All eight episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Yes, Starz’s Flesh and Bone is set within the high-stakes, higher-anxiety world of competitive ballet. No, that does not make it Black Swan: The Series. Hailing from Breaking Bad writer Moira Walley-Beckett (who penned that show’s finest hour, “Ozymandias”), the eight-episode limited series is unmistakably its own kind of creature, a “dark and gritty” drama-with-a-capital-D punctuated by moments of over-the-top camp and truly transcendent dance.
Unfortunately, it’s also a show with a debilitating identity crisis, not so much toeing the line between oppressive darkness and lurid melodrama as fluctuating between the two without a lick of the grace its fleet-footed subjects so innately possess. In its premise lies tremendous potential – for a serious drama about the relationship between pain and beauty, the sacrifices made in the pursuit of perfection, and the nightmarish underbelly of a glamorous industry. Ballet is an incredibly visual art form, and the lithe men and women who give their lives over to it would appear to make for fascinating, complex characters. Alas, this is not the series to mine that field for all the intrigue and intricacy that it encompasses.
Instead, Flesh and Bone pirouettes wildly off course, weighing down the artistry at its core with a glut of alternately hackneyed and hideous subplots. Though its marketing paints it as a series about dancers on the edge of either a breakdown or a breakthrough, the show isn’t really about ballet almost immediately – Flesh and Bone is actually about pain, and specifically how psychological and physical traumas can hold us prisoner in the past while destabilizing our future.
And though that’s incredibly fertile dramatic ground to till, the series confuses misery with meaning. If this is a show about combatting demons, why is it so reluctant to let its characters stray from clichéd characterization and wholly predictable dialogue in order to actually make unique observations about that topic? And if it’s about professionals giving every last shred of life-force over to practicing their discipline, why does it so frequently compare ballet to some dreadful war (both in the episode titles, which include “MIA, “Bulling Through” and “Boogie Dark,” and the story) that simply must be waged, instead of a worthy passion?
Besides, there’s little ingenuity to the idea that ballet is excruciatingly hard work – bloodied toenails, tensing muscles and drill-sergeant artistic directors have been found in practically every dramatic portrayal of bunheads to date. And yet, Flesh and Bone is utterly enamored with this side of itself, trying to pass off its unflinching depiction of ballet as some great revelation. By failing to move beyond superficial storytelling, the show winds up mired in the only thing that is distinctly its own: an oppressively dark, despairing aesthetic.
Flesh and Bone is the kind of show where every character is nursing hidden scars yet simultaneously inflicting new ones – as soon as we meet protagonist Claire (Sarah Hay, suitably emotive), a doe-eyed prodigy fleeing an extremely dark past in favor of the big-city shark tank that is New York’s American Ballet Company, scenes of her ripping off ruined toenails and self-harming seem grimly inevitable. Claire’s demons are as monstrous and terrifying as her dancing is elegant and feather-light, and she’s eternally trembling with the knowledge they may not be done with her. In one particularly haunting visual, she carefully arranges her treasured books all over her body each night before sleeping, repurposing the slim volumes as a sort of homemade armor.
Claire isn’t the only one suffering – her colleague and roommate Mia (Emily Tyra) uses sex to escape feelings of inadequacy, while aging prima ballerina Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko) hides a nasty cocaine habit. Another dancer, the privileged Daphne (Raychel Diane Weiner, a prominent bright spot in the cast), moonlights as an exotic dancer in a strip club owned by a shady Russian mobster. Meanwhile, mercurial artistic director Paul (Ben Daniels) covers his loneliness with a teaching method that skews closer to terrorism than tutelage.
Unfortunately, though Flesh and Bone delves into Claire’s torment enough to make it believable, it relegates those secondary characters and many others to stock, one-dimensional figures. The other dancers are almost all green-eyed monsters, Paul is a full-fledged diva on a power trip, and even more – like Romeo (Damon Herriman), the mentally ill homeless man living under Claire’s apartment who becomes dangerously obsessed with her – are so frustrating and strange to watch that they send Flesh and Bone careening over the end into unintentional camp comedy.
Maybe the series wouldn’t grate so loudly if it tried to do less. But in addition to setting up Claire’s ascension in the ballet corps as a familiar chasing-dreams narrative, Flesh and Bone attempts to function as a TV-MA fairy tale, in which a traumatized young woman encounters a host of bizarre characters and circumstances while finding herself and wresting back her sexuality from the patriarchal figures (like her Big Bad Wolf brother Bryan, played with psychotic menace by Josh Helman) who seek to possess it. The camera even enters fugue states on occasion, giving the series a queasily phantasmagorical, Alice-in-Wonderland feel.
On paper, that story of Claire’s carnal awakening could dovetail nicely with her increasing physical dominance on the stage. But Flesh and Bone plainly botches it. There’s a supremely icky incest plotline that the series doesn’t seem to know how to resolve, and when Claire takes a side-gig as a stripper under the stage name of Angel (symbolism, folks!), the aggressively regressive implication is that a woman searching for sexual empowerment can only find it on the pole.
While there’s a slight argument to be made for stripping as a way for women to become more comfortable with their bodies and to proudly brandish their sexuality, the reality is that audiences are still watching a vulnerable, sexually scarred woman gyrate in the nude for the sexual gratification of anonymous men. And those scenes feel grossly at odds with the feminist messages other areas of the show seem to want to communicate.
Honestly, that there was an immensely talented female writer at the helm of this series does not compute – despite centering around the female form, and dancers wielding their own womanhood professionally, the show is pervasively shot from the male gaze. Practically every female character disrobes before the premiere’s end, and when Claire has to prove her worth before the company, the camera doesn’t even show her dancing, instead focusing on Paul’s reaction to it. Whatever statements the series are trying to make about femininity and masculinity are far too twisted and garbled to register.
The only area in which Flesh and Bone excels without qualification is its presentation of ballet. Hay, an acclaimed ballerina as well as an actress, is incandescent to watch spinning, twirling and rippling on the stage, and when the ballet everyone in the company has been preparing for finally appears in the series finale, it’s a stunningly lovely spectacle.
If the show had demonstrated more confidence in ballet’s ability to transfix audiences and ditched all the rib-sticking melodrama (at an extremely padded 60 minutes, every single episode drags), it could have been something really special. There are moments where you can see the potential for something with the unbridled passion and fascinating complexity of Black Swan, or the fluid grandeur and grace of an actual ballet. But instead, after eight unsatisfying episodes, Flesh and Bone remains a flightless bird – and, despite bursts of beauty, a fairly ugly duckling to boot.
Ironically, given its fleet-footed subjects, Flesh and Bone is one of the most ungainly dramas to come along in quite some time, letting far too many of its narrative spinning plates come crashing down after eight protracted hours.