'Will' puts fresh spin on young Shakespeare saga

Laurie Davidson in TNT's 'Will'

(CNN)The little-known details of Shakespeare's life have already birthed the Oscar-winning movie "Shakespeare in Love," and even though that was two decades ago, one might think there's not much more to say. "Will," however, adds an intriguing chapter to the bard's legend, in a TNT series that presents him as a young man breathing in fame's first intoxicating fumes.

"I can't spend the rest of my life making gloves," a mid-20s Will (Laurie Davidson) says before leaving Stratford-upon-Avon and his wife and children behind in 1589, eager to pursue his theatrical career in the big city, where he arrives to the strains of the Clash's "London Calling." (The contemporary music is a slightly pandering touch that takes a bit of getting used to.)
Aside from his creative dreams, Will also comes to town with a secret mission, carrying a clandestine message for his cousin, a leader to Catholics subjected to persecution by England's Protestant government.
Meanwhile, the young playwright stumbles into an acting company in desperate and sudden need of a hit, while immediately being drawn to the proprietor's daughter (Olivia DeJonge), whose own artistic ambitions are blunted by the societal mores of the time.
    Shakespeare also finds a sort-of champion in established and celebrated writer Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower), although there's a bit of a Mozart-Salieri aspect to their relationship, with Marlowe's admiration tied to a bout of writer's block as he wades into lustful indulgences and distractions.
    There's a lot going on -- perhaps too much -- in the early going. That includes a good deal of rather gruesome torture scenes, as a sadistic inquisitor (Ewen Bremner) seeks to unearth information about Catholics, placing Will in fairly constant jeopardy, and giving those squeamish about medieval barbarism cause to think twice about tuning in.
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    Written by Craig Pearce, whose credits include the 1996 Baz Luhrmann movie "Romeo + Juliet," "Will" -- which has bounced around for years as a concept -- can get a trifle carried away with the rock-star parallels of this 16th-century drama.
    Still, the series gets progressively better as it gradually fleshes out its cast of players, including Colm Meaney as the theater's founder, who puts an early but recognizable spin on the notion of prioritizing commerce over art; and an assortment of colorful actors, who haven't become any less needy, for these purposes, in the last half-millennium.
    Because there are gaping holes in what's known about Shakespeare during these years, the producers have plenty of license to explore. The key adhesive is surely Shakespeare's writing, and while one needn't be able to quote his plays at length to appreciate the process as he wrestles with them, that certainly couldn't hurt.
    "Will" uses this dense, bawdy backdrop to create a highly stylized world, as its namesake receives a sometimes-harsh education in life and love that will inevitably inform his genius. Or more simply, if you're in the market for a slightly different take on a historical costume drama, this TNT show just might be the thing.
    "Will" premieres July 10 at 9 p.m. on TNT. Like CNN, TNT is a unit of Turner Broadcasting.