and as it always should be–lush, diverse, passionate. But, rather than telling a new story, half its runtime tells one we already know, only to rip the rug out at the last moment. It doesn’t help that the script relies on old-fashioned, stilted dialogue, which, try as they might, the majority of the cast can’t convincingly sell. This Romeo and Juliet seems caught between loyalty to the Bard and a desire for radical reinvention, which gives it a bit of an identity crisis.
Benvolio: “I’m sure as a serving girl it must thrill you to no end to see the rules of Veronan society flouted before your very eyes.”
Rosaline: “As it happens, my lord, I am both a servant and a Capulet.”
Maybe it’s the pacing. We’re not picking up in the aftermath of the original story, we open right at its end. Except, this time, everything is a little bit different. Friar Lawrence is malicious, Lady Capulet has become a sort of wicked stepmother, Juliet’s loyal nurse is nowhere in sight. It’s not radical enough to feel new, just unsettling. And by lingering on what is effectively a prologue for the series to come, Still Star-Crossed doesn’t even get to its main narrative hook until the very end of the episode, where it comes bombarded by strange flashbacks and poorly choreographed fight sequences. There’s not enough romance to be soapy (we only catch glimpses of Romeo and Juliet), and the action is thin. Conspiracies peek around the edges, but some of them seem uncomfortably shoehorned in. Why is Paris alive? It would’ve been a shame to kill Reign’s Torrance Coombs after a five-minute cameo, but keeping him alive–in secret–in the basement of House Capulet just feels like a weird narrative choice. And, seriously, why is Friar Lawrence so creepy? He’s supposed to be a good guy.
Wisely on slow; they stumble that run fast.
Honestly, the biggest issue with this episode is that it is completely forgettable. There are some really stunning visuals (Juliet’s wedding dress, and chapel, and the joint funerals, and basically anything involving Juliet), and a few moments of personality, mostly from Rosaline, but there are no funny lines, no standout sidekicks, and even perennial ham and one-time drag queen Mercutio (Gregg Chillin) sort of swallows his dying pun in a criminal waste of potential. Even a city-wide riot feels shoehorned in and strangely paced; Lady Capulet just yells and suddenly everyone is killing each other? It’s a bit weird, even for Verona.
“Ask me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” – Mercutio
And poor, poor Benvolio. Wade Briggs is nice to look at, and perfectly competent as the aloof, complaining type, likely to be found in a bar or a brothel avoiding real human contact, but he doesn’t get enough to do. Unlike Rosaline, you never get a good grasp on the male romantic lead, which is probably a setup for later in the season. Still, even saving Rosaline from a would-be predator mid-riot–his best moment this episode–he just looks bewildered and a little bit pissed off. Their dynamic should be barbs and thorns, the sort of passionate hatred that inevitably, begrudgingly gives way to love, but they have negligible chemistry in their little shared screen time. No wonder they both fight their arranged marriage: without any kind of real connection between them, Rosaline and Benvolio will spend the rest of their lives bored.
Final Verdict: Still Star-Crossed delivers a cluttered, exposition-heavy, and ultimately unmemorable pilot
This show has a lot going for it, and a lot to be excited about. It’s effectively high-budget, lavish fanfiction from the people behind some of TV’s coolest, most diverse shows. Other writers have written longer, better pieces on the subject, but Still Star-Crossed’s diversity is phenomenal. The Montagues, Capulets, and ruling families of Verona are all mixed-race (although Medalion Rahimi and Sterling Sulieman as siblings is a bit of a stretch), and Rosaline is a wonderful new leading woman of color. It’s great to see something traditionally seen as old and white and crusty as Shakespeare turned around to reflect the world we actually live in and promote the changing face of television.
It’s just a shame it’s not a better show. Still Star-Crossed isn’t bad, and with only one episode out, it’s got plenty of time to find its footing and prove its worth. The cast is capable and game, the production design, and cinematography is top-notch, and the plot could prove to be a whole lot of fun. It’s been a shaky first outing, bogged down mostly by poor pacing and clunky dialogue, both things easily fixed during the rest of the season. Now that most of the exposition’s out of the way, we can look forwards instead of back.
The most confusing element, however, is one that’ll probably impact the show as a whole: the liberties it takes with Shakespeare’s source material. In playing fast and loose with the original script, it frees up all kinds of possibilities for drama, which may well pay off, but it’s definitely a gamble. If you’re not too up on your Bard, you might not catch a lot of the changes, but, heads up, Paris stays dead, and the Nurse is sort of the best. It’s also kind of a bummer that the whole “classic reinvented” thing feels so half-hearted and noncommittal, like a lot of this episode. If they were going to go for it, they should have gone all in, rather than keeping an almost aggressively traditional setting and dialogue. Good old Will is probably turning over in his grave.
Still, despite all of its flaws, we’re excited to see where this season goes. It’s not a dying, burning, immediate excitement, but we’ll definitely keep watching. We’re only one episode in, after all, and hooked. There’s still loads of time to fix pacing, clean up the edges, and develop characters (if we’d seen everything in the pilot, there wouldn’t be anything left for the season!). If nothing else, Rosaline and the costumes are both really solid reasons to stay on board, and we’ve been given a massive city of people to play with. Once it gains some confidence, there could be a really good show here. Shonda Rhimes knows what she’s doing, and if she’s given Still Star-Crossed her stamp of approval, it’s got ours as well.
Stray thoughts, spare questions.
- Okay but that vandalized statue was really creepy and, honestly, a terrible peace offering.
- They’re clearly all trying their best, but some of the actors’ accents were pretty rough.
- Romeo and Juliet were adorable; hopefully, we get to see some more of them in flashbacks.
- What is Lady Capulet getting up to in the basement, and why is Paris a secret?
- Seriously, what’s up with Friar Lawrence?
- In case it wasn’t painfully obvious, I study literature, so I care a lot about very small things in Shakespeare.
- How does the show stack up so far against the novel it’s based on? Let us know in the comments!
- Shakespeare Quote of the Week: “Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” (Romeo & Juliet, 3.1 97-98) Gotta love Mercutio, making puns until the bitter end.
Still Star-Crossed returns next Monday, June 5, 2017, at 10/9C on ABC.
Still Star-Crossed Review 1×01: “In Fair Verona, Where We Lay Our Scene”