Shonda Rhimes is at it again. ShondaLand, the production company Rhimes created to produce her hit shows HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, SCANDAL, and the ever-popular GREY’S ANATOMY is at it again with an interesting new offering: the ABC drama STILL STAR-CROSSED.
STILL STAR-CROSSED is based on a young adult novel of the same name written by Melinda Taub. It picks up after the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet and explores what might have happened in Verona after the wild events that occur in the play.
The show is an interesting take on an enormously well-known story, which is a risk in and of itself. It would be easy for STILL STAR-CROSSED to fall flat or blend into the miasma of young adult shows on TV. Instead, STILL STAR-CROSSED provides a new way to look at both the bloated teen drama genre and the most famous love story of all.
In Fair Verona Where We Lay Our Scene
I was so pumped when I heard that there was going to be a new show based on Romeo and Juliet. I’ll be honest — I’m a huge Shakespeare nerd. I just wrote a 100-page thesis on Shakespeare. But, Romeo and Juliet? Not the man’s best work. It’s a teenage drama where everyone is angsty, and a lot of people die. That is something most people don’t think about — a lot of people die. Not just Romeo and Juliet.
And let’s be honest, there have been too. many. adaptations of Romeo and Juliet. Let’s just all accept the Leonardo DiCaprio version and move on. But a new story? A look behind the scenes, a focus on other characters and other stories, giving viewers something new to dive into? That sounds awesome.
Does it stand up to this excitement though? Let’s break it down:
Romeo and Juliet Are Idiots
Romeo and Juliet, in the original play, are pretty stupid. They’re whiny teenagers who take a crush way too far. Did you know that Juliet is 13? Romeo is not much older; both are pretty overdramatic standard-fare teenagers. Not something that people think about when they talk about the “greatest love story ever.”
STILL STAR-CROSSED does not back down from this. Juliet is shown as a teenager. She may not be 13 (the actress playing her is not), but she is still very young. She is also shown as perhaps not making the best decisions. Romeo is a little better, but he makes some very awful decisions based on what appear to be hormone-fueled fits. Most importantly, neither of them is even the main character.
Enter Rosaline Capulet, the newly created character who serves as the focal point for the show. Rosaline is Juliet’s elder cousin. Her mother is the sister of Juliet’s father. When Rosaline’s parents died, Lord Capulet wanted to take her and her sister Livia in. However, due to some as-of-yet unexplained drama, Lady Capulet hates Rosaline and Livia. She agrees to take them in but keeps them as unpaid servants. Rosaline’s life begins to resemble a Shakespearean Cinderella.
Rosaline serves as a foil to Juliet’s impulsiveness. She’s been through a lot of trauma in her life, so she’s more hesitant. She openly proclaims her disapproval of the secret wedding. However, she’s loyal to her cousin and does everything to help her. Rosaline is fascinating, and I’m dying to know more of her backstory.
If Rosaline is a pseudo-Cinderella, then she needs a prince, right? Prince Escalus is the leader of Verona. Rosaline knew him and his sister Isabella at court when she was younger. Before the death of her parents, she was nobility. She was also eligible. There appears to have been a courtship between her and Escalus in the past that is haunting their present.
Escalus inherits the title at the very beginning of the show, and he’s still very young. Worse, he hasn’t been in Verona in years. He doesn’t necessarily see the value of following his father’s edicts. Luckily (or perhaps unluckily) he has Isabella to keep him grounded. She’s been in Verona, and she knows that the city is on a precipice.
The feud between the Montagues and Capulets is getting out of hand. The marriage of Romeo and Juliet was supposed to remedy this; it was apparently orchestrated by Lord Montague, who intended for Juliet to bear the Montague heir. When the marriage ends in death, the two families up the ante on their feud.
The streets are filled with fighting and fire. Verona threatens to fall apart at any moment, and the neighboring countries are lined up to pick at its corpse. Escalus is forced to make a choice. If the Montagues and Capulets can be bound in marriage once, then maybe it can work again. Unfortunately, this means forcing Rosaline into marrying Benvolio Montague.
Rosaline is having none of that, thank you very much. She storms out; Escalus follows her; they kiss. The episode ends with a lot still up in the air — where will we go next week?
There are some excellent things about this show. Rosaline is excellent. She does risk straying into self-righteousness at times, but she stands up for herself and her sister, and she’s not going to be cowed by anyone. When Lady Capulet threatens to make her life even more miserable, she plans to run away. A summons only stops her to the palace, where she learns of her impending marriage, and even then stands up for herself and her convictions.
Benvolio is also interesting. There is some backstory to his relationship to the Montagues that promises interesting storylines to come. Lord Montague hates him, but with the death of Romeo, Benvolio is his only heir. Benvolio is equally opposed to the marriage, and it looks like he and Rosaline will be teaming up to fight for their freedoms. I’ve seen enough teen drama to see where this is going… let’s just hope they explore the romance in a new way.
The casting is also excellent. Often, historical dramas use the argument for “historical accuracy” to justify entirely white casts. This is not the case with STILL STAR-CROSSED. African-American actress Lashana Lynch plays Rosaline. Other characters are played by people of color, including Romeo and Prince Escalus. This means that the show is presenting African-American male actors as romantic interests; while this isn’t entirely unprecedented, it’s still worth noticing in today’s TV landscape.
Even more interesting is the fact that Juliet and Benvolio are white; the show does not shy away from interracial relationships. It’s exciting to see such a diverse cast in any TV show, but more so in a teen drama sort of show. This not only makes STILL STAR-CROSSED stand out in a crowd but normalizes interracial relationships for young viewers.
This diversity is even more important when you consider the source material; Shakespeare’s plays were notorious for using blackface and preying on negative racial stereotypes. STILL STAR-CROSSED shows a different view of racial diversity in the Renaissance.
It is still Romeo and Juliet. It is still a teen-y drama. There’s a lot of angst. It seems like there is a love triangle in the making with Rosaline forced to choose between Escalus and Benvolio. I’m hoping that further developments keep this from being a stale reminder of all the other love triangles (Team Benvolio does not have quite the same ring…). Benvolio does have teen-y heartthrob hair, too.
The show does also feel a bit reminiscent of other historical dramas like THE TUDORS or REIGN. This is a genre that’s pretty big right now and doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon, so it’s only natural that any show would seek to capitalize on that popularity. STILL STAR-CROSSED still feels fresh, but it is only one episode in. With time, this show may fall into genre traps that make it blend back in with that crowd.
STILL STAR-CROSSED is a show that could be terrible… but shows signs of being good.
A diverse cast, a strong female lead (that is not a Strong Female Character), and an interesting take on an old story point toward this show being able to stand out in a crowded field. It could go either way at this point, but I’ll still be watching next week.
STILL STAR-CROSSED airs on ABC Monday nights at 10PM.