Aaron Yap reviews Flesh and Bone, the new drama from Breaking Bad writer Moira Walley-Beckett, and asks if it lives up to its lofty predecessor.
To consider Flesh and Bone worthy of your time, especially in an ever-crowded market of dark cable dramas, some management of expectations is advisable. Not every new show can claim, like this eight-part ballet soap from Starz, that its creator penned Breaking Bad’s Emmy-winning episode “Ozymandias”, one of those legendary television all-timers that’ll be spoken of in haloed tones for years to come. It’s unlikely Flesh and Bone will enjoy the same lasting reputation.
Let’s give credit where it’s due. Showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett knows the way into our binge-craving hearts is the element of the risqué, even more so when you have to sell a nichey subject like ballet. Thus Flesh and Bone comes stockpiled with an ample helping of marketable “edginess”.
The title sequence apes HBO’s artfully grim floridness, with Karen O seductively belting out a cover of Animotion’s 80s hit ‘Obsession’ over portentous images of swirling ballerinas, black birds and red powder. As per Walley-Beckett’s mission statement to “rip the Band-Aid off the ballet world”, things are probably going to get pretty bleak. The miasma of sex, nudity, drugs and graphically busted toenails that permeates the first two episodes quickly proves this.
There’s little doubt to the show’s commitment to authenticity. No body doubles here. All the dancers you see are trained professionals. Debuting star Sarah Hay, who can be briefly glimpsed in Darren Aronofsky’s ballet psychodrama Black Swan, has been at it since the age of eight. Fans of Centre Stage will be pleased to see dancers Irina Dvorovenko and Sascha Radetsky in supporting roles, and acclaimed choreographer Ethan Stiefel enlisted as a consultant.
Capable directors like David Michod (Animal Kingdom) and Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) do slick work, handling the dance sequences with elegant spatial sensitivity. Ace cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (True Detective, Top of the Lake), who shot the first episode, renders the ballet academy in a chilly teal palette befitting the cutthroat competitiveness of its milieu. Nothing formally adventurous going on, but it’s the right assembly of talent to get the job done.
Yet Flesh and Bone rarely screams sticky must-see TV. It’s more watch-when-nothing-else-is-on TV. Blame my jaded eyes, or the high standards of prestige TV, but there’s a nagging middle-of-the-road quality to this show. Its approach to a musty premise – the troubled, starry-eyed ingénue pursuing her dreams – wanders a tonal wilderness between earnest, straight-faced drama and glossy showbiz exposé.
Imagine Showgirls, Black Swan and Whiplash all slammed into a subtlety-free cliché cocktail. There’s mentor/muse friction, locker-room cattiness, Euro suit-sleaze, after-hours stripping. There’s also an ill-conceived incest subplot that seems to exist in the event that coke-snorting primas and blood-smeared lips do not meet the quota of shock content.
You sometimes wish it would loosen up and embrace the trash factor afforded by its more salacious ingredients (I’m thinking about how much more entertaining it would be if it was powered by the same sassy energy as Empire). But this is serious drama stuff, complete with epigrams that open each episode – “Bulling Through”, “Cannon Fodder” etc – likening the suffering and sacrificial plight of ballerinas to war.
For a first-time lead actor, Hay inhabits the cautious reticence of her character Claire convincingly enough. We feel the emotional rush of her initiation into New York’s prestigious American Ballet Company as she battles pressure, uncertainty and humiliation. Hay’s fresh, blank-canvas presence is ideal to build around an arc around Claire, but whether she’ll be equipped to stick the landing remains to be seen.
Ben Daniels’ ballet director Paul Grayson contributes the kickiest moments of the show so far with his insult-spewing, power-mad flamboyance. I appreciate the campy respite he provides from the glum proceedings (“We make gravity our bitch!”), although the role is fairly one-note, and like many things on the show, yields few surprises.
Flesh and Bone falters elsewhere with ancillary characters like Romeo (Damon Herriman), the homeless weirdo whom Claire befriends. He becomes a kind of guardian-angel affectation, a jarring mouthpiece for her conscience. Sensing her hesitation at meeting a wealthy French benefactor for a “business dinner”, he pleads to her that the most important thing to do is “the right thing”. This is as profound as it gets.
There’ll be an audience for Flesh and Bone for sure, one that won’t mind another road-to-stardom tale filled with damaged souls and opportunistic assholes. Me, I’m going to need a little more flesh on its bone before throwing Breaking Bad comparisons around.
In two minds about checking out Ash Vs Evil Dead; trailer didn’t grab me but reviews have been decent… Heroes creator Tim Kring has a supernatural series in development called Beyond, about a young man who wakes up from a coma and discovers he has powers…. Marcella, a new crime series from The Bridge writer Hans Rosenfeldt, has cast Anna Friel in the lead… Showtime’s Twin Peaks sequel won’t premiere until 2017 now… an eight-part adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials is on the way from the BBC…
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