Anyone who’s ever watched a Shonda Rhimes show knows she loves an epic love story that is ultimately dysfunctional (see Olivia and Fitz on Scandal) or tragic (see Meredith and Derek on Grey’s Anatomy). If there are obstacles keeping apart two people destined to be together (like wives, or the Presidency), Rhimes is here for it.
So it’s no surprise that the mega-producer is drawn to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which hits the trifecta of being epic, dysfunctional and tragic. Based on the book of the same name by Melinda Taub, Still Star-Crossed follows what happens after Romeo Montague (Lucien Laviscount) and Juliet Capulet (Clara Rugaard) die. ABC only made the first episode available for review, which is too bad, because the first half of the premiere tells the story we already know. (Raise your hand if you haven’t been subjected to a high school production of Romeo and Juliet.) Although they are from two rival families in Verona, Italy, Juliet and Romeo fall in love and secretly marry. When Juliet’s parents, Lord Silvestro Capulet (Anthony Head) and Lady Guiliana Capulet (Zuleikha Robinson), promise her hand in marriage to another man, Juliet pretends to die. Romeo thinks she’s dead and kills himself. Juliet awakes to find Romeo dead and kills herself. Hey, it isn’t known as one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies for nothing.
It doesn’t seem like ABC has a whole lot of faith in the series: In addition to making only the pilot available to critics, it’s debuting the show the week after May sweeps ends and after The Bachelorette instead of, say, the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy. And, I’ll be honest, it’s hard to review a show when really only the second half tells me how it will proceed.
Juliet’s cousins, Rosaline (Lashana Lynch) and Livia (Ebonee Noel), were taken in by Lord and Lady Capulet after the death of their own parents. But instead of providing a nurturing home for them, Rosaline and Livia were both made servants. Rosaline is devoted to Juliet and the only one who knows of her secret marriage to Romeo. She dreams of independence from the Capulets and the ability to read her own books and sleep in her own bed. Her sister dreams of meeting her own Prince Charming: “I need a rich husband and I’m never going to find him in here,” she laments.
To fix the violent chasm left in the wake of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths, the newly crowned Prince Escalus (Sterling Sulieman) orders the marriage of Rosaline and Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio (Wade Briggs). Rosaline is against this. Not only because she doesn’t love Benvolio, but because she loves another. You’ll probably be able to guess who. Remember, Rhimes loves a good complication.
Much as she did with How to Get Away with Murder, Rhimes has turned showrunner duties on Still Star-Crossed over to one of her protégés, in this case Heather Mitchell, who spent five seasons writing for both Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. Mitchell, who wrote the premiere, clearly learned a lot from Rhimes. The pilot sets up the good guys, the bad guys, and the mystery. An early contender for the character you’ll love to hate is Lady Capulet, who has nothing for contempt for her nieces. When Rosaline tells her aunt that she knows she hates her because her mother married the brother she truly loved, Guilana responds, “Mark my words, sweet Rosaline, the worst is yet to come.”
In addition to secret romances, there’s also a dying man being hidden in the dark underbelly of the castle and a power-hungry princess. Lynch is great as the series’ heroine, and I’ll never complain about getting to see Head on a weekly basis again. The stage, so to speak, is set for an intriguing, costume-infused, swashbuckling period drama. But we’ll need a few more episodes to find out if Still Star-Crossed is a great TV tragedy or just tragic TV.
Still Star-Crossed premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on ABC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .