There’s something special about stories revolving around ballet dancers. The new Starz miniseries Flesh and Bone makes fun of that cultural wonderment though, sneeringly referring to them as “angels.” Yet such lithe figures — the men and the women — who are conversely so exceptionally strong, and the beauty of their movements juxtaposed with the cutthroat nature of their business, seem to always make for compelling drama. Or almost always.
Flesh and Bone, from Breaking Bad executive producer and writer Moira Walley-Beckett, stars the dancer Sarah Hay as doe-eyed ingénue Claire, whose rise in the American Ballet Company we follow through eight episodes full of gorgeous choreography and visuals. From her humble, hard-case beginnings, to her eventual embrace of her strength, Claire struggles to all the while to banish the demons of her past (and they are dark). Unfortunately, Flesh and Bone mishandles the material, and ends in a heap of uncertainty — except for the certainty that it doesn’t live up to its high expectations.
What’s extraordinarily frustrating about the miniseries is that its story is predictable on every level, except for when it focuses heavily on a twisted incest storyline, which is cryptic until rawly overt, before becoming mired once again in unnecessary ambiguities. Show creator Walley-Beckett is responsible for some of Breaking Bad’s best episodes (quite a feat in an already exceptional series), including “Fly” and “Ozymandias,” so it’s almost unfathomable how Flesh and Bone could go so far off course when it comes to its campy story.
And Flesh and Bone is mighty campy. Whether it’s Claire’s sour roommate Mia (Emily Tyra), the drug-addicted aging prima Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko), the sexually overwrought company director Paul (Ben Daniels), Claire’s potentially psychotic brother Bryan (Josh Helman), or the jealous company of dancers, few of Flesh and Bone’s stock characters are allowed to be anything other than cartoonishly shrill and flamboyantly villainous. (All except the mystical homeless man who lives under Claire’s stoop, Damon Herriman’s Romeo, whose story is one of the most confused and half-baked of them all).
And yet, after having said all of that, there are several things to like about Flesh and Bone. The dancing (the company is made up of professional dancers) is divine, as is the show’s aesthetic, which visually balances the gritty and the delicate extraordinarily well. For some viewers dedicated to watching anything ballet-related, there are plenty of elements in the first few episodes that are worth and engaging, alongside the catty and the camp (which are, admittedly, also enjoyable), before things devolve into the expected and occasionally the unhinged. Hay is also lovely, playing the dream-chasing Claire earnestly. Her efforts can feel wasted, though, as side plots rise to the forefront and fizzle away around her without adding anything to the story.
Flesh and Bone also never lets viewers forget for long that it’s a premium cable series, starting with its nude preoccupations. Some of it is warranted — the dancers roam around casually and nakedly in the dressing rooms, used to their bodies being viewed as instruments. But the camera takes more of a leering eye in strip club scenes and during moments of graphic sex, including a particularly unnerving sexual assault whose complexities and implications are regrettably ignored. It’s at times like these that Flesh and Bone feels as far removed from the world of Breaking Bad as possible, and instead plants itself firmly in Showgirls territory.
In the miniseries’ last episode, there is a significant amount of time devoted to showcasing the performance the company has been practicing for all season. It’s an exercise in the beauty of control, which the miniseries itself is anything but. Instead of being a taught, engaging tale of the edgy world of ballet dancers, it’s a rudderless attempt to explore the effects of abuse and incest that simply can’t stick its landing. In those final moments, Hay spins and spins, dancing as fast as she can. But unlike onscreen, it’s not enough to save the show.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated
Flesh and Bone premieres Sunday, November 8th on Starz.