With all the “Desperate Housewives,” “Swamp Trash,” “Paranormal Gluttons” and “Jersey Shore Women Behind Bars” shows that fill the daily cable-TV lineup, it’s hard to believe when people talk about the quality of today’s television being better than ever. Better, even, than movies.
But let me make the case. HBO have given us “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Six Feet Under” and “Game of Thrones.” Showtime? “Dexter,” “Weeds” and “Queer As Folk.” AMC? “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead.” And SyFy, “Battlestar Galactica.” Even network television has, on occasion, littered its schedule with a few quality views: NBC gave us “The West Wing,” Fox “Friday Night Lights,” ABC “Lost.” And that’s only a sampling.
One of the names most associated with imaginative TV material is Joss Whedon, the creator-writer-producer-director who made his original creation “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” into a metaphor both for high-school anxiety and female empowerment. He followed with such series as “Angel,” “Firefly” and “Dollhouse” before turning to movies: “Serenity” – which continued the “Firefly storyline – the horror satire “The Cabin in the Woods” and, in his biggest venture to date, the 2012 superhero blockbuster “The Avengers.”
It was while taking a break from his “Avengers” post-production duties that Whedon did something unusual, if hardly out of character: He used his 12 days off to film an updated version of Shakespeare’s comedy “Much Ado About Nothing,” which focuses on a pair of star-crossed lovers, Benedick and Beatrice, whose affections for each other are too mixed up with their respective wits and tendencies allow them to trust that base emotion called love.
Yet when Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, visits the house of Leonato, the governor of Messina, the prince’s companion Claudio falls for Leonato’s daughter Hero. And as preparations get under way in short order for marriage between the young lovers, the household conspires to trick Benedick and Beatrice into discovering, and revealing, their own mutual love. And even through the attendant intrigues, wrought by the prince’s resentful brother, one thing remains clear: All will end happily in Shakespeare’s comic world.
And Whedon’s world as well, despite how different his version is from the 1993 Kenneth Branagh film. Whereas Branagh followed a more traditional interpretation, setting the play in 16th-century Sicily and casting a mixed bag of British and American actors, Whedon sets his version in contemporary America (the movie, shot in a glowing back and white, was filmed in Whedon’s own Santa Monica, Calif., house). And he uses a cast of little- or unknown actors – several of whom have appeared on Whedon-produced TV shows.
The result, for those accustomed to hearing Shakespeare’s dialogue rendered with British accents, may feel a bit jarring at first. But just as the story, and its intrigues, gradually become clear, so the accents quickly become a non-issue. Spoken by actors with the talent of Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, Clark Gregg as Leonato, Amy Acker as Beatrice and “Firefly” star Nathan Fillion as the malapropism-machine Constable Dogberry, Whedon’s take on Shakespeare plays far better than what it might have become: a bored filmmaker’s vanity project.
It feels like a true tribute to the English language’s greatest playwright. I can’t wait until I can see it again – on my television.