Upstart Crow

⭐⭐⭐½ based on 2 reviews.

tl;dr: Surprisingly funny, intelligent and complex whilst remaining incredibly accessible. A triumph of hubris, humour and historical parody.

Season Two

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

I watched part of season one of Upstart Crow on a plane, which probably wasn't the best environment. I was tired, brain dead and stiff, but still I definitely came away with a general impression of the show being fun, a little more abstract than I had anticipated but ultimately nothing overly special. As a result, we really weren't looking to watch season two, but it popped up in the recommended queue at just the right moment so figured why not. I'm glad we gave it the chance, because either the show has matured substantially or I was just in far worse of a state than I thought on the plane.

In reality, Upstart Crow is a very clever, incredibly British comedy which manages to craft enjoyable storylines out of a very weird concept. On paper, the show is the life story of William Shakespeare as imagined by a 90's sitcom writer. It's full of slightly oddball characters with clearly overemphasised traits, plenty of one-liners and plots which are best described as humorous japes, pushing the boundary of reality just up to the edge of absurdity without quite jumping over. Juxtaposed over the top of this innocuous family comedy, though, is a layer of historical comedy which at times hits genuinely interesting notes and at others is incredibly niche (and I imagine a lot went straight over my head), with jokes about modern interpretations of Shakespeare's works, subtle puns based on conceptual analyses or simply bizarre turns of phrase alluding to highly specific historical events or facts. If that wasn't enough, placed over that is a layer of modern satire, with characters frequently referencing subtly altered modern events, such as the Trump presidency and South West Rail strikes, often through a lens of "how absurd would it be if society ended up doing that". Most are broadly appealing but Upstart Crow doesn't hold back punches on quite divisive issues such as immigration or Brexit, the latter having an extremely damning put down by Shakespeare himself, in no uncertain terms. Add clever use of Shakespearian theatre craft, such as extensive asides or innocuous happen-chance, whilst centring most plots somehow within a specific play from his catalogue, often satirically again, and there is frankly almost too much going on.

Somehow, though, Upstart Crow treads a line so fine you don't even notice it, balancing all of these elements with ease. The writing is excellent, characters are brilliantly developed and the actors are pitch-perfect. The show is genuinely very funny and contains an extremely broad spectrum of humour, from the distinctly cringe-inducing through toilet to extremely high-brow. In many ways, it feels like David Mitchell was placed on Earth purely for the purpose of playing the Poet and life is made far more enjoyable for it.

There are some moments which fall a little flat. Repeat jokes and an increasingly clear formula do make binge-watching a little irritating at times, though their use is infrequent enough to be fine on a weekly basis. Plus, a lot of these mild gripes are relieved in the finale which seems to take aim specifically at one or two of the most repeated concepts and put them to bed permanently. Kate is a fun character who lends a very modern eye to proceedings, allowing free-mocking of the more antiquated trends in Shakespeares works in a way which makes the Poet himself seem less bigoted. But it does get irritating when she asks to be allowed to act and is rebuffed with the "it's illegal" line every single EPISODE! That said, turning that onto itself and allowing her to perform in Romeo and Juliet no less (with a comic twist) during the final episode was a nice nod that this particular plot thread was getting old. Similarly, whilst I love Mark Heap as an actor and think his villainous Greene is brilliant, it was nice to see him getting some comeuppance. I don't doubt that both plot threads will return in a potential season three, but at least they will have shown some level of progression.

Which is to say that I do genuinely hope the show gets a third season. It seems to be fairly well-received critically but I can't help but fear the ratings may not be quite so fantastic. Still, one of the greatest benefits of the BBC is that it doesn't need to worry as much about viewership numbers, and there are plenty of plays left to give the Crow twist so a trilogy isn't completely impossible. Though, even if this is the final curtain call, it was a solid season to go out on and a brilliant final show. Well worth a gander, particularly whilst its on iPlayer.

2020 Special

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

A one-shot return to the Bard in locke downe 😂 For various reasons, the special lacked most of the cast and any formal plot, instead simply presenting a fairly on-the-nose satire of modern British political decision making and pandemic-based living. It's clear the writers and cast had a fair amount of fun coming up with everything, and some of the points were particularly well made. I thought the jokes about Clap for the NHS were pretty on-point, and given the public reaction to the attempted reboot/sequel in lockdown three, it looks like they were also a little prescient. Some other parts, such as the TikTok references, fell flat, but it's a tall order to get smartphone-based gags into a show set in the Middle Ages.

Still, whilst I'd say the actual humour was about a 60/40 split in terms of hit rate, it was good fun watching Mitchell and Whelan just get to play these characters again. Plus, the weaving of Macbeth into the plot was cleverly done and neatly summarised how a lot of people would have been feeling during the lockdowns. As special episodes go, it could have been a lot worse.

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