The best thing about “Flesh and Bone” is its opening credits sequence. This could come off as a dig at the show, but I mean it as a genuine compliment. Karen O.’s haunting cover of the 1980s pop song “Obsession,” paired with some truly mesmerizing images that capture the blend of grit and sensuality to which the show aspires, gets addictive.
Which is always welcome when you’re binge-viewing your way through the first season of a new series, especially one so jumbled with discordant elements. There’s some really great stuff here: quality performances, real dedication to honoring the craft and talent of great professional dancers, an unflinching willingness to hit tough, tough subject matter. But also thrown into the gumbo pot are cliches and off-kilter plotting choices that feel beneath any show created by a “Breaking Bad” alumni. “Flesh and Bone,” from Emmy-winning Moira Walley-Beckett, is watchable and often captivating. It’s also a disappointment.
Perhaps it’s because, as a fan of on-screen dancing, I was hoping to, for once, be fully and completely wowed. It’s strange, how dance — one of the most visually visceral modern art forms we have — is so rarely the engine of quality on-screen drama. When movies about dancing get made, they tend to be targeted at young female audiences, with softball plotting and clunky dialogue. “Black Swan” happens but once a generation, while franchises like the “Step Up” films aim for the romantic dramedy bullseye, with actors cast for their dancing talents or their acting talents — not both. [Editor’s Note: With the exception of one Channing Tatum, who obviously has both.]
So only a handful of films have aspired to real quality execution, and TV has fared even worse. ABC Family’s “Bunheads,” despite some transcendent moments, never made it past a first season. “Dance Academy,” buried within the Netflix catalog, is fun enough for those who don’t mind watching something made for the Australian equivalent of ABC Family… And that’s about it, for television made within the last several years.
This is one of “Flesh and Bone’s” biggest advantages — the fact that it’s relatively singular in television’s current crop of film adaptations, crime dramas and family comedies. Yet there are too many details that clash with the show’s aspirations. Ballet dramas have always had a tendency to lean towards camp, but this is definitely meant to fall into premium drama territory, with haunting visuals and melancholy direction reminding us, constantly, that this is Serious Business.
“Flesh and Bone’s” focus is ostensibly on Claire (Sarah Hay, stunning both as a dancer and as a vulnerable on-screen presence), who arrives in New York timid but determined to become a professional ballet dancer and gets her chance with the American Ballet Company, after Paul (Ben Daniels), the company’s egomaniacal artistic director, sees in her real potential for greatness.
The show might be all about ballet, but this is not meant to be a girly fluffy dance fantasy — “Fuck pretty,” one character declares. Much of the show is constructed around the idea that there is beauty to be found in suffering. That art requires not just talent, but sacrifice and pain.
As mentioned, movies and TV shows about dance are relatively rare, but if you’re a fan of the genre you’re probably aware that “Flesh and Bone” represents a “Center Stage” reunion of sorts. If you never saw the crowd-pleasing, ballet-packed, teen-leaning film, know that Sascha Radetsky, who played the sweet and good Charlie in 2000, appears here as one of the company’s principal dancers, while Ethan Stiefel, the “ballet bad boy” of “Center Stage,” is “Flesh and Bone’s” behind-the-scenes choreographer of record.
Radetsky is far less sweet here, and there are no motorcycles being driven on stage or anything resembling a love story (in fact, the closest thing this show has to a central romance is pretty much a flat-out horror tale). But like “Flesh and Bone,” “Center Stage” filled its cast with professional dancers (okay, professional dancers, Susan May Pratt and Zoe Saldana), and it’s hard not to forget how determined “Center Stage” was to tell the real story of life as a professional dancer — Mandy Moore soundtrack be damned.
2000-era Mandy Moore would blush watching this, though, because “Flesh and Bone” doubles down on exploring how dance functions as an expression of a dancer’s sexuality. At times this is a choice that makes sense, and works well within the context of the show. When Claire’s work struggles, she’s called out for being repressed, and moments between teacher and student, or pas de deux partners, often spark with tension. But then the strippers start showing up.
I don’t have the necessary life experience to speak to whether or not it’s commonplace for ballet dancers to moonlight as professional strippers. I just know that whatever thematic point is being attempted with that particular subplot, it’s smothered by the sense that these scenes are really meant to keep the boob-hungry Starz audience happy. (There is some male nudity, if one desires said knowledge. But in the battle of the male versus female gaze, the men have it.)
In addition, the nasty side of human sexuality gets more than a workout thanks to the character of Bryan (Josh Helman), Claire’s brother. Helman isn’t an awful actor, but when his and Claire’s backstory becomes clear, it strips her of complexity, making so many of her choices feel reactive and predetermined by her relationships. A show without Bryan in it would go up at least half a letter grade, because he’s as much reacting to Claire as she is reacting to him, and the combination is a black hole for interesting characterization.
On the plus side, the show is bigger than just the Ballad of Claire and Bryan. One element that could have been a major liability ends up being one of its greatest strengths. While there’s no denying Claire’s story is central to the show, the ensemble cast features an intriguing range of characters. From the heavily tattooed poor little rich girl who’s not afraid to use her cash, to the Ukranian beauty who knows just how prima a dancer she is despite her age, to Paul’s destructive tendencies, there are a multitude of interesting stories happening here. At times, they descend into melodrama, but rarely in a way you might classify as boring.
Actually, “Flesh and Bone” is never boring, unless the thought of watching several minutes of world-class dancers defy gravity strikes you as dull. (That’s a poke at anyone who might consider ballet to be anything other than bad-ass. Ballet dancers are like ninjas with better rhythm and higher kicks.) At times, this is a show that seems eager to please too many masters and schizophrenic as a result. But when it really commits to the dancing, when the cast flies across the stage in perfect synchronicity to the music, “Flesh and Bone” seems to know exactly what it’s doing.
Maybe the chaos that happens elsewhere is a meta-commentary on the lives of these dancers? But that doesn’t excuse the cliches, or the quirks that don’t contribute much. Much of “Flesh and Bone” I enjoyed seeing, but it wasn’t necessarily a fun show to watch.
“Flesh and Bone” premieres tonight on Starz. The full season is also available online for Starz subscribers.