Romantic tragedies abound Monday night on ABC when the “Romeo and Juliet” sequel “Still Star-Crossed” premieres directly after “The Bachelorette.”
Adapted from a book of the same name by Melinda Taub, the Elizabethan period drama picks up where Shakespeare’s left off.
The Capulet-Montague feud that drove the two young lovers to take their own lives is now igniting a civil war in the city of Verona. The only hope for peace, ironically, lies in yet another Capulet-Montague relationship, this one between two young people who can’t stand each other but must put aside the idea of a marriage rooted in love to unite their families and city.
If it sounds like a wonderfully simple premise for a new series rooted in a cherished classic, it’s not. On the contrary, it’s a heavy lift, even for Shonda Rhimes.
Producer Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal”) and writer-producer Heather Mitchell (“Scandal”) have too many characters to deal with here, and too much history to unravel, before the real story kicks in.
The first episode (all that was released for review) feels like cramming for a midterm rather than easing into a new series you may or may not want to commit to, given the dozens of other shows vying for your attention.
In “Still Star-Crossed,” Romeo and Juliet are alive for the first half of episode one. That means viewers who have forgotten their Shakespeare basics are afforded a quick crash course in the forbidden relationship between the lovers and their warring families.
Still, the primer doesn’t help clear up a story that is so dense and confusing from the outset it often smothers the performances of a large cast that, with few exceptions, doesn’t seem all that dynamic in the first place. The time and effort would have been better spent underpinning the narratives of the living characters — those tasked with carrying Season 1 forward.
The story they tell, as best I could tell, goes something like this:
The vitriol and hatred between Lord and Lady Capulet (Anthony Head and Zuleikha Robinson) and Lord Montague (Grant Bowler) has spread to the streets since their beloved children were found dead. Cousins, distant relations and apparently anyone with a sword has now taken to slashing their way toward…. Well, It’s unclear if they even know what the endgame is.
But there’s a possible solution to the chaos. Prince Escalus (Sterling Sulieman), who has taken over in the wake of his father’s death, decides the best way to get his city under control again is to join the sparring families in royally sanctioned matrimony. The unfortunate souls he has chosen to take a hit for Team Verona are Juliet’s cousin Rosaline (Lashana Lynch) and Romeo’s cousin Benvolio (Wade Briggs).
But even this planned union has tragedy written all over it. That’s because Rosaline and Escalus were once in love before they were split apart by forces Escalus claims were beyond his control. The heat is still there, but who will end up getting burned?
The setting is beautiful (director Michael Offer shot much if the show in Spain): a cityscape complete with gleaming spires, rustic town squares, Moor-influenced marketplaces and ornate churches.
The backdrop is complemented by the cast’s stunning wardrobe: lots of velvety royal blues and purples. In love and fight scenes, the shimmering gold brocade vests and leather are the stars.
If only the characters and dialogue were as notable.
The most interesting aspect is colorblind casting, in which family members of different races need no explanation, or relationships between brown and white characters aren’t contested because of race. (Family name? That’s another matter).
They speak in 21st century dialect, likely an intentional move to help modern audiences engage, with occasional bits and pieces of Shakespearean-like verse dropped in for good measure. But the mix-and-match dialogue has the opposite effect of helping non-theater majors assimilate. It’s awkward and distracts from an already hard-to-follow story.
The performances here are also often buried under the dense narrative, not to mention way too many perfunctory sword fights. Still, newcomer Medalion Rahimi (Princess Isabella) and her fictional brother played by Sulieman do manage to make an impression despite the difficult circumstances.
Yet parting with “Still Star-Crossed” after one episode isn’t likely to bring sweet sorrow, but rather the relief of a tragedy averted.
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-DV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and violence)