In today’s TV universe, there are good shows, and there’s no shortage of bad shows, but it’s rare you get to see a promising one go off the rails quite so spectacularly.
I was in the tank for “Flesh and Bone,” premiering on Starz on November 8, from the start. The seedy-side-of-dance genre has been one of my favorites ever since “Flashdance,” through the crazypants “Showgirls” and right up to the operatic “Black Swan.”
That, unlike any of those films, this Starz series was actually created by a woman gave it possibilities beyond being just a melodramatic guilty pleasure; might it be possible to create a three-dimensional, non-objectified portrait of a female dancer? That the creator was “Breaking Bad” scribe Moira Walley-Beckett, writer of one of the show’s best episodes, made it almost a slam dunk — it’d be “Breaking Ballet,” and what could be better than that? It was also downgraded from series to miniseries last year, which suggested, in light of TV’s recent trend in that direction, that you could expect more quality from its limited run.
There was plenty of pre-release hype about how realistic the show would be, flush as it is with real dancers. Star Sarah Hay is an American who’s in the Dresden Semperoper Ballett in Germany, where she is a soloist. Co-stars Sascha Radetsky and Irina Dvorovenko are in the American Ballet Theater, as was the show’s choreographer. Hay told the New York Times that the series rang true for her: “It’s a very damaging art form to me. I’m very self-critical. All of the fears and rejections and things that I lived in my life through dance, I got to finally express them and use them for some purpose, not just for my own self-loathing but to portray Claire.”
Her character, Claire Robbins, is a new arrival at the New York-based “American Ballet Company,” where she quickly makes an impression on its bitchy artistic director, Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels) and finds herself the object of much jealousy from her more seasoned fellow dancers. Despite her talent, Claire’s got obvious problems: the show’s opening sequence sees her fleeing a nebulously bad situation in her Pittsburgh home; she’s got a self-harm fetish (cue the inevitable ballet-toenail-removal scene); she inexplicably sleeps with all of her favorite books piled on top of her, “The Velveteen Rabbit” chief among them. And a phone call from her brother at the end of the first episode — well, I’m going to try to avoid spoiling it too much, but suffice to say their relationship is fraught.
As a whole, the first episode, “Bulling Through,” is riveting; if it’s peppered with genre clichés, perhaps one could generously view them as deliberate (I thought). All the vices you’d expect are here: pill-popping, sport-fucking, backstabbing. The show flaunts its premium-cable status proudly: Early on, one ballerina waltzes through the locker room stark naked and cupping her crotch, demanding a tampon as “I’m bleeding like roadkill.” Another is discovered to be leading a double life as a dancer at a strip club in… SoHo? OK, whatever. Wisdom-dispensing street urchin (Damon Herriman) who lingers around Claire’s building? Sure, bring it on.
Cheesiness aside, the emphasis of the first episode is squarely on just how insanely, abusively hard it is to be a professional ballet dancer. We see how easy and random it is for top candidates to get cut in early audition scenes, and how devastating it is for them in the moments afterward. You relish how gorgeous ballet can be at the same moment that you’re marveling at why anyone would put their body through the kind of agony required to do it. Hay is a fiercely talented dancer, and she’s also a good enough actress to make you stick with her through the scenes where she’s looking daggers at herself in the mirror or — cringe — drilling an unbent bobby pin into the top of her head.
So you can forgive its detours into campiness — maybe you’ll even embrace them, as I did early on, like when Paul hisses, “Never forget you belong to me,” standing behind his protégé at — where else? — the full-length ballet mirror. Or when Claire accompanies her colleague Daphne (Raychel Diane Weiner) to her night gig at the strip joint and stares at the stage, dazzled, as her bewigged friend writhes around on the pole. It’s lurid, but it works; you watch Daphne mostly through Claire’s eyes, not the business-suited patrons sitting by the stage. At least, that was my impression.
But four episodes in, I think my assumptions may have been over-optimistic. That female gaze I noticed in the first episode? It’s in shorter and shorter supply as the series goes on and the damaged Claire decides she, too, wants to be a stripper. This is set up as a supposedly shocking contrast to her reputation at the dance company, where the new star choreographer screams at Paul, “I can’t do anything with some frigid, small-town virgin!” The name they give Claire at the strip club? Angel. Yup — just like that ’80s movie about the schoolgirl by day, hooker by night.
And don’t get me started on the scene in which another dancer is sexually assaulted by a military vet who masturbates over her while murmuring rapturously about killing in Afghanistan. Or the one where somebody waves their junk in Claire’s face, yelling, “This is a dick, Claire! It’s just a body part! Not the boogieman!” Somewhere, I thought, “Showgirls” director Paul Verhoeven is watching this shit and giving it a slow clap.
I’m pretty sure there will be an audience for “Flesh and Bone,” and hey, maybe it will find its place among the ranks of TV’s most unintentionally, hilariously campy misfires. But given the amount of press attesting to its gritty realism, I think it’s been, at best, grossly mis-marketed.
For the record, I certainly don’t think a show can’t be feminist and male-directed — but I couldn’t help noticing all eight episodes of this miniseries were directed by men, despite its showrunner being a woman. I wonder what an actually female-directed version would look like. In any case, I feel fairly confident it would not have retained the line, “What is your twat-clenching glitch?”