“Ballet is the ultimate optical illusion. We make effort appear effortless.”
If ballet dancers make the seemingly impossible look graceful and elegant, then Flesh and Bone similarly soars when it doesn’t try quite so hard to conjure drama. The best version of this provocative Starz miniseries explores the psychological toll that ambition, competition, and the (impossible?) quest for creative perfection can take. Unfortunately, the series also introduces way too many subplots and distractions during its 8-episode run.
Then again, it wasn’t always supposed to end after 8 episodes. Flesh and Bone — created by Breaking Bad writer/producer Moira Walley-Beckett, who is credited with writing arguably the greatest BB episode of all time — was originally conceived as a conventional, multi-season series for Starz. But a few months before it was set to debut, the network announced it would be a “limited series” citing costs and other creative challenges. You don’t have to be a cynical reviewer like me for this to raise a red flag. Even though Starz insisted the 8 episodes told a complete story (more on that later), I honestly wasn’t super excited to dive into a series the network had decided to discontinue prior to its premiere. That’s a big part of the reason I was so delighted and impressed by Flesh and Bone early on.
“A girl could get used to this prima treatment.”
Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay) arrives in New York City with a desire to join the American Ballet Company, which is run by mercurial artistic director Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels). We know Claire has a troubled, complicated past because the opening scene depicts her escaping from her padlocked bedroom and running away from home. Despite her mousy, tentative demeanor, Claire dazzles Paul and the rest of the company during her audition. Claire is so good that Paul decides to feature her during the upcoming ballet season, even though she’s a total enigma to everyone around her. She actually seems most comfortable interacting with Romeo (Damon Herriman), the chivalrous, potentially-unhinged homeless guy who hangs outside her building.
Naturally, Claire’s promotion sets off a wave of jealousy and eye-daggers from the rest of the company. Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko) is the established headliner who desperately wants to cling to her prime prima position. Mia (Emily Tyra) is Claire’s sour, self-destructive roommate; her mood doesn’t exactly improve when New Girl Claire starts getting all the accolades. The only ballerina who is halfway friendly to Claire is Daphne (Raychel Diane Weiner), who comes from a privileged background and harbors her own scandalous secret. The dancers all face a series of intense mental and physical challenges during the rehearsal process; it’s unclear if all of them will make it to opening night.
Chances are you don’t recognize any of the names in the previous couple of paragraphs. Instead of hiring established actors and having them fudge their way through the demanding ballet sequences, the makers of Flesh and Bone have cast established dancers in key roles. The move pays off fantastically during the dancing sequences, which frequently feature wide, uninterrupted glimpses at the performers’ skill. (The high points are the first time we see Claire dance in Ep. 1/”Bulling Through” and the full company during the finale/”Scorched Earth.”)
Having experienced all of Flesh and Bone, I can absolutely understand the concerns about cost. But since it’s not my money, I actually think the expense was worth it. The show was filmed in New York City and utilized a lot of exterior locations, which really helped bring the big bad city to life. The highbrow world of ballet is also conveyed with touches that are both subtle (Paul’s appropriately outrageous bookshelf in his appropriately outrageous office) and obvious (the show essentially stages a spare, authentic ballet for the finale). The financial cost of producing a ballet — a classical artform that may or may not be increasingly obsolete in the modern world — is incorporated into the show.
Unfortunately, that storyline goes off on an uninteresting tangent involving exorbitant private school tuitions. It’s a minor part of the show, but it’s also emblematic of the too much-ness of Flesh and Bone. Walley-Backett, a former ballet dancer, likens to struggle of these characters to war. (All of the episode titles are military terms like “Cannon Fodder”, “M.I.A.” and “Reconnaissance.”) It seems silly, but the point is that ballet is life or death for these characters. Yet even the more outrageous touches — like the dancer who moonlights as a stripper, which allows for plenty of Starz-y nudity — can be seen as an expression of the way these characters sell themselves.
Too bad that practically every plotline (even the campy ones) pushes things a level too far, at least for a show that only had 8 episodes to explore them. So it’s not enough for a ballet dancer to lead a double life as a stripper, but she also has to get caught up in an underage Russian sex slave ring. It’s not enough for Kiira to deal with staving off a young challenger, but there also needs to be a severe drug problem in the mix. The worst offender is everything involving Romeo, which is a shame because Herriman (Justified) gives a pretty captivating performance as an addled, possibly-brilliant homeless man. I kept waiting for this story thread to have a worthy, satisfying payoff. Instead, it all culminates in a bunch of extended, indulgent scenes during the finale that left a bad taste in my mouth.
The good news is that the decision to give ballet dancers so much dramatic responsibility paid off rather nicely. (For most of the key cast, Flesh and Bone is one of their first acting credits.) It all starts with Hay, a Golden Globe nominee for her riveting performance as Claire. There’s a real arc here as the repressed Claire learns to assert herself with the other dancers, Paul, and her brother Bryan (Josh Helman), with whom she has a complex relationship. We don’t find out the nature of their dark family secret until the Thanksgiving-themed Ep. 6/”F.U.B.A.R”, but Hay and Helman manage to shift our sympathies in surprising ways the rest of the season. Dancers Tyra, Weiner, Dvorovenko and Center Stage‘s Sascha Radetsky all give solid performances, but the other standout is Daniels maniacally flamboyant work as damaged control freak Paul. Imagine a somewhat less diabolical, more naked version of J.K. Simmons’ character in Whiplash.
After a strong start, Flesh and Bone eventually stumbles on its way to its conclusion. That’s especially disappointing given the fact that we’re probably not going to get more episodes to undo some of the damage. The outré show reached for the same “dark fairy tale” tone that many actual ballets possess. It wasn’t always
en pointe on point, but it was very often a sight to behold.
Flesh and Bone is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 32 mbps. Thanks to its striking opening credits sequence (which is highlighted by extraordinary fine detail, inky black levels, spot-on contrast, and lush splashes of red), this image is a stunner right off the bat. Fortunately, the rest of the show’s visual presentation lives up to that lofty beginning. The excruciatingly fine detail rears its head during a scene in Ep. 1 with Claire’s deteriorating toe nail. (Yuck!) The NYC city exteriors and many of the show’s medium shots in the rehearsal studio feature a pleasing amount of grit and texture, which helps convey the point that the world of ballet doesn’t always paint a pretty picture. However, the finale — with its spare black staging and rich dashes of blue — serve as a great reminder of the unique beauty in ballet. This show appears to have been canceled because of how much it costs; well, I’m pleased to report all that money definitely shows up on screen.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is similarly dynamic and and explosive. Once again, the show immediately grabs us thanks to Karen O’s haunting cover of “Obsession” during the opening credits. NYC comes to life thanks to understated immersion in the rear speakers. Dialogue and sound effects tend to stay up front, and can always be heard clearly. The most impressive aspect is the full-bodied presentation of the music. Everything from “Obsession” to the bass at the strip club (hello subs!) is given a wide berth. In fact, if there’s one minor nitpick with this track, it’s that some of the underscoring (non-source music) can get a little too loud. Nevertheless, this is a lively, powerful presentation worthy of the dazzling visuals.
Creating the World of Flesh and Bone: (6:37) A disappointingly standard “Making Of,” especially when you consider it’s the only special feature in this release. Creator Moira Walley-Beckett talks about the decision to make non-actors the stars of this series, and the dancers/actors express a strong connection to some of the psychological torment their characters experience. We also get a look at some of the real New York City locations where the show filmed, including the inspiring dance studio space with a cathedral window. This featurette can be found on Disc 2.
Flesh and Bone features all 8 episodes on two discs. It’s not that surprising that the show sort of devolves into a mess at the end, given the fact that it wasn’t originally intended to conclude after 8 episodes.
However, there’s still more than enough solid, boundary-pushing material here for me to recommend you give it a look. Maybe it’s even fitting that the ending here isn’t too pretty. After all, Flesh and Bone resolves to show the ugly side of a breathtakingly beautiful artform.