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‘Will’ Review: TNT Drama Emphasizes Shakespeare’s Hotness, But Fortunately Has Some Depth

Created by "Moulin Rouge" writer Craig Pearce, the new series is at its best when it celebrates the theater.

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Several months ago, a meme was born: The CW dramedy “Riverdale” was dubbed “Hot Archie Who Fucks” (or “HAWF,” for short) by several fans. It was a fun way of describing how the show brought an irreverent, sexually charged edge to a previously rather innocent Archie Comics icon.

Credit for the nickname is believed to go to film and TV critic Charles Bramesco.

Following on the heels of “HAWF,” the NatGeo series “Genius” soon became known as “Hot Einstein Who Fucks” – thanks to its own deliberately sexual take on the world renowned scientist and pop culture icon. (Both the younger and older versions of Einstein, played by Johnny Flynn and Geoffrey Rush, respectively, got some on screen.)

By New York Times Magazine law, it takes three examples to make it to be a trend, so thank god for TNT’s new drama “Will.” Created by Craig Pearce and directed by Shekhar Kapur, “Will” chronicles a 24-year-old William Shakespeare (played by Laurie Davidson), freshly arrived in London and eager to make a name for himself as a playwright.

Technically, Shakespeare got the HSWF treatment in the Oscar-winning film “Shakespeare in Love,” nearly 20 years ago, but that film wasn’t nearly as fast and loose with soundtrack, costume design, and… well, facts.

Which is fine, actually, as what’s intriguing about giving Shakespeare the HSWF treatment is that very little is actually known about the Bard’s personal life, which is why people tie themselves into knots coming up with theories about him. The basic confirmed aspects of Shakespeare’s life — specifically, his status as a husband and father prior to traveling to London to join the theater — remain unchanged, but “Will” otherwise has a fair amount of fun finding its own take on the narrative. The show adds new characters and digs into the young writer’s artistic struggles, from coming up with ideas for characters and creating compelling narratives that surround them, to handling the pressures of fame and the response of critics.

All of that is compelling and relatable, but “Will” doesn’t seem to think that’s enough for a series. Hence, the new characters (including a tattooed take on Christopher Marlowe that either proves the show’s punk rock aspirations or proves that the make-up artist didn’t have time to cover up Jamie Campbell Bower’s real tats) and plotting.

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The most dramatic and unexpected thing about “Will” is the choice to emphasize his status as a practicing Catholic, which was illegal in England at the time and thus adds additional peril, given how much the government loves butchering people over it. It’s a narrative choice that drags down the spirit of the show a bit, as it’s hard to gush over the bright colors and free-wheeling party vibe when a “Game of Thrones”-level torture scene is just around the corner.

But there is still fun to be had, especially when the action stays inside the theater, filled with boisterous characters passionate and inspired by the words that young unproven Shakespeare makes up out of thin air. Cast-wise, there are a number of stand-outs from this world: William Houston brings incredible energy and range to the role of haunted and hilarious actor Kemp, while Bower’s unhinged Marlowe is fascinating to witness.

And as Alice, whose love affair with Will is described as “star-crossed” (though the stars in this case include the fact that Will is married), Olivia DeJonge has a star quality presence while selling a feminist message that doesn’t feel unnatural to the time period.

In a later episode, actor Richard Burbage (Mattias Inwood) whips out a book of English history, suggesting Will look to it for inspiration. Will resists, saying he wants to come up with his own original ideas, but Richard replies with a line that proves more than a meta: “It’s 1589, Will — it’s all been done. It’s how you do it that counts.”

It’s true that we’ve seen HSWF before, but “Will” does offer up some freshness to that approach — an important reminder that just being “edgy” isn’t enough to propel a show. Sure, it’s fun to see Shakespeare get some; fortunately, “Will” manages to find depth beyond that.

Grade: B+

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