Shondaland became a premier source of primetime programming because the production company (and its founder, Shonda Rhimes) knows a good TV concept when it sees one. A hospital full of super-attractive doctors who all sleep with each other while tackling interesting cases? Sure. A Washington fixer who knows how to solve any problem? Yep. A law professor who drags her five favorite students into a murder case or two? Totally on board. Shondaland’s track record is so seemingly solid (give or take an Off The Map) that Still Star-Crossed comes as a surprise—and not a good one.
Who’s been wondering about what happens in Verona after the events of William Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet? (Besides Melinda Taub, the author whose book series Still Star-Crossed is based on.) Merely drafting a sequel to a Shakespeare tragedy smacks of tremendous, ill-advised moxie. The premiere episode tries to get us there by kicking off with that famous couple’s wedding, with a sweet-faced Juliet (Clara Rugaard) and an appropriately besotted Romeo (Lucien Laviscount). The long-standing feud between the Montagues and the Capulets is distilled into a lost sword fight here, a stabbing there.
There is also a new cast of Veronans, ably led by Lashana Lynch as Rosaline. She and her sister, Livia (Ebonee Noel), have been cast adrift by their parents’ deaths in what looks like another Montague massacre, so they are grudgingly taken in by Juliet’s family, where they serve as handmaidens to Juliet’s exceptionally bitchy mother (Zuleikha Robinson). There’s a lot of talk about arranged marriages, as Livia just wants to get married, while Rosaline—surprise—wants to hold out for love. After the death of the two famous lovers, however (whose plot is basically delivered in CliffsNotes format: Romeo’s death scene is whittled down to “A kiss…” before he drinks the fatal potion), the rift between the two families is worse than ever. They take up swords just by looking at each other; what is meant to appear as high-stakes combat only comes across as infantile.
To stem the squabbles, Lord Capulet (Anthony Head, whose presence just makes us long for happier times) arranges a marriage between Capulet cousin Rosaline and Montague cousin Benvolio (played by Wade Briggs). You won’t be surprised to learn that Rosaline’s heart belongs to another, or that she and Benvolio have considerable chemistry, even as they plan to stop the wedding while still saving their families… actually you won’t be surprised to hear any of it.
The parts that aren’t rote are just confusing. Why is Princess Isabella so mean to Rosaline, just like Lady Capulet? Why is Lady Capulet tending to the now-alive Count Paris? Most importantly, how in the world are all these people related? Still Star-Crossed needs one of those family trees that accompany historic-romance novels based on royalty. There’s plenty on TV right now for fans of that genre, like the cinema-worthy production of The White Princess or the soapier royal shenanigans of Reign. At least the lineage of those characters is just a Wikipedia search away. Here, the premiere tosses us into the deep end into a significant pool of characters without much help, and even the show’s IMDB page appears flummoxed.
Shondaland productions always excel at casting (with a diversity that many other series would do well to emulate), and this show is no exception, especially with Lynch at the center. She’s a steely, strong handmaiden, obviously unwilling to accept a fate she’s not happy with. And her chemistry with Briggs is particularly steamy. Lynch is such a beacon, in fact, that many of these other Verona cousins and elders just kind of meld into a heap alongside her. While a tad short of The White Princess, the costuming and pageantry of the show is exemplary (even if some of those castle shots look lifted from Once Upon A Time), so it’s lovely to look at, but hard to follow.
And harder still for it to hold your attention. Further episodes will need to amp up something—romance, intrigue, trauma—to grab the audience. But Rhimes knows this rule better than almost anyone. In different hands Still Star-Crossed would likely be an instant goner, but, backed by Shondaland, maybe this show will find a way to mine some captivating drama from such an unlikely source.