This article contains information that could be considered too revealing according to our spoiler policy. Proceed with caution. You can't unsee it!Reason The show doesn't premiere until a couple of days after publish time; we got a screener.
Is Starz's New Dance Drama Flesh And Bone Worth Putting At Center Stage?
Or is it a black swan?
What Is This Thing?
Center Stage meets Mozart In The Jungle! Our heroine Claire literally runs away from home to audition for the American Ballet Company, and since I assume you've seen a dance movie before, it's not a spoiler to tell you she gets in and meets all sorts of characters, from the bitchy prima ballerina to the dictatorial Artistic Director to the tell-it-like-it-is roommate with a heart of gold. But is Claire herself as innocent as she seems? What was she running away from?
When Is It On?
Sundays at 8 PM ET on Starz, premiering November 8.
Why Was It Made Now?
It was actually made in 2013 (we'll get to that), so I'm guessing Black Swan? Plus Starz continuing to build up its stable of original programming. The show's creator is Moira Walley-Beckett, a writer and producer on Breaking Bad, who won an Emmy for writing that the episode "Ozymandias" for that series, after which I imagine she could get almost anything greenlit. (Starz seems to be working the "Ballet meets Breaking Bad" angle, but based on the pilot alone that doesn't seem terribly accurate -- at least not yet.)
What's Its Pedigree?
In addition to Walley-Beckett, most of the dancers are played by actual dancers who can also actually act, so while they're not familiar faces to me, that goes a long way. Ethan Stiefel -- Center Stage's Cooper Nielsen himself -- is the choreographer; it's like he really did start that company! His Center Stage rival Sascha Radetsky plays one of the dancers. New York theatre greats Patrick Page (probably best known as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, but don't hold that against him) and Tovah Feldshuh (currently on TV on both Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Walking Dead) both sport hilarious Russian accents. The Artistic Director, Paul, is British Hey! It's That Guy! Ben Daniels.
If Starz is trying to become HBO, it's certainly not being cheap about it: this is one gorgeously shot pilot -- not just the dancing, but also the sets and the city (though if you want us to think Claire's overwhelmed by how gritty her company housing is, maybe don't use an establishing shot of her getting off the subway in Soho a block from the Apple Store -- I am not a crackpot). The writing is solid, too, though in the first episode it naturally falls into a lot of typically pilot-y establishing clichés, which in this case also happen to be dance movie/show clichés. While there are moments during which it goes over the top (more on those below, if you want to remain unspoiled) and some groundwork has been laid for even more, the show seems to be aiming for prestige drama. I expected it to be campier (did I mention the Russian accents?), and honestly much worse, because...
...the whole thing was shot almost two years ago and put on the shelf, and even now seems to be flying pretty severely under the radar. That doesn't exactly reek of confidence from the network. Starz is now claiming that it's limiting it to a miniseries because it's so expensive to shoot, what with building a fully functioning dance studio for a set, physical therapy, etc., and while that doesn't sound like a lie it also sounds a little bit fishy (and even that news came out a year ago). But hey, I'm not a network executive. Maybe they delayed it because it felt too similar to Mozart In The Jungle. Maybe Starz thought it would pair really well with Ash vs. Evil Dead!
Look, I was in the tank for this show from the moment a friend told me she'd spent a day working in the wardrobe department. I've been waiting two years. Then you give me Patrick Page as a Russian mobster/strip club owner? Not fair. So don't trust me. But I came in expecting "so-bad-it's-good" and came out with "this is pretty good!"
There's a fine line between cliché, trope, and homage, and Flesh And Bone is walking that tightrope on pointe. Some examples:
Seeing at her audition that Claire hasn't worked for years after a prestigious apprenticeship, Paul says, "No one walks away from that kind of opportunity. Attitude or injury?" But he doesn't care about the answer, because either one means she's not acceptable for his company. Do you think she stands up to him to explain it was a "family issue" and convinces him to let her dance anyway? Do you think she does this right after ripping off a toenail in extreme close-up? Of course she does.
Dancers -- gasp! -- do drugs and have body-altering eating disorders.
Dancer 1: Maybe she blew him or something.
Dancer 2: If that were true I still wouldn't be in the corps.
If that's not a deliberate reference to All That Jazz, it's the best accident ever.
Cooper Nielsen's act of rebellion was taking a jazz class at Broadway Dance Center. This is pay cable in 2015, so one of our ballerinas works as a stripper. And she doesn't even need the money; she just does it for the thrill!
The dancers are trotted out at a party for a board member/funder, and one is explicitly asked to flirt with (if not outright have sex with?) him. Working in a strip club and working in the arts both involve forms of prostitution GET IT?
The Artistic Director says things like "Everything and everyone here is mine to do with as I will," and fucks (his boyfriend? a member of the corps? a prostitute? all three?) over his desk while saying things like "I get what I want." (Okay, admittedly that's a new one; most dance movies are PG-13 tops.)
Me, I read that list and I am in. Your mileage may vary. But seriously, this feels like an extremely well made show. And Claire is definitely no Karen Cartwright; I'm curious (and a little nervous) to find out what's going on there. We get only the slightest of hints at her backstory, and it looks pretty fucked up. Whether that's in a good way or the thing that pushes the show all the way over that line remains to be seen.
Dance clichés are clichés because most of them are real, and while we often say in my office that "there are no musical theatre emergencies," working in the performing arts can be inherently dramatic, not just because of the personalities involved but because of the potential for injury and constantly being on the brink of losing funding and employment. If Flesh And Bone can keep the right balance between quality (stunning visuals, good dancing, compelling characters and story) and camp (those accents, the strip club), it could be great. If it can't, it could still be great fun.