Starz’s new "dark and gritty" ballet series Flesh and Bone has an intriguing premise: It promises an unflinching look at the backbreaking work of being a professional dancer, complete with all the attendant physical and emotional complications that lurk behind the effortlessly graceful, tulle-draped performances. It’s a setting ripe for drama, and with Breaking Bad writer Moira Walley-Beckett at the helm, it seemed safe to expect something other than "Center Stage with nudity" or "Black Swan for TV."
Sadly, Flesh and Bone is missing one huge, important element. Is it dark? Yes. Is it gritty? Sure. But it is not a show about ballet.
Flesh and Bone squanders its promising premise
The show centers on Claire (Sarah Hay), a young and phenomenally talented dancer who escapes a troubled family life in Pittsburgh and with one audition lands a spot in the corps of New York’s American Ballet Company. She immediately catches the eye of its opportunistic director, Paul (Ben Daniels), who sees her as his golden ticket to a revitalized career. He thrusts her into the spotlight, attracting the eye of a lascivious French investor as well as the ire of the company's other dancers, especially prima ballerina Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko), who’s hiding both an injury and a drug addiction.
There's plenty of rich material to explore here: Competitive jealousy. Personal jealousy. Body image issues. The knowledge of how your dreams can chew you up and spit you out faster than you can comprehend what's happening. The struggle of pushing your muscles and your psyche past their breaking point to get to the top, only to realize that the only place to go from there is down.
Which makes what Flesh and Bone does instead strange at best and teeth-gnashingly frustrating at worst.
The show pivots away from ballet at every possible turn
In Flesh and Bone's first two episodes, it sometimes feels like a network exec took a look at the script and said, "Yeah, but does there have to be so much dancing?" Sure, there are the obligatory shots of blackened toenails and ruined feet, but every chance it gets, the show rushes away from the studio and into plot lines that make little to no sense for this series.
The pilot introduces a storyline about a ballerina who moonlights as an exotic dancer, and the episode spends roughly as much time in a strip club as it does in the ballet studio. There's an already tiresome arc about the absurdly courtly homeless man who lives outside Claire's building becoming obsessed with her; the series even finds time to give some screen time to Sascha Radestky (Charlie from Center Stage), who shows up here as a fellow dancer who just wants to get into everyone's tights. But a lot of the action is only tangentially related to ballet.
I'm not saying Flesh and Bone needs to remain glued to the barre; Friday Night Lights, after all, was ostensibly about high school football, but used the sport as a frame through which to explore stories about family and friendship, how communities are built and broken, and growing up. Football on Friday Night Lights was like an ever-present background hum that united the characters and plots, but on Flesh and Bone, ballet feels constantly shunted to the side in favor of the real focus: sex.
Flesh and Bone seems obsessed with sex
Given that Starz is a pay cable network, sex and nudity are to be expected. But they often feel gratuitous on Flesh and Bone, thrown in as a way to make things feel "edgy." Claire, along with the audience, is introduced to her new roommate Mia (Emily Tyra, who makes the best of what little she's given) as she bounces atop a faceless guy on the couch, which she then invites Claire to sleep on. Paul occasionally treats the company members more like (very flexible) high-priced escorts than professional dancers, and bends his own favorite escort over a desk as "creative inspiration." Plus, there's that whole stripper subplot.
But poor Claire gets the worst of it. She's obviously been horrifically abused in some way, possibly by her brother, who was recently discharged from the Marines; she seems terrified of men and fascinated with how the other women she encounters wield their sexuality unabashedly. But it almost feels like Flesh and Bone is afraid it's not "dark and gritty" enough to live up to its marketing, and thus keeps heaping more punishment onto Claire's damaged psyche. Paul exploits her seeming innocence, dangling her like a Snausage in front of the ballet's chief investor and, in an excruciating scene that spells out things much better left unsaid, telling her exactly what she should do to secure her future at the company.
It's a storyline that's been done many, many times before, and it could make sense for the series — but combined with Claire's history of abuse, it becomes something more akin to emotional torture porn. As Claire, Hay shows flashes of intrigue, moments when you sense a steely, knowing resolve behind her wide-eyed gaze that makes you wonder whether the whole ingénue thing is just a put-on. But then she slides back into milquetoast passivity, which makes the character seem unevenly written instead of complicated, and rather frustrating to watch.
Flesh and Bone is at its best when it focuses on the conflicts inherent in its premise: the ceaseless striving for perfection and the question of what it costs to create great art. And there's a great show in there somewhere if it would just stick to those guns. Unfortunately, thus far it seems far more interested in pirouetting, rather gracelessly, into manufactured drama.
Flesh and Bone premieres Sunday, November 8, at 8 pm on Starz. The first episode is available at Starz.com.