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For a Fleeting Moment, Flesh And Bone Is About Ballet, Not Strippers
Or, to put it another way, for a second it's almost good.
If Flesh And Bone were only a terrible TV show -- if it were only a joyless, artless drudge that fancied itself an "edgy" look at the dance world -- then hating it wouldn't be so depressing. But there's so obviously a good show buried deep beneath this putrid soil that I can't even enjoy my disdain. Instead, I have to wince through every slow-motion strip-club number and imagine what might have been.
Because here's the thing: as several reviewers have noted, Moira Walley-Beckett didn't have to add all this nonsense to make an interesting series about the world of professional ballet. Even without a mentally unstable semi-homeless dude who is literally supposed to be a prophet because of his breech birth, I would've been interested. Even without Claire's incestuous stalker of a brother or the endless parade of scenes where women get sexually assaulted, objectified, or shamed, I would've cared. All these elements -- and their pervasive humorlessness -- are cudgels used to insist the series is Meaningful and Insightful and Totally Fucking Serious. But they're embarrassing in their posturing. They add nothing, say nothing, inspire nothing.
These tropes also overwhelm a talented performer like Ben Daniels, who has apparently been directed to camp it up as Paul, even though he's on a series where laughter went to die. I feel sad for him.
I feel even worse because of an early scene in Episode 4, "Boogie Dark," when we get the briefest glimpse of a series that might be awesome.
It starts when Toni Cannava, the outside choreographer Paul has brought in to create a fresh new piece for Claire and the rest of the company, starts her first day of rehearsal. For just a few minutes, the show's energy focuses entirely on what it takes to create an excellent piece of dance, and it's filled with conflict, divas, and fun.
For instance, Toni makes a big show of much she loves everyone, including the African drummer she's brought it just for today's work. Running across the room to him, she squeals, "How are you gorgeous?!?"; Marina Benedict, who plays Toni, absolutely nails that performer-y blend of sincerity and showmanship. She probably does love this guy, but she also loves demonstrating that she loves him. It forces the room to pay attention to her and (not for nothing) it signals her power, since she's controlling who enters the space.
From there, she pushes the dancers to be intimate with each other -- to execute moves that require them to hold, touch, and focus on one another with a vulnerability they clearly aren't used to. This gives Toni the opportunity to say over-the-top things like "When are you going to stop performing for me and start dancing?," and that's deliciously ridiculous. But at the same time, this sequence also creates character-based drama for almost everyone in the room. We can see how the dancers can (or can't) allow themselves to be relaxed with each other, even though their job requires them to learn how. This psychological, sexual, and social intrigue all springs naturally from the world of the show. We don't even need a babbling prophet in the background to explain the significance.
And Daniels's performance makes sense here, too. When he comes in to "observe," he can't resist loudly moving his chair, just to make sure he asserts himself. Instead of hammy mistakes, his acting choices feel like careful rebukes of Toni's presence.
If only this were the entire show! There are so many narrative possibilities inherent here, and none of them involve stripping or incest. Can you imagine? I can, too. And if WE can imagine it, why couldn't the creators of Flesh And Bone?