Based on Melinda Taub’s book of the same name, Still Star-Crossed drops viewers into the world of Romeo and Juliet right before things get tragic. Showrunner and frequent Shonda Rhimes collaborator Heather Mitchell crams plenty into the pilot of this Shakespearean sequel, but she leaves little room for her own world building. The episode reintroduces us to the familiar 16th-century feud-laden Italian city of Verona, where Romeo Montague (Lucien Laviscount) and Juliet Capulet (Clara Rugaard) are in love and alive—but not for long. The show’s title refers to the legacy of connection and conflict between their families that continues in the wake of their deaths. But before it can explore that legacy, Still Star-Crossed first parades the plot points and cast of expendable characters from the latter half of its source material.
Mitchell makes an all too earnest attempt to compress the last three acts of Romeo and Juliet into the pilot’s first half, so what should feel like an affecting setup instead plays out like an amateur theater troupe haphazardly riffing on the Bard at a one-act festival: Tybalt (Shazad Latif) plunges a sword into Mercutio (Gregg Chillin); Romeo plunges a sword into Tybalt and goes into hiding; and Juliet doesn’t know what to do about not wanting to marry Paris (Torrance Coombs). All the familiar boxes are checked off, including the miscommunications that inevitably lead to Romeo and Juliet’s deaths, but these sequences are so often scattershot, sloppily edited, or too tightly framed to make any kind of emotional impression.
Buried somewhere in the middle of this is the show’s actual premise. In an effort to unite Verona against outside threats, newly minted Prince Escalus (Sterling Sulieman) decides to take a bold step toward ending the Montague-Capulet feud. He decrees that Romeo and Juliet’s cousins, Rosaline (Lashana Lynch) and Benvolio (Wade Briggs), must marry, creating a symbolic union between their families. Rosaline’s understandably miffed; Benvolio’s put off but seems oddly jealous when someone else appears to have already won her affections. The pair’s establishing moment is an argument over chivalry in the midst of a street fight, so their manufactured romance isn’t off to a great start.
Rosaline is the show’s focal point, brought forward from her peripheral role in the play. She bears witness to much of this burning Verona, and Lynch plays her with passion and poise, her expressive eyes often more than enough to sell a scene. Briggs—who looks a bit like Chris Martin with a better jawline—gets a few decent moments, but he’s mostly either chummy or grumpy. Zuleikha Robinson hams it up a bit as a cruel incarnation of Lady Capulet that offers more than just harsh words to Rosaline, but the rest of the cast isn’t given much to do. That’s forgivable for a pilot episode, though one hopes that this uneven attention and character development doesn’t persist.
Shondaland’s first period piece certainly benefits from its handsome budget. The show’s lavish sets and costumes almost distract from the muddled political turmoil unfurling between rushed scenes and expository dialogue. But the production value still bends toward flashy, embodied best in the egregious and incessant pull-back shots and aerial transitions that literally yank us in and out of a given moment. It’s as if director Michael Offer doesn’t know that cutting between scenes can sufficiently communicate that the action is now taking place somewhere else. Despite its relatively intriguing trajectory, and the best coiffed and clad performers money can buy, Still Star-Crossed feels like half-baked fan fiction tacked onto half-assed SparkNotes.