It’s ironic that Shonda Rhimes’ “Still Star-Crossed,” a show where crucial plot points turn on marriage, is being told by a diverse cast of actors. It highlights the ways in which marriage is traditionally used to increase power for one or both members of the couple. The Prince, the Montagues and Capulets are all very clear about what they stand to gain by the proverbial joining of two hands. Marriage in the “Still Star-Crossed” universe is a mere means to an end for the most powerful citizens in fair Verona and this is well… awesome! The point is not marriage itself per se but that the show, because of the intersection of history, race, and geography forces the viewer to think. Concepts such as marriage and blood ties embody new complexity when viewed through this lens. That marriage is a vehicle for the amassing of power for instance, hints at an important social truth about the roots of intransigent attitudes against interracial marriage in American culture.
“Still Star-Crossed” is also a standout and unfortunately, a rarity, in that it has given all of its female characters their own agency, their own motivations independent of male romantic partners. It’s especially poignant given the youthfulness of the characters. Rosaline, her sister Livia, her old friend Princess Isabella, Lady Capulet, even now-dead Juliet, all had very clear motivations stemming from their own emotional needs. Although Shonda Rhimes’ shows routinely showcase brilliant and complex female characters, much of what they do centers on men, especially “Scandal” and the long-running “Grey’s Anatomy.” “Still Star-Crossed” manages to deliver on romance while keeping a laser focus on the dreams, desires, aspirations, and preoccupations of the female characters even when they long, as Livia does for a traditional female role. Rosaline, the main character represents what perhaps would have been the feminist of her medieval day. Who would have thought a Shonda Rhimes show, known for over-the-top drama could also be so quietly subversive? Even “Game of Thrones,” with its plethora of female central characters can’t boast the same. Instead, seemingly strong, independent female characters end up being subtly circumscribed by the male characters whether they be lovers, advisers, or family members. “Still Star-Crossed” has achieved quite the feminist coup.
Speaking of Rosaline, her conflicts with the people in her life, make her one of the strongest female characters on television right now. Rosaline has clashed with every member of her family thus far, her love interest the Prince, and her best friend Isabella who happens to be the Prince’s sister. That isn’t to mention her palpable dislike for her fiance by fiat, Benvolio. He inevitably manages to elicit GIF worthy reactions from Rosaline whenever she is in his proximity. Still, Rosaline manages to stand up for herself without becoming a shrew or resorting to cheap theatrics. This takes us to another reason to watch this show; the conflict between Rosaline and Benvolio. Neither one of them wants to marry the other and they aren’t shy about letting each other and the world know, peace in Verona be damned. However, the chemistry between the characters is off the charts and their scenes together are electric. The thing is, Rosaline and Benvolio are more alike than they would like to admit. They are both rebels committed to individual freedom. Rosaline hates Benvolio but doesn’t know him. To add to the intrigue, there is a burgeoning love triangle situation happening. Prince Escalus represents the other sixty degrees. Rosaline actually loves Prince Escalus but it is increasingly clear that she doesn’t know him either. To her shock and utter bewilderment, he is the one who has demanded that she marry the detested Benvolio. It will be interesting to see how the characters evolve as newly crowned Prince Escalus continues to grow into his role as ruler of Verona and the scales fall from strong-willed Rosaline’s perhaps puppy love blinded eyes.
Then there is the obvious. This show expands history for audiences in a fun and engaging way. It brings to the fore that there were black people in Europe during the medieval ages. There is even evidence of pre-Renaissance existence of blacks in the Americas as well. There is hardly any time or space devoted to this aspect of history in traditional history courses from elementary through high school. It is said that history is written by the victors, so here, “Still Star Crossed” continues to slay at the subversion thing. Without calling attention to it, the show has refocused the lens of history. It illustrates that blacks were contributors to history in roles other than simply as servants or slaves. If anything, they were discriminated against as foreigners, not because of the color of their skin. Strong evidence of a black presence in Europe during the medieval era can be found in artwork from that period. Indisputably, blacks were part of the social landscape then. It is a well documented, if not well known fact that at least one member of the powerful Medici family was black. “Still Star Crossed” goes even further and indicates that in many households, there were white servants as well as black servants and they all had the same social status. This was also the case in the US prior to the onset of laws beginning around 1640, that incrementally and increasingly limited the rights of blacks.
Another big plus for “Still Star Crossed” is the sisterhood between Rosaline and Livia. The scenes between them crackle and the two actresses convey much sisterly affection as well as sisterly aggravation even when they say nothing. Rosaline is highly protective of her little sister and Livia obviously has enormous respect and admiration for her big Sis. They possess in an incredibly strong familial bond perhaps strengthened by the abrupt and tragic losses of both parents and their social status at a relatively young age. The viewer feels their love for each other and their status as outsiders. It is surprisingly rare to see dramatizations of sibling relationships especially done with as much depth as in this program.
All of the above being said, “Still Star Crossed” is also well-acted. Most of the actors have been acting since childhood and/or trained at prestigious drama schools and it shows in the quality of their performances. In terms of the performances, it gives the actors as well as the audience the chance to see a different, more nuanced approach to the craft than we are used to seeing on dramas with complex relationships. The show is also well written, and flush with lavish costumes of the era. Filmed on location in several cities in Spain, it gives a very authentic old-Europe feel that a studio set would be hard-pressed to rival.
“Still Star Crossed” airs Monday nights at 10/9c on ABC.
Find Nadine Matthews on Twitter at @deeniemedia.