It's hard in a short review to touch on all the great qualities of this show, but one moment can serve is microcosm for the wonders of "Slings and Arrows." This occurs about 11:25 into "Vex Not His Ghost". The first rehearsals for "King Lear" and "East Hastings: The Musical" occur on the same day. In one of the series' most brilliant moments, the aging Shakespearian actor Charles Kingman (William Hutt) recounts the tale of Lear to the rest of the assembled cast. Intercut with this, we see the young musical composer Nigel play through "East Hastings" for the musical cast. The complexity of "Lear" plays against the sledgehammer simplicity of "East Hastings," which is (in Nigel's words)"the story of a junkie hooker named Lulu, and her fight to kick the horse." Motifs are set against each other. For example, the choice of Cordelia (flatter her father like her other sisters, or risk everything in telling Lear the truth) is set against the choice of Lulu (use the $2,000 parting gift from a caring stockbroker/john to escape East Hastings, or get higher than she's ever been before). At the end of the Lear retelling, Kingman says "the moral? Well, perhaps you can tell me." The finale of the musical, on the other hand, lays the message on with a trowel: "We don't need the needle, we don't need the needle, we don't need the needle to be free!"
On one level, this is a sharp parody of 'mean streets' musicals like "Rent." That said, one of this series' finest qualities is its ability to avoid blacks and whites. The "East Hastings" plot takes on weight when we learn, in a later episode, that it's based on the story of the Nigel's aunt, a prostitute who died at 42. And if you know the real East Hastings Avenue in Vancouver - a bracingly raw street in one of the world's most beautiful cities - the whole musical plot line carries an extra punch. A microcosm, in these few moments, of what makes "Slings and Arrows" so special. This episode also features Richard's first steps towards becoming a musical producer, as he challenges too-hip director Darren Nichols on Darren's arid approach to directing "East Hastings"; the return of the ghostly Oliver, who starts sitting in on Geoffrey's therapy sessions; and the revelation that Charles Kingman has taken on Lear with Kingman's own mortality weighing heavily upon him. Overall, one of the finest programs in the 18-episode arch of the complete series.