There’s a problem with the first season of “Z: The Beginning of Everything” that is reminiscent of, of all the unexpected things in this world, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” (Please, give this a chance.)
“Batman v. Superman” is a notable film for how, scene by scene, it is a movie that actively dislikes its characters — from little touches to big choices, its only source of joy seems to be found in tearing down beloved icons into unrecognizable shells of themselves.
“Z” does not have that problem. In fact, it has the opposite dilemma. The Amazon Prime series, created by Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich, is just a little bit too in love with its leading lady. And while “BVSDOJ’s” antipathy towards its leads sucked all the joy out of the picture, “Z’s” infatuation with Zelda Fitzgerald detracts from its depiction of one of literature’s most fascinating and complicated women.
Beginning in 1918, when a young Zelda Sayre (played with remarkable exuberance by Christina Ricci) is giddily terrorizing the proper social world of Montgomery, Alabama, “Z” quickly brings F. Scott Fitzgerald (David Hoflin) into the mix. Depicting one of literature’s most legendary courtships and marriages is a major challenge, one that’s been attempted rarely (though dueling Zelda biopics starring Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence are apparently on the horizon). But “Z,” with the advantage of five hours of screen time, is able to dig into it fully, tracking the early years of Zelda and Scott’s romance and eventual marriage.
There’s all the gin, jazz music and debauchery you might expect to see from this particular era, as well as appearances by notable figures of the day like Edna St. Vincent Millay (Lucy Walters) and Tallulah Bankhead (Christina Bennett Lind). Most of the action, in later episodes, revolves around Fitzgerald’s struggles to write, with Zelda serving as both muse and distraction to him; at the fringes is Zelda’s own struggle to figure out how exactly she fits into that process.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t go deep enough to embed the audience with its characters on a subjective level, while also lacking the impartial distance to make the story feel fully realized. The overall result is something well-made yet facile, in the grand tradition of so many other middling biopics that have come before. And very little is ever Zelda’s fault. She might overspend, but Scott’s keeping their financial status secret from her. She might get drunk, but Scott is the worse lush. And she might receive a friendly hug from a male friend, but Scott’s own dalliances go much further.
It’s not a tough viewing experience, let’s be clear. Like many Amazon series, “Z” episodes run about half an hour but hit both comedy and drama notes, and it’s enjoyable enough, watching the duo get audacious. Plus, the period elements are executed with charm and aplomb, a testament to Amazon’s financial commitment to the series — seemingly no detail was spared.
(That said, it’ll be interesting to see if “Z” gets the support granted Amazon’s successful female-led series like “One Mississippi” and “Fleabag,” and not the sad dismissal that doomed “Good Girls Revolt” to just one season — which, according to reports, was due to Amazon Studios head Roy Price’s lack of enthusiasm for the feminist period drama.)
As previously mentioned, Ricci commits to the role like it’s the role of a lifetime, and honestly, that might be the case. It’s certainly not hard to imagine her scoring a few nominations for this performance. Hoflin, as Scott, isn’t as memorable as you want him to be (Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” is far more striking with far less screen time) but proves serviceable; supporting player standouts include David Strathairn, Jim True-Frost and Talia Balsam.
There’s no shortage of things to like about Zelda Fitzgerald. But when a biographical story proves too worshipful of its subject, what’s lost is nuance, as well as honesty. Zelda was a complicated woman, and Ricci definitely has the chops to play that. But the show never really lets her breathe into that realness, resulting in something resembling suffocation. The end result is that we now know what it’s like to party with Zelda and Scott. But we don’t really know who they were.