If there's one person who ABC needs to seriously thank, it's producer/director/writer Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes has dominion over an entire night of programming, and she continues to pump out successful TV shows like it's her job (it is). The next show to come from the Grey's Anatomy and Scandal creator is Still Star-Crossed, a sequel series to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. And while this concept is an exciting one that could have resulted in a critical darling, the actual execution for the pilot left much to be desired.
Created for TV by Shondaland writer Heather Mitchell, Still Star-Crossed revolves around the characters and places left behind after Romeo and Juliet take their own lives in the iconic Shakespeare play. We are once again returned to the city of Verona, which is in utter chaos due to the Capulet/Montague civil war. But when Prince Escalus (Sterling Sulieman) takes the crown after his father dies, he attempts to quell public unrest by having the families joined in matrimony. As a result, he tasks Juliet's cousin Rosaline (Lashana Lynch) with marrying Romeo's cousin Benvolio (Wade Briggs) in order to establish peace within the city. But Escalus and Rosaline have their own history, creating an unlikely love triangle that could destroy the city. What follows is a medieval political drama mixed with unrequited love and a touch of Shakespeare. Sounds like a win, no?
If you've taken high school english, you should know the characters and overall plot fairly well. But Still Star-Crossed does add a few dimensions to make it wholly unique. To start, the characters aren't speaking in prose, which is probably a good thing considering they're on primetime. Additionally, color blind casting was used when assembling the large ensemble of Shakespearean characters, allowing for a more modern and inclusive feel for the period piece. And while the cast is dressed in medieval costumes, their hair styling and makeup are contemporary as well. This aspect adds a strange juxtaposition to the series, but will hopefully result in Still Star-Crossed series being more relatable for modern audiences.
The large ensemble cast is a mixed bag in regards to performance. While series lead Lashana Lynch is captivating and powerful as Rosaline, Lost alum Zuleikha Robinson walks the line between intensity and overacting as Lady Capulet. But considering the character just lost her teenage daughter to apparent suicide, I suppose we can give her a break. Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan favorite Anthony Head portrays Lord Capulet with severity one would assume, although he seems softer than the crazypants character from Shakespeare's play. Strangely enough it is Juliet herself (Clara Rugaard) who gives one of the best performances, although obviously she'll presumably only be returning to the series in flashbacks from this point forward.
Unfortunately, much of Still Star-Crossed's premiere is a bit of a mess (although this is common for pilot episodes). This is likely due to the massive amount of exposition that creator and writer Heather Mitchell was tasked with cramming into the 45 minute episode. Not everyone in the audience will remember Romeo and Juliet that well, so most of the rather long play was forced into the narrative of the first episode. Indeed, viewers will find that you'll watch literally half of the episode before Romeo and Juliet finally bite the dust. That time is largely spent making us fall in love with the duo, which is big waste of time since they're not actually the stars of the series.
And the more original characters and situations don't suffer an easier fate, either. Certain plot points are introduced, only to be immediately contradicted. One of the first scenes revolve around how Prince Escalus' late father recently made murder illegal in Verona; anyone who is convicted of murder will be promptly hanged. But when a riot starts in Court, Escalus ends up plunging his sword into an enemy to save Rosaline's life. So he basically broke the law he's tasked with upholding, as is did everyone involved said riot. Additionally, there is a debate as to whether or not Romeo's murder of Juliet's cousin Tybalt should result in his hanging, which is pointless since we already know he's going to bite the bullet any minute. It's all a bit garbled and strange.
Still Star-Crossed is actually an adaptation of the novel of the same name, written by novelist Melinda Taub. Both the novel and the TV show's producers (led by Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers, and Heather Mitchell) take serious creative liberties with Shakespeare's play, which may infuriate the more read consumer. For instance, the show's protagonist Rosaline is actually mentioned quite a bit in Romeo and Juliet's first few scenes. Romeo was very much in love with her before meeting Juliet, but this connection isn't addressed in the series. Instead, we see that Rosaline and Escalus actually have their own past. This probably makes for more plot possibilities, but The Bard would not be happy. Additionally, Rosaline serves as Juliet's confidante while she's alive, instead of The Nurse. Nurse is actually in the show played by series regular Susan Wooldridge, so perhaps this will be addressed in future episodes.
It should be interesting to see how Still Star-Crossed functions once its free from the pages of exposition that are originally required. TV pilots are usually a bit rough, so the show could very well improve with time. Shonda Rhimes is the queen of primetime drama, so I'm sure we can expect plenty of twists, turns, and sex scenes in the future. As long as ABC and its audience give the series a future, that is.
You can watch Still Star-Crossed on Monday nights on ABC, starting on May 29, at 10:00 p.m. ET.